China and the west: Full circle
By James Kynge
Published: January 15 2010 22:42 | Last updated: January 15 2010 22:42
|A 17th century map placing China at the centre of the world|
Just as cicadas thrum more urgently at the start of autumn, sensing that the end is nigh, internet users in China have been seizing in animated fashion on what one called “the last crazy days of Google.cn”.
With the US technology giant allowing uncensored searches in Chinese for the first time, citizens of the People’s Republic are this week indulging their curiosity ahead of a widely expected crackdown.
“I’ve been doing all sorts of crazy searches, really distracting myself from my work,” says one. “I’ve done Tiananmen Square, the love affairs of national leaders, the corruption of leaders’ children. Everything.”
Another internet user says the buzz of illicit abandon is reminiscent of the mood in Tiananmen Square itself, shortly before the People’s Liberation Army crushed the protests there in 1989. “There is no way that Google will get away with this. They will have to leave China for sure,” he adds.
The surreptitious joys of “netizens” may not be alone in existing on borrowed time. Google’s defiance of China’s censorship regime is indicative of much more than a single company’s decision to reassert its open-society principles over the pragmatism by which it originally entered the Chinese market, agreeing then to self-censor in return for business licences. Google’s move may suggest that the accommodations made by western companies in China can extend only so far before contorted values snap back into place.
More broadly, though, Google’s actions present at least a symbolic challenge to a broad swath of assumptions that has underpinned the west’s engagement with China over the past 30 years. In particular, they raise the question as to whether missionary capitalism – the prevalent but fuzzy belief that the west’s commercial engagement may somehow bring about a Chinese political liberalisation – has ever been more than a naive hope.
In fact, in the opinion of several Chinese officials, the process of engagement in which successive US and other western governments have invested so much time and effort, may not have enamoured the Chinese public to the west at all. One senior Communist party official, speaking on condition of anonymity several weeks prior to Google’s move, said he saw a general regression in public disposition to the west.
“Even though Chinese, and especially Chinese youth, know the west better than ever before and there are many more exchanges and contacts between China and your countries than in the past, the west is less popular now among Chinese people than at any time since ‘reform and opening’ began [in 1978],” the official said. Indeed, anyone who regularly reads the postings of Chinese netizens will notice that comments critical of the west frequently far outnumber those that are positive.
Against this backdrop, Google’s decision prompts one of the simplest but furthest-reaching questions of all: how should the west deal with China? Or, to put a finer point on it, how can an international system created under Pax Americana to serve the interests of the west accommodate a rising giant that is set to remain different in almost every aspect – politics, values, history, natural endowments and per capita wealth – from the incumbent ruling order?
Even posing the question can elicit shock. James Mann, a former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, notes in his 2007 book, The China Fantasy, that although it is still theoretically possible that the country may yet morph into a democracy that promotes civil liberties and fosters an independent judiciary, the belief that this is a likely outcome is sheer self-delusion.
“America hasn’t thought much about what it might mean for the United States and the rest of the world to have a repressive, one-party state in China three decades from now because it is widely assumed that China is destined for a political liberalisation, leading eventually to democracy,” Mr Mann writes.
Multinational corporations are particularly susceptible to this type of China delusion, partly because the job of the person appointed to run China operations depends on being able to persuade his or her board that, although there may be difficulties, things are headed in a broadly benign direction. But if the definition of benign deployed by such China boosters includes assurances that the rule of law, protection for intellectual property, civil liberties and democracy will soon take root, the board may be in for a long wait.
As Kellee Tsai makes clear in her 2007 book, Capitalism Without Democracy, Beijing expends considerable effort to neutralise mechanisms by which its capitalist economy might create pressures for the formation of democratic checks and balances. One main strategy has been to keep the private sector loyal to the ruling Communist party. In 2003, for example, some 34 per cent of private entrepreneurs were party members, up from just 7 per cent in 1991.
If China therefore remains resolutely different from other countries that have prospered under Pax Americana even as it joins the world, how should the west react? One school of thought sees acceptance as key. “To think that commercial engagement by the west would change China misunderstands the nature of how change is likely to occur in China,” says Rana Mitter, professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University. “Change has to come from within.”
According to Prof Mitter, China and the west should drop any pretence at harmony in their relationship and seek not to accentuate their similarities but to understand the context of their manifold differences. His position is echoed by some Chinese academics, who see Beijing’s inclination towards characterising its bilateral relationships in officially positive terms as unhelpful.
“China is a huge, independent and successful country that doesn’t want to be dictated to by the west,” says Shi Yinhong, professor of international relations at Renmin University. “Both sides need to learn to accommodate each other.”
One thing that westerners often misunderstand about China, says Prof Mitter, is that the relationship between state and society is different from that in western democracies. “It is fair to say that [in China] the broad norm is that the state and society have obligations to each other and that society acquiesces in the state’s project,” he says. “The assumption is that state and society are part of the same enterprise.” In western democracies, by contrast, society tends to have a more oppositional relationship with the governing elite.
This insight may go some way towards explaining the ease with which China’s propaganda authorities are able to channel western criticisms of China into outpourings of anti-western cyber-rage or patriotic fealty. In the case of Google, just hours after the news broke of its change of mind on censorship, party-affiliated newspapers began to play on the widespread sensitivity to a history of humiliations by the west to construct a great wall of patriotic fervour.
The Global Times, a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, asked thousands of its readers if they thought the Chinese government should submit to Google’s conditions. The survey generated an overwhelming response to the effect that Beijing should stand up to Google.
Other official media followed similar lines. In a commentary called “Google, who do you want to scare?” published by Shanghai’s Wenhui Daily, a writer characterised Google’s strategy as a “mixture of typical American naivety and western self-centrism”
For many a policymaker in the west, however, there is a world of difference between trying to understand China’s unique national character and dealing with a projection of Chinese power beyond its borders, especially when that power is tilted against western interests. In this respect, last month’s multilateral negotiations on climate change in Copenhagen were a shrill wake-up call.
“Copenhagen showed us the new normal,” wrote Leslie H. Gelb in the online Daily Beast. “The US has lost influence, China plays spoiler and tiny nations veto anything they don’t like.”
During the Copenhagen negotiations, China allied itself with some 77 developing countries to resist a legally binding treaty on climate change and opposed a mechanism of independent inspections that was intended to confirm emission control targets were being met. Frustration with China’s role was clear both during the summit and in comments by western participants afterwards. As a senior official from one developed country put it: “China cannot be allowed to appropriate the developing world like this again.”
But if the west wants to enter a beauty contest as China’s rival for the affections of the developing world, it may find it tough going. In Africa, for instance, China’s trade volume is likely last year to have overtaken that of the US, while in many African capitals Beijing’s brand of quick, no-nonsense investment assistance has won it a keen following.
But no matter how frustrated the west becomes with China, its interests are so intertwined that “doing a Google” on any large scale may not be an option. The developed world may simply have to resign itself to an adversarial symbiosis with China that grows ever more rancorous with time.