China with Polish Characteristics

February 8, 2008

The new lunar cycle is on…

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 2:58 pm

In Beijing, the fireworks are raging; almost every other thought you have is punctuated by small explosion or rattle. Yesterday, February 7 marked the beginning of New Year according to the lunar calendar traditionally used in China – the year of Rat, significant because it opens a new 12-year lunar cycle into which the Chinese zodiac signs are arranged and because the new cycle often seemed to coincide with important historical events in China: establishment of the Chinese Republic (1912) for example, or Nixon’s landmark visit to Beijing (1972) which began the process of China’s opening. The 2008 year of the Rat is to be marked by the Beijing Olympics, an event widely perceived to be China’s symbolic rise from its turbulent history and a manifesto of its economic power, after which it will join the international fraternity of world powers as one of the “more equals.” But what will be the real impact of the Olympics and how is China likely to progress in this lunar cycle and the next ones?

While foreign media coverage often lapses into its own cycle of mystery, ridicule and danger, a lot of debate on this country and its transformation seems to boil down to economics and government change. As an enormous marketing and PR event, the Olympics are bound to open new floodgates of economic transactions, but my personal fear is that there will be little new understanding of China and its people. Tourists, politicians and businessmen will come, take pictures of pandas and warriors and return home with no profound change in their image of the country. But if the old stereotypes and assumptions stay put, can we really talk about opening up? If the Olympics won’t make understanding of China any easier is there really a prospect of any transformation? In a recently published book, “The China Fantasy,” James Mann, a veteran American journalist points out that everything in Beijing Olympics is set to uphold business-as-usual situation:

 In the Olympics programs broadcast in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, chances are that image after image, set piece after set piece, profile after profile, will convey the theme that China is moving in the right direction. The TV coverage will likely suggest that all problems are manageable, that any step backward will be followed by two steps forward – and that eventually trade and prosperity will bring freedom and democracy to China. 

There are two main theories about China in the West, one claiming that the country is on a verge of environmental and social disaster with economy as stable as barrel of gunpowder and the other, incredibly optimistic, maintaining that things are just fine and change for the better is happening as we speak. As Mann argues in his book, the second theory is often aimed at calming people’s conscience about a much more complex situation:

 On the surface it looks as if middle-class Americans are identifying with middle-class Chinese, dreaming that the Chinese, too, will one day insist on a choice of political candidates the way they are now able to select from a range of lattes and mochas at Starbucks. Look beneath the surface, however, and you will find a more troubling reality: The business communities of China and the United States do not harbor these dreams of democracy. Both profit from a Chinese system that permits no political opposition, and – for now, at least – both are content with it. 

Does China have to be a democracy in order to effectively safeguard the interests of its people? Could the country survive in its present shape and strength if everyone had a say in politics? Is it fine to support the regime which brutally suppresses any opposition and remains above the law? According to Mann, the intellectuals, traders and politicians supporting Optimist theory, do their best to brush away such inconvenient questions, blinding the public opinion to safeguard their own interests – highly lucrative business connections and rewards coming along with them. Due to this lobby, the Party was never included in President Bush’s Axis of Evil and President Clinton reversed his plan to link China’s trade advantages to its human rights progress. Before, it was maintained that trade will transform China the way it did Taiwan and South Korea (much smaller, less populated countries), but after Tiananmen, it is only said that China’s democracy will come by itself, sometime, as long as PRC continues to be integrated into the international world order. But as Mann points out:

 If the world ends up thirty years from now with a Chinese regime that is still a deeply repressive one-party state but is nevertheless a member of the international community in good standing, will that have been a success for the U.S. policy of integration? If so, that same China will serve as a model for dictators, juntas, and other undemocratic governments throughout the world – and, in all likelihood, a leading supporter of these regimes. China is already serving that function with respect to a number of dictatorships, from Burma to Zimbabwe. Thus, when America’s leading officials and CEOs speak so breezily of integrating China into the international community, listeners should ask questions such as: If China remains unchanged, what sort of international community will that be? Will it favor the right to dissent? Will it protect freedom of expression? Or will it simply protect free trade and the right to invest? 

It is true that U.S. and the West in general were always too preoccupied with themselves to honestly give a damn about what happens to people in Asia or elsewhere – and that I believe is unlikely to change. People living under repressive governments of one kind or another (look at Poland, for example) usually overcame them if they happened to be in a right place at a right time in the global power play, and here luck seems to be as much of a factor as anything else. While I’m certainly an optimist about China, I also try my best to understand what’s really taking place here, and to have no illusions. “The China Fantasy” is not first to point out business interests overwhelming humanitarian concerns, but it’s an excellent and detailed summary of the problem. Given the approaching Olympics it’s a good starting point in thinking more about China and trying to explore it beyond the year of the Rat and the Olympic souvenir stands. I hope many people will make that effort. Without it, can we call the whole affair significant?

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