Each visit to China is a reminder of the power of global liberalizing influences. China has come a long way since the Tiananmen Square massacre of prodemocracy activists nearly two decades ago. It has opened up to the extent that it hosted this month an Asia-Europe conference of nongovernmental organizations and scholars that focused in several of its sessions on the global challenges of democratization and human rights.
The old mind-set and suspicion of outsiders, of course, haven’t disappeared. After all, power rests with the same party and system responsible for the death of tens of millions of Chinese during the so-called Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and other state-induced disasters and political witch hunts.
That the Communist Party continues to monopolize power despite its past gory excesses indeed is remarkable, if not unprecedented in modern world history. This is now the oldest autocracy in the world. Yet, the China of today is a far cry from the Mao Zedong era or even the Deng Xiaoping period when reforms coincided with brutal political suppression that Tiananmen Square came to symbolize.
What this country has achieved in the last generation in terms of economic modernization and the opening of minds is truly exceptional.
The state’s continuing repressive impulse, however, is mirrored in the tightly controlled domestic media (which, for example, was ordered not to deviate from official accounts in reporting the recent scandal over contaminated infant formula), the pervasive security apparatus and the brutal crackdown of the monk-led uprising across the vast Tibetan plateau.
Since the Tibet unrest flared in March, Beijing has allowed only a small group of foreign journalists to visit the plateau — that too on a Foreign Ministry-guided tour. China also remains highly intolerant of Han dissent, especially of any attempt to challenge the one-party rule.
This shows that although China has moved from being a totalitarian state to an authoritarian state, some things haven’t changed since the Mao years. Some other things have changed for the worse, such as the whipping up of nationalism and turning it into the legitimating credo of the communist rule.
In fact, relentless attempts to bend reality to the illusions that the state blithely propagates risk turning China into a modern-day Potemkin state.
Still, with the wearing away of the hukou system that tied citizens to their place of birth, Chinese can now relocate within the country, enjoy property rights, travel overseas, make use of the latest communications technologies and do other things that were unthinkable a generation ago. Indeed, the biggest change has been in the people’s thinking, reflected in a greater readiness to express oneself freely and shape one’s own destiny.
China’s opening up owes a lot to the West’s decision not to sustain trade sanctions after Tiananmen Square but instead to try to integrate Beijing with global institutions through the liberalizing influence of foreign investment and trade.
That the choice made was wise can be seen from the baneful impact of the opposite decision that was taken on Burma — to pursue a penal approach centered on sanctions — in the period following the ruthless suppression of prodemocracy Burmese protests 10 months before the Tiananmen Square killings.
Had the Burma-type approach been applied against China internationally, the result would not only have been a less-prosperous and less-open China, but also a more-paranoid and destabilizing China. Of course, the contradictory approaches were driven by the West’s commercial interests.
Yet, with a new chill setting in on relations between the West and Russia, the lesson from the correct choice made on China is in danger of getting lost. The rhetoric in some quarters in America and Europe for a tougher stance against Moscow is becoming shriller.
Little thought has been given to how the West lost Russia, a now-resurgent power that had during its period of decline in the 1990s eagerly sought to cozy up to the U.S. and Europe. Instead, turning a blind eye to the way the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is being expanded right up to Russia’s front yard and the U.S.-led action in engineering Kosovo’s self-proclamation of independence last February, the new focus is on how to punish Moscow for recently intervening in Georgia and sponsoring the self-declaration of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The foreign policy-centered first debate between Barack Obama and John McCain stood out for the way each of the two U.S. presidential candidates spit fire on Russia, with not a single question being asked about an increasingly assertive China. It is as if the U.S., not content with setting up military bases and a missile-defense system in Russia’s periphery and seeking to encroach on Russia’s historical dependencies and protectorates, seems intent on rediscovering Moscow as an adversary.
A self-fulfilling prophesy that ushers in a second cold war can only damage long-term U.S. interests. Europe, whose interests are closely tied to peace and cooperation with Moscow, is sadly split and adrift on Russia.
If today there is a push for a policy of containment, it is not against China but against Russia. Even on the democracy issue, it is Russia, not China, that is the target of constant hectoring.
U.S. President George W. Bush, in fact, is leaving the White House in his father’s footsteps — with a China-friendly legacy. Nothing illustrates this better than the way he ignored the bloody suppression of the most-powerful Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule since 1959 and showed up at the Beijing Olympics. It is thus little surprise that President Hu Jintao, in a telephonic conversation with Bush this month, praised the "good momentum" in U.S.-China relations established during the Bush presidency.
China’s rise has been aided by good fortune on multiple strategic fronts. First, Beijing’s reform process benefited from good timing, coming as it did at the start of globalization. Second, the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse delivered an immense strategic boon, eliminating a menacing empire and opening the way for Beijing to rapidly increase strategic space globally. Russia’s decline in the 1990s was China’s gain. And third, there has been a succession of China-friendly U.S. presidents in the past two decades — a period that significantly has coincided with China’s ascension.
Whether Obama or McCain wins next month’s presidential election, America will continue to have closer economic and political engagement with China than with, say, India, the latest Indo-U.S. nuclear deal notwithstanding.
Today, the American economy is inextricably linked with China. The financial meltdown has only increased U.S. reliance on Chinese capital inflows, thus adding to China’s leverage, even if a possible American recession hits Chinese exports. With Chinese foreign-exchange reserves swelling by one-third in the past year to a world record $1.906 trillion at the end of September, China is better positioned than any other major economy to weather the current global financial crisis.
Any U.S.-led attempt to contain Russia may mesh well with China’s ambitions but can hardly contribute to international security. If engagement has helped create a more-open China, does it make sense to apply different standards to Russia, with Moscow’s 13-year effort to join the World Trade Organization now in jeopardy and the U.S.-Russian nuclear deal put on indefinite hold by Washington?
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of "Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan."