China’s challenges in the Year of the Rabbit

Brahma Chellaney
The Economic Times, February 4, 2011

The Lunar New Year couldn’t have begun on a more edgy note for China’s rulers, who have been quick to add words like “Cairo” and “Egypt” to their list of words banned on the Internet. Haunted by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, China’s leaders are nervously watching the rise of people’s power against some Arab dictatorships. If Egyptians could rise up, despite enjoying a per-capita income three times higher than the Chinese, China certainly risks the same contagion.

China actually lived up to the Year of the Tiger that 2010 represented in its astrology by roaring at its neighbours and picking territorial fights with them. Now in the Year of the Rabbit which started on Thursday, will China emulate that burrowing animal? Will it mean more tunnels being burrowed in the Himalayas for river diversion and other strategic projects? And “carrots” (rabbit’s favourite) being demanded from neighbours and the rest of the world for eschewing irascible behaviour?

If the Chinese leadership were forward-looking, it would utilize the Year of the Rabbit to loosen its political reign and make up for the diplomatic imprudence of 2010 that left an isolated China counting only the problems states of North Korea, Pakistan and Myanmar as its allies. But the military’s growing political clout and the sharpening power struggle in the run-up to the major leadership changes scheduled to take place from next year raise concerns that the world will likely see more of what made 2010 a particularly tiger-like year when China frontally discarded Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, tao guang yang hui (conceal ambitions and hide claws).

A tiger’s claws are retractable, but China has taken pride more in baring them than in drawing them in. While manipulating patriotic sentiment, it has pursued hardline policies at home, tightening its controls on the Internet and media and stepping up repression in Tibet and Xinjiang. On a host of issues — from diplomacy and territorial claims to trade and currency — China spent 2010 staking out a more-muscular role that only helped heighten international concerns about its rapidly accumulating power and unbridled ambition.

But nothing fanned international unease and alarm more than Beijing’s disproportionate response to the Japanese detention of a fishing-trawler captain last September. While Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s standing at home took a beating for his meek capitulation to Chinese coercive pressure, the real loser was China, in spite of having speedily secured the captain’s release.

Japan’s passivity in the face of belligerence helped magnify Beijing’s hysterical and menacing reaction. In the process, China not only undercut its international interests by presenting itself as a bully, but it also precipitately exposed the cards it is likely to bring into play when faced with a diplomatic or military crisis next — from employing its trade muscle to help inflict commercial pain to exploiting its monopoly on the global production of a vital resource, rare-earth minerals.

Its resort to economic warfare, even in the face of an insignificant provocation, has given other major states advance notice to find ways to offset its leverage, including by avoiding any commercial dependency and reducing their reliance on imports of Chinese rare earths.

At issue is not China’s rise but its selective acceptance of norms and rules, as well as its efforts to protect or enlarge unfair advantage in trade, resource, security, currency and other issues.

The gap between its words and actualities is also widening. For example, China persisted with its unannounced rare-earth embargo against Japan for weeks while continuing to blithely claim the opposite in public — that no export restriction had been imposed. Like its denials last year on two other subjects — the deployment of Chinese troops in Pakistan-held Kashmir to build strategic projects and its use of Chinese convicts as labourers on projects in some countries too poor and weak to protest — China has demonstrated a troubling propensity to obscure the truth.

Despite the battering to its international image — which has sunk to its lowest point since after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy protestors — there is little prospect of 2011becoming a course-correction year for Beijing. The high turnover of leaders scheduled to occur at different levels in China during 2012-13 has set in motion within the Communist Party an intense jockeying for promotion, with senior functionaries engaged in competitive pandering to nationalistic sentiment.

But with the party increasingly dependent on the military to maintain its monopoly on power and ensure domestic order, senior military officers are overtly influencing foreign policy. Is China becoming a militaristic state where the government’s oversight over the armed forces exists only in name?

In truth, the more overtly China has embraced capitalism, the more indigenized it has become ideologically. By gradually turning its back on Marxist dogma — imported from the West — the country’s oligarchy has made Chinese nationalism the legitimating credo of its hold on power. The new crop of leaders, including President Hu Jintao’s putative successor, Xi Jinping, will bear a distinct nationalistic imprint.

As the present leadership prepares for the 18th party congress next year, it may find it difficult to resist flaunting the country’s newfound power, in a bid to play to the public gallery at home. A reminder of the domestic challenges was a recent viral video produced by a Beijing animation firm that showed the masses, portrayed as rabbits, rising up in anger against corruption and repression and killing party cadres.

The challenges could prompt China to go for the home run in 2012, the Year of the Dragon — the monster that has been universal since before biblical times. As the 50th year of China’s military attack on India, 2012 will be especially important in Asia, because the declared intent of that war — “to teach a lesson” — was repeated in the 1979 Chinese aggression against Vietnam and appeared to guide Beijing’s top-heavy response in the more-recent boat incident with Japan.

(c) The Economic Times, 2011

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