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Will China Implode?

August 02, 2009

Obama and Chinese officials met this week for high-level policy talks, and avoided exchanges on human rights. But China expert Isabel Hilton says minority revolts in China recently show it is an empire in crisis.

There is a story that the Chinese government likes to tell: that China is the world’s oldest continuous, unchanging civilization (the dates vary, according to the exuberance of the moment, from 2,000 to a mythical 5,000 years). This unique history, the story continues, will determine China’s future. In this narrative of Chinese exceptionalism, the leadership remains immune to demands for democracy or any resemblance to other developed countries. The government hopes that this story will prove persuasive enough for the Communist Party to keep the Mandate of Heaven and avoid challenges to its exclusive right to rule for the foreseeable future.

The revolt of the minorities is only a symptom of a wider political malaise.

It’s a curious story for a Communist Party and very different to the earlier myths of origin. Where once it promoted class struggle and revolution, today’s party invokes history and tradition in support of its right to rule. In its latest identification with the imperial orders of the past, the regime is even restoring Confucianism as the core state narrative.

It’s a long way from the Communist Party’s own origins in the revolt in the early 20th century against the suffocating orthodoxies of Confucianism, blamed by the modernizers of the day for China’s slide into stagnation. As recently as the 1970s, Confucius was still thought sufficiently poisonous as an inheritance to merit a virulent campaign of criticism, along with such imported bad hats as the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, the late Ludwig Van Beethoven and the children’s book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. They made an odd quartet, but no odder than the current spectacle of a Communist Party that extols the virtues of Mencius and claims to be building a “harmonious” society.

Remarkably, despite its obvious flaws, this narrative appeals to those Western commentators who believe that China’s rise is, in the Marxist phrase, a historical inevitability, and who accept Beijing’s latest version of history at face value.

Take this recent example, from the British author Martin Jacques’ book When China Rules the World:

“China has existed roughly within its present borders for 2,000 years and only over the last century has it come to regard itself as a nation state.”

China does not, in fact, officially define itself as a nation state but as a multiethnic state in which all nationalities theoretically enjoy equal status. A more accurate description would be that it is a recently expanded land-based empire struggling to justify itself. Far from living within the same borders for 2,000 years, China today occupies a land area roughly twice the size of Ming Dynasty China, its expansion driven by the Manchu conquest in the 18th century. It has an aggressive policy of colonization, exploitation of natural resources, and assimilation. Like all such empires before it, it suffers from the strains of keeping the lid on those it has colonized, who do not identify with an imperial project from which they derive little benefit.

When China Rules the World was published some 10 months after last year’s uprising in Tibet and six weeks before this year’s riots in Xinjiang. By the time it had been on the bookshelves eight weeks, the Chinese government had been obliged to put nearly half of its territory (including Xinjiang and the Tibetan Autonomous Region) under tight paramilitary control.

The People’s Armed Police, the shock troops of Beijing’s attempt to impose civil order (officially described as “harmony”) are pursuing familiar tactics in Xinjiang: mass arrests within a troublesome demographic—ethnic minority males—undisclosed places and conditions of detention; trials that meet no standards of justice and long prison sentences, often preceded by rough treatment.

It is doubtful, though, whether these measures will be any more effective than they have been in the past. Beijing’s diagnosis of the sickness in its body politic is as flawed as its treatment: If repression fails, apply more repression, a policy response that has steadily ratcheted up the resentment in China’s far west.

The question is, how far will these troubles affect the majority Han population and what impact will the blowback from the troubles have on China’s future? In a related move, the government recently raided the offices of the Open Constitution Initiative in Beijing, confiscating computers and interrogating staff. The OCI was an important legal office, distinguished by its members’ belief in the right to a fair, independent, and transparent legal process, and their willingness to defend people whom the government wished to silence or send to jail. Their clients included the parents of infants affected by last year’s adulterated milk scandal, Tibetan prisoners, Falun Gong practitioners, and other persecuted or disadvantaged groups. An additional 50 lawyers who handled human-rights cases have also been disbarred.

The OCI also produced one of the only rational responses to last year’s uprising in Tibet: Having examined the evidence, they concluded that the uprising had not been orchestrated by the exiled Dalai Lama, but provoked by decades of bungled government policy. Now they have been hit with a massive fine for alleged tax irregularities and their office closed. Neither in Tibet nor in Xinjiang, it seems, do the authorities wish to acknowledge their mistakes.

But mistakes not acknowledged tend to be repeated, and policies that have provoked angry responses in the past are unlikely to promote harmony in the future. The test of China’s future trajectory, of its ability to go from large power to great power, is only partly about economics. Thus far, China’s economic growth has been based on unsustainable low-end manufacturing for the export market and the legitimacy bestowed by rising living standards. To manage the next phase of development successfully, China needs to move up the value chain, improve its governance, cut down on the huge waste in the economy, distribute the rewards of the effort more fairly, and inject some justice into its politics and legal affairs. But to do that, the Communist Party has to take on the vested interests on which it depends for its power.

We all have an interest in China’s success, as President Obama underlined at the opening this week of a two-day high-level dialogue with visiting Chinese officials. With just a nod to the recent troubles in Xinjiang, Obama ticked off a list of common concerns from climate change to economic recovery. In all of them, Chinese cooperation is essential.

In a globalized world, China’s troubles are everybody’s troubles and the U.S. has little interest in seeing them grow. But China’s solutions, to date, are unlikely to help. The revolt of the minorities is only a symptom of a wider political malaise. Even taken together, their numbers, compared to the overwhelming majority of Han Chinese, are small. But the indignation and resentment that burst into view in Xinjiang in Tibet are also visible, for a wide variety of reasons, in the Han population. As Xu Zhiyong, one of the founders of the OCI put it in a withering public statement of protest at the centre’s closure:

“It’s not us causing trouble, and the tens of thousands of mass incidents every year aren’t caused by us …. On the contrary, we strive to bring into line the contradictions caused by corrupt officials, we advocate absolute nonviolence and we hope we can ameliorate some of the endless hate and conflicts in our society... do not let this country once more be dragged by those in power to a place where we are dead but not buried.

Why have we been targeted with this retribution? Because we have an awe-inspiring righteousness, because we advocate for better politics, because our dreams are too beautiful, because we as a people have never given up hope, because no matter what befalls, our hearts are always full of the sunlight of hope.

.. I am a poor man, so poor that all I have left are my beliefs. Great leaders, can I give you a little bit of my belief? You should be needing these beliefs and you should, like me, have the ability to show compassion, compassion to see the restless souls disturbed by evil spirits.”

Confucius himself would have applauded.

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