Chinese whispers

by Pamela Stirling / 30 June, 2007

It's tempting, after all the kowtowing to China at Parliament over the visit of the Dalai Lama this week, simply to post to the Beehive a copy of the China Daily's review this year of American journalist James Mann's influential new book, The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression.

It's not that Helen Clark and her colleagues would find anything critical in the review regarding politicians who put trade concerns above human rights. But that's just the point. The Chinese columnist is not permitted to discuss the book's content.

So much for the theory that engagement with China over trade would soften Beijing's censorious and authoritarian rule. The confidence in such a policy was once so strong that Bill Clinton in the early 1990s demanded improvements in human rights or he would revoke most favoured nation trading status. The deadline arrived - but it wasn't China that backed down.

Disturbingly, that pattern is strengthening. Just two years ago Helen Clark, to her great credit, stood up for her country's democratic principles when protesters unfurled the flag of the Free Tibet movement on Parliament's forecourt while she was hosting China's third-ranking leader, Wu Bangguo.

The Prime Minister told the objecting Chinese that suppressing peaceful protest was not part of New Zealand's political system - and the Chinese delegation entered Parliament through a side door.

This week, however, it was Clark who appeared to be mollifying China. Her contrived meeting with the Dalai Lama in a Brisbane departure lounge - surely an act of acquiescence to Beijing - is almost as objectionable as the recent actions of countries like Belgium in withdrawing invitations for the Tibetan leader to visit.

The pressures will only get worse. Exporters around the world are drooling over China's 10 percent growth rate and billion-plus consumers, and increased trade will only intensify demands to smooth the relationship. For a number of important food products, China is already virtually the only source in the world. It controls 80 percent of the world's production of ascorbic acid, a valuable preservative. It's the same now with wheat gluten.

China watchers warn that the West, convinced that free-market capitalism and democracy go hand in hand, has instead welcomed a "Trojan horse" into the international system. It's not just that Beijing offers an enticing model to the developing world of how to get rich without embracing either democracy or bothersome ideals like labour laws. The problem is also its support of Iran and North Korea and the fact that it buddies up to most murderous dictatorships, including those of Sudan and Zimbabwe. Clark might rage about the "absolutely disgraceful" behaviour of the regime in Fiji. But China, spreading its influence in the Pacific, has no compunction in aiding rogue regimes. And all this is before the economy has really powered up.

Yet, just because China is not following the pattern of South Korea does not mean it will never embrace openness and the rule of law. India offers an example of powerful growth under a democratic government. As, indeed, does Taiwan - which a pragmatic China has no compunction in trading with and accepting many millions in investments from. China might fear introducing the freedoms and transparency that preceded the break-up of the Soviet Union, but it may eventually have little choice.

The greatest threat to China is the hundreds of millions of impoverished rural dwellers: more than 150 million survive on a dollar a day; four million took part in the 87,000 protests recorded last year. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao took the extraordinary step this month of visiting a farming community to allay social unrest over rising pork prices.

For the leadership to legitimise itself in the absence of any satisfying ideology, it must continue to provide economic success for all its people - and for that it needs trade, with partners who can provide a positive international image. Nations like Sudan do not provide that. (There is a movement building to rebrand the 2008 Olympics the "Genocide Olympics" because of China's support for Sudan.) New Zealand's principles could, right now, prove our greatest asset. But only if we are prepared to stand up for them. n

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