According to freelance writer Kapil Komireddi, writing on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, the West needs to promptly stand up to the monolith that is China, rather than sit back and let it expand and continue its oppressive regime.
Erasing its own history, massacring its own people, shielding genocidal dictatorships abroad, bullying its neighbours, China is an expansionist power without a conscience. There is much that is wrong with the west – and liberal democracies elsewhere – but imagine a world in which China can no longer be held to account. That future is not very far. But if the west continues to cower, it will be here sooner than we think.
Indeed, China’s expansion has not been a peaceful one. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to cite the two most obvious examples of Mao’s dictatorial quest for a communist society, took the lives of millions. The student and worker protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 ended fatally, with precise figures of those killed by Deng Xiaoping’s troops still unknown. The People’s Republic continues to crack down on those who criticise the legitimacy of the Communist Party: case in point, Charter 08 co-author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is almost one year into his 11-year sentence for inciting subversion.
China is also quick to show its obstinate side out on the diplomatic stage. The recent spat with Japan over a Chinese fisherman who collided with Japanese coastguards in disputed waters produced no winners: China cut diplomatic communications with Japan when they refused to release the fisherman, and promptly demanded an apology and compensation once the fisherman was handed back to the Middle Kingdom. Last year’s Copenhagen climate summit saw similar head banging: the West called on China to abide by legally binding cuts; China said no. China’s role in Africa is also notoriously controversial, with China known for having supplied war-torn Sudan with arms, for example.
So it seems that the Middle Kingdom could benefit from the West taking it down a peg or two. We have seen this happen of late: by the Nobel Committee awarding Liu Xiaobo with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, China’s poor human rights record has been brought into question, and the work of a relentless and brave dissident has received wider circulation. The West essentially told China it is wrong in continuing cracking down on dissent.
But my issue with Komireddi’s piece is that it is endemic of a simplified, black-and-white vision of China that does no justice to the complexity of the country. Komireddi writes that “China is not a substantially freer country today than it was a decade ago.” But what he means by ‘free’ is unclear, as he fails to consider what such a wide-ranging term could mean to the average Chinese person. It might be the freedom to feed your family comfortably or buy a house; yet Komireddi overlooks how Chinese citizens might take pride in the country’s intense economic strengthening more so than Western notions of ‘freedom’.
He adds that new media, used by more and more disgruntled citizens to voice their concerns of the state, is used just as quickly by the government to monitor and crack down on contentious actors. This is true, the piece’s next paragraph raises an issue:
Liu’s [Xiaobo] plight casts light also on the fundamental uselessness of the so-called “social networking” sites. If Facebook could foment revolutions, Liu’s Charter 08 would have attracted many more signatories than the 8,000 it managed.
It is puzzling that Komireddi did not mention another, more significant reason Charter 08 did not receive overwhelming support within China: because so few of the nation’s 1.3 billion people could in fact relate to the ideals of democracy, multi-party elections and freedom of expression that Liu was calling for. Blogger Han Han alluded to this theme some months ago, in response to Google’s dramatic exit from China:
Perhaps Google thought that freedom, truth, justice, and other such things would mean a lot to a large portion of Chinese netizens. But in reality, these things are nothing compared to a finding a 100 RMB bill on the street.
He also fails to place China’s rise in an appropriate and critical historical context that accounts for why China behaves the way it does with the rest of the global cast. No doubt about it, China is stubborn, but this is in large part due to the ‘century of humiliation’ the country endured at the hands of foreign powers. For example, Japan’s second invasion of China, during World War Two, saw the infamous massacre and rape of hundreds of thousands in Nanjing. With China unable to truly forgive and forget, relations still remain strained between the two.
None of this is to say the West should “cower” to China. Indeed, if China wants to be respected as a global player, it must banish the idea that it can play by its own rules, a’ la the Copenhagen climate summit.
But by at least understanding and acknowledging the country’s complexities, both past and present, the West’s discourse on China can move beyond antagonism. Journalism such as Komireddi’s will only end up serving the opposite purpose.