The West must stand up to China, says Kapil Komireddi

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.

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The Sino-Japanese downward spiral deepens

The claws are well and truly out. Despite Japan’s release of Chinese fisherman Zhan Qixiong on Friday, China was not satisfied. The following day, it promptly demanded an apology and compensation from Japan, which was just as promptly rejected. In an official statement, China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated that it was “unlawful and invalid for Japan to detain, investigate or take any form of judicial measures against the Chinese fishermen and trawler.”

Zhan was also in agreement, affirming that the Diaoyu islands belong to China. “It’s legal that I go there to fish but it’s illegal that they detained me. I did not violate the law,” he said.

Japan, however, said China’s demand was “unacceptable.” It retorted that the Senkaku islands, as they are also known, belong to Japan itself, and Zhan was violating Japanese law by colliding in the disputed islands.

Since Saturday’s diplomatic faux pas on China’s part, which has unnecessarily deepened a quarrel that may otherwise have been able to rest, Japan has toughened its stance on the Middle Kingdom. Firstly, as the WSJ reports, it asked China to pay for the damage caused to the Japanese patrol boats after Zhan’s collision. “The ball is in China’s court,” Yoshito Sengoku, Japan’s chief government spokesman, said at a press conference today. Former Foreign Minister  Katsuya Okada was also quoted as saying, ”everybody knows that China is not a democratic country, but the latest demand will make that explicit.” Later this afternoon, it was also reported that the Japanese government ordered two Chinese fishery patrol boats to move away from the hotly contested waters.

The heat continues to be turned up. Meanwhile, onlookers are wondering who the winner is, if there indeed is one, as Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan writes:

You wonder what the rest of the countries in Asia are thinking.

Not only did China get its way, everyone else saw it, and saw how it was done, too. You can’t imagine Vietnam, with its own territorial dispute with China, feeling any safer. Or the rest of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). Or South Korea. Or the people of Japan, as they watch their leaders capitulate.

Suddenly, everyone desires a referee in all this. Suddenly, everyone wouldn’t mind too much if the United States were around more often. China might have gotten its way this time, but perhaps at the cost of a more vigilant America.

Why China is also a loser in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute

Japanese prosecutors have vowed to free the Chinese captain they arrested two weeks ago after a collision near a set of uninhabited islands disputed between both Japan and China in the East China Sea.

Zhan Qixiong’s ship collided with two Japanese coastguard vessels on 8th September near the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), which both East Asian nations claim as their own. Zhan was subsequently handed over to prosecutors on the southern Japanese island of Ishigaki, where he was detained and questioned over “intentionally hitting at least one patrol ship and obstructing officers.” If found guilty, he could have faced up to three years in prison.

Today, however, Japan conceded that no damage was intended, but blamed Zhan for ignoring repeated requests to leave the hotly-disputed area.

The row between Japan and China following Zhan’s detention was a key factor in today’s decision making, Japanese prosecutors said. Premier Wen demanded Zhan’s release, claiming Zhan’s detention was illegal, while Tokyo called for high-level bilateral talks between the two nations. However, once Japan extended Zhan’s period of detention, China retaliated by cutting diplomatic communication.

It did not stop there: a selection of Chinese travel agencies cancelled package tours to Japan, while a Chinese ticket agency suspended ticket sales of a Japanese band’s gigs in mainland China, a Japanese tabloid reported. The situation became even stickier yesterday, as The Economist reports:

China’s response seemed to take an especially nefarious turn when it apparently suspended its export of rare-earth minerals, which are vital to making electronics components used in everything from handheld gadgets to cars. On September 23rd China emphatically denied that it is blocking exports.

The row undoubtedly opened a lot of old wounds for China in terms of its national pride, which Tokyo had feared. Since such a substantial part of Chinese nationalism rests on how China battled against foreign humiliation, in particular Japanese oppression, to form a nation, it is unsurprising that this month’s events have garnered such sensitive responses from citizens. Ever more the vehicle for discussion and protest, the Chinese Internet was awash with nationalist sentiment. In the words of one netizen, reposted on ChinaSMACK:

Our national humiliation can never be forgotten. As an ordinary common person, all I can do is be angry and boycott Japanese goods; if there is a war, as a reserve officer, I will not hesitate!

In conceding to China’s heated demands, Japan has, much to China’s relish, perhaps come off from this scenario looking weak and unable to avoid diplomatic pressure from its looming neighbour. That China recently surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy is an attest to the Middle Kingdom’s growing prowess.

However, none of this is to say China is the ‘winner’ in this battle for Zhan’s release. As The Economist wrote today, China’s actions have “called into question its maturity as a responsible international actor and undermined its pretensions to a ‘peaceful rise’.” That China should respond so dramatically to such a dispute does its diplomatic image as a global player no favours. Similarly melodramatic responses have plagued the nation throughout the past year, from its stubbornness to agree to legally-binding cuts at Copenhagen to a slew of disputes with the US ranging from Google’s exit to the revaluation of the Renminbi.

However, given China’s knack for holding on to its history tight, in particular the pain inflicted on the nation by Japan, its reaction to this month’s events is perhaps understandable. But understandable only to an extent: China’s obstinacy may well prove to be unsustainable as more and more global players become, simply, fed up of having to deal with a nation that won’t compromise.

For the past year, China has been Japan’s number one trading partner, and so it is in both countries’ interests to maintain diplomatic ties. The nasty effect of this month’s episode on those relations remains to be seen: perhaps the two countries, with a lot of face having been lost, will proceed with business as usual. Perhaps the event may harbour deeper resentment for an inability to progress past historical wounds. In any case, the post-decision “chill” will certainly be felt.

Hu Jintao confirms nuclear summit visit

Image by Charles Dharapak / AP

Having agreed to take part in negotiations on drafting UN sanctions against Iran, President Hu Jintao will visit Washington between 12-13 April for a summit on nuclear security.

Hu’s agreement to the talks is seen as a significant step for China during this time of relations strained by US arms sales to Taiwan, the Google-China fallout, Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama and tense trade imbalances. The move also came despite Iran sending an envoy to Beijing and denouncing negotiations as an “ineffective weapon”

China, with its economic ties to Iran, has been hesitant in joining the US, UK, France and Germany in putting together a set of sanctions against the country. While China depends on Iran for 11 per cent of its energy needs, the West has long claimed Tehran is intent on securing a nuclear weapons capability.

Speaking to CNN, US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, said: “China has agreed to sit down and begin serious negotiations here in New York…as a first step toward getting the entire UN security council on board with a tough sanctions regime against Iran.”

On China’s side, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said: “I’d like to reiterate that the undue disruption which China-US relations endured not long ago is in the interest of neither country and is not what we would like to see.”

The visit is also scheduled to take place two days before the Obama administration faced a deadline set by Congress and the US Treasury to decide whether to label China a “currency manipulator.” However, the New York Times has said that the administration has decided not to report on 15th April, for fear of embarrassing President Hu and further harming delicate bilateral relations.

How not to handle China

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/dec/30/west-china-akmal-shaikh

This brief post is a link to this fantastic piece written by Jonathan Fenby in today’s Guardian comment pages. Simply, Fenby argues, the West doesn’t understand how Beijing politics works, making her ill-equipped to deal diplomatically with the PRC. I couldn’t agree more, and have put forward similar (if less detailed and far less esteemed) lines of argument in previous posts.

I’ll leave you with this excerpt:

It might be nice if China was more like us, but it isn’t going to be. Expecting it to fit into the paradigm set by the west is not only futile but positively dangerous. The sooner governments start to work out a meaningful China policy rather than depending on wishful thinking, the better. It would make a good New year’s resolution. But I’m not holding my breath.

Happy New Year!