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China: Threatening, or threatened?BY: Dan Rottenberg 01.05.2010
Americans may hate or fear China’s rising economic power. But most of us have bought into the notion that China’s leaders really know what they’re doing. China’s leaders themselves, I suspect, know otherwise.
Perpetually threatened ChinaDAN ROTTENBERG
Do you feel as threatened by China as China feels threatened by you?
This is no frivolous question. If liberals and conservatives agree on anything today, it’s the notion that China’s rising economic power threatens America’s way of life. The British journalist Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, argues that China won’t merely replace the U.S. as the world’s major superpower; it will also marginalize Western culture and redefine our core definitions of what it means to be modern.
For example, the world’s dominant language in the future won’t be English; it will be Mandarin, which is already the national tongue of one in five people in the world. Businesses worldwide will have to adopt the Chinese model— ferociously competitive entrepreneurs alongside a “hyperactive and omnipresent state”— in order to survive. And so on.
Never mind that we’ve heard such talk before— specifically, about the Japanese juggernaut, until that powerhouse imploded 20 years ago. What is actually happening in this supposedly relentless economic machine called China?
‘Stirring up chaos’
Well, on Christmas Day, a Beijing court sentenced Lu Xiaobo, a veteran human rights activist, to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” Liu’s offense was that he had helped draft a petition advocating multi-party democracy, free expression and freedom of religious practice.
No Western government would feel threatened by a petition bearing just 300 signatures, but within days of Liu ‘s sentencing, a senior security official warned of threats to China’s social stability from “hostile forces stirring up chaos” and called for “pre-emptive attacks” against them.
Most observers have characterized this and similar crackdowns as evidence of the autocratic power of China’s rulers. But might it not be evidence of tremendous weakness? Is a nation that’s so easily threatened really as strong as conventional wisdom thinks it is?
Leadership job description
As I suggested in 1996 (in the Philadelphia Forum), “To govern the People’s Republic of China is to be perpetually threatened; it seems to come with the job description.” In the subsequent 14 years, China’s economic miracle has indeed lifted some 500 million people out of poverty and into the middle-class or higher, earning the envy of the West. Yet China’s leaders remain as threatened as ever by things that no legitimate government finds threatening.
They are not merely threatened by democracy advocates. They are threatened by the Internet, by relatively free elections and media in Hong Kong and Taiwan, by the Falun Gong (an exercise group, for Pete’s sake!). They are threatened by privately organized art shows and theater groups. They are threatened when foreigners gather in Beijing hotel rooms or hallways to exchange ideas. They are threatened when Taiwan’s president visits the U.S. for a reunion at his alma mater, Cornell University.
Efficient practical tools
I’m not playing semantic games here. Many Americans of left and right alike perceive our democratic freedoms as moral virtues rather than as the most efficient tools for organizing a society. They’ve bought into the notion that China’s leaders really know what they’re doing. China’s leaders themselves, I suspect, know otherwise.
It’s not merely that they lack the legitimacy that a democratic system would confer upon them. It’s that they lack the self-correcting mechanisms that the West enjoys. If you lacked the democratic outlets for coping with violent uprisings, air pollution, disease, corrupt bureaucracies, and gridlocked traffic, not to mention 800 million desperately poor and angry peasants— well, you’d feel threatened, too. And if you had to expend most of your time and energy silencing dissent, you’d be exhausted as well.
In America, politicians use public opinion polls to learn what people are thinking. In China, public opinion polls are outlawed because politicians feel threatened by them.
Who isn’t threatened?
Yes, I know— everybody in the world (with the possible exception of me and half a dozen other people) feels threatened. Americans feel threatened by al-Qaeda, and vice versa. Israelis feel threatened by Palestinians, and vice versa. Western Europeans feel threatened by Muslims, and vice versa. Eastern Europeans feel threatened by Russia, and vice versa. Iran and North Korea feel threatened by the whole world, and vice versa.
But China’s leaders, I would submit, truly are threatened— by words, pictures, free communications, any of the toothpaste of the Information Age that, once out of the tube, can’t be stuffed back in. Martin Jacques may envy the Chinese; not me.
The best test of a viable society consists of people who vote with their feet. Immigrants still clamor to live in Europe and North America. The only people clamoring to get into China are North Koreans. Kind of gives you pause, doesn’t it?♦
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