Friday, April 22, 2011


I have visited China once again, surviving a rerun of meals and arguments that look inalterable.
Beijing begins to look like a decor for Superman.  It also has an ambiguous energy which recalls the ill-omened 30s in Germany.  By saying so, I certainly do not imply that we might face a repeat of those dark times, which seems the more unpersuasive, given that the Han Chinese is inherently inward-looking.  His outlook serves more an appetite for energy, influence and face than territorial conquest outside of what it considers to be its natural borders (Tibet, Taiwan).
The Great Wall has become a relic.  Only the firewall is relevant, attempting to keep unwanted information out of reach. Meanwhile, everyone who dares to trespass the authorized limits of free speech and creativity disappears from the scene. China’s intellectuals are like the burghers of Calais, who take their Noble Prize to their tombstone.  Meanwhile the metamorphosis--mega cities, trade, transport, military might – continues unabaited.  Seen from close-up, the trueness of the China myth is nevertheless more Potemkin-like.  Planes, cities, manufacturing might look formidable but without an active civil society they become soulless.  
 A growing middle class is “entertained” by non-intellectual gimmicks, amusements, games and lotteries (L’orthodoxie a réponse à tout, Ernest Renan).  Although we also suffer ourselves at times from that pattern of commercial “panem et circences”/”dancing with the stars” syndrome, we still can benefit from the other face of the coin, a legion of Nobel Prizes, thinkers, writers and political critics who rock the boat of democracy.  Societies should be able to impress by their transformational added-value rather than by building full speed soulless perspectives and vistas where the individual is robotized in a consumer rush.
China might raise many questions but since the meetings between Emperor Qianlong and Lord Macartney in 1793, and the equally failed mission of Lord Armherst in 1816, little has changed in the DNA .  The Chinese still consider compromise as weakness and press for their entitlement and superiority. They play now the BRIC card (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) while still believing that they are first.  Their claim to be a developing country is a sham. In reality they perceive the West, and the United States in particular, as countries in decline. Being able to mobilize masses of cheap labor for their grandiose projects they fail to grasp the problems democracies encounter when they have to balance ambition with social concerns.  In reality the majority of the Chinese are builders of a decor which reminds us of the Forbidden City allegory, where the work was done by people who could never aspire to see the result of their labor. Today, the middle class of 400 million will grow, consuming Western luxury brands and  aspiring to some over-the-top lifestyle that was the rage in Hollywood when Joan Collins heralded the vulgarity of wealth in the soap opera ”Dynasty”.  The Chinese government tries to control this maddening social behavior with empty slogans, a rehabilitation of Confucianism and a dazzling network of airports, roads, transport and entertainment. This overheating favors movement rather than thought and benefits the “princelings”, such as the sons of Hu Jintao and of premier Wen Jiabao (interesting contributions in the Economist from April 9th and 16th).
The government is made of personalities who do not dare to say the word “vote”.  The official ”modus operandi” remains as non-translucent as in the time of the emperors.
There are certainly also positive advances that the Chinese are rightly proud of. Twenty years ago China was both the victim of famine and of the Cultural Revolution. Today it is a world power which is watched with awe.  Lately however it has over-reacted and the world has felt the bite more than the bark.  Its neighbors in particular took notice of the bite. This has benefited the USA, seen in Southeast Asia as the ultimate protector.  Beijing got the message and has recently changed its tone, recognizing the negative downside of its aggressive posture. The mottos of Deng Xiaoping are starting to reappear. The leadership has become more discreet and while still wanting foreign things to be China’s servants and not its master, they put an end to the saber-rattling.  President Hu’s recent state visit to the USA marked a U-turn when compared with President Obama’s visit to China or the climate change comedy in Copenhagen.    The Chinese psychology remains tainted by the obsessive notion of non-interference in internal affairs, which spans a large arc wherein political, social and economical interests collide and collude.  Nationalism and an ingrained perverse xenophobia further complicate relations with the world outside, considered an intruder despite smiles, photo-ops and the signing of numerous MOUs which are take-overs in disguise, depleting  poor countries of their natural resources for a pittance.
Some see China as a dangerous, unreliable partner in steering world affairs. I dare to reply that China has no other priorities than Chinese ones. Deng called foreign interferences “flies”. This continues to be the case, with the exception of the United States. The American way of life occupies imagination, creativity and education. The EU is seen as obsolete, the Euro a “has been”.  I dispute both assertions but we cannot choose the verbal arsenal of our interlocutors.
In reality China does not contest the supremacy of the dollar, neither does it adopt an aggressive posture as long as the Americans do not come too close to the Straits, Tibet, the contested Spratlys and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea or North Korea.  China is building a fleet which might have the ability to break the American Pacific wall which encircles it from Guam to Seoul. This maritime strategy is partially military, partially supposed to keep the routes for commerce open.
One tends to forget that China is a composite of races, religions and regions such as Xinjiang, Gansu or Tibet.  Coastal China is all lights, the west is still mostly darkness. The dissident movements continue to operate and are symptomatic of the tensions which exist between state and society.
In reality coastal China does not have to demand change.  It is already there. The authorities often arrest, control, spy, but the Chinese people have mastered the internet in such a way that the flow of information has become unstoppable. The government knows too well that the Chinese are largely materialistic.  Hence the Party has revamped Deng’s theories of a socialist market economy (“It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white; if it catches mice it is a good cat” –and feeds while at the same time it controls.) They still fear a Gorbachev copycat scenario or the contagion of democratic upheavals elsewhere (Jasmine Revolution).
China is an introverted country, a geopolitical unicum which spans many millennia. Self-conscious, humiliated in the past, ambitious for the future, it will avoid military “escapism” as long as its crucial interests are not endangered. It watches the latest American military interventions with skepticism but it is at the same time relieved that a third party does the dirty job. It has its own homegrown Islamic problem and deals with it mercilessly. It has no interest in foreign arrays other than in some ersatz neo-colonialistic  exploitation of the raw materials it so desperately needs (You sell me iron and I build you a stadium).  It will be an unpredictable player in the globalization process, being picky rather than engaging in a partnership.
The Party is the country but the “intra muros” struggles between factions can lead to dangerous  splits . China presents itself for what it is not. It is neither monolithic nor representative of a bottom-up consensus, nor is it without fault lines that run deep. From time to time the leadership uses the undercurrent of nationalism to recreate a kind of painting from the Mao area wherein smiling workers harvest bushels of golden happiness.  But kitsch is a placebo not a remedy. 
The giant will pursue his ambition and deserves respect for his achievements which are plentiful.  However, the cracks remain still too often unattended- -migrant workers, minorities, inflation, two-tier country, corruption, lack of inventive soft-power-- and  those structural weaknesses need urgent mending.  The post-Hu leadership (Xi Jinping) which, once again, will not have a democratic legitimacy, will have its hands full. Meanwhile the whereabouts of Ai Weiwei, Liao Yiwu, Liu Xiaobbo, amongst other literati, are still unknown.  The French would say “plus ça change…..”

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