Thursday, January 26, 2012


China has entered the year of the dragon (Did you notice the new assertive angry dragon stamp?) with a bang. Premier Wen Jiabao visited Iran’s Persian Gulf neighbors and the US has expressed its support for Taiwan’s re-elected president Ma Ying-jeou, who wants to pursue a more normalized relationship with Beijing. His beaten opponent, Tsai Ing-wen, stood for a more confrontational policy.

The Chinese version of the “Russian dolls” is in full swing. The mad tea-party will come up with the final result behind the closed doors of the queen’s croquet ground, the Great Hall of the People (the name always struck me as absurd, given the fact that no people are allowed in). The current leadership will almost certainly be replaced by Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. As usual, the known résumés of the probable successors of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are as bland as possible. At least the future president has a consort who specializes in singing kitsch lyrics which will certainly sell well.

The current leadership has been able and cautious. The prime minister does not have the formidable soft-power of his predecessor Zu Rongi, but he has showed humanity and real concern for the many inequalities which still besiege modern China. The canary in the Chinese coalmine has little chance to keep his feathers. Pollution, a shaky environment, poor governance in the provinces and the deliberate choice for the quantitative matrix weaken the Chinese society. Improvements at the local level cannot compensate for what looks more and more like an asymmetric model where tensions are plentiful: Tibet, minorities in Xinjang and Gansu, migrant workers, an unorthodox monetary policy, and one could go on. Nevertheless, while there is some patchy improvement, the democratic dividend remains taboo, while the reach of Intelligence and censorship are on the rise.

Contrary to Jiang Zemin, who successfully saved China from the brink after Tiananmen (April/June 1989), the upcoming leaders will have to look over their shoulders as impatient princelings claim their place under the sun. Bo Xilai in Chongqing and Wang Yang in Guandong are formidable contestants who feel entitled to roam around the throne. In foreign policy the complications abound. In spite of the outcome of the elections, Taiwan remains a question mark. In the ASEAN, the feelings towards China are tepid at least. The rise of the big neighbor is a multiplier for regional growth, which is welcomed; however, the territorial claims in the South China Sea (the Paracels) upsets the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan, who all claim sovereignty over the seabed and the inlets which are rich in raw materials and oil. No wonder China is expanding its fleet while the US Navy is rethinking its strategy, creating a firewall to contain Beijing’s new maritime ambitions. Meanwhile, the Chinese propaganda machine is in overdrive. The maritime exploits of Zheng He in 1433 are the “mantra” of the day. The blue sea power is replacing former more pedestrian priorities. Technological advances abound, often with uneven success. The man in the street observes all this. The elder generation is often displaced without an early warning, while the young can be divided into university nerds (who perform extraordinary well) or techno junkies (who perform even better.) There is some political discussion, an awareness of the need for more pluralistic and moral values but this is done sotto voce. Big Brother watches and listens.

Recent Chinese leaders generally specialize in imposing empty slogans (“The three represents”, “harmonious society”, etc.) which are meaningless. This is in contrast with the Hegelian experiments of Mao and the more practical approach of Deng Xiaoping, who might well be the greatest reformer of the last century. During his last “southern journey” Deng secured his philosophy (“Seek truth from facts”, “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “one country, two systems”). His legacy might be unique in world history. In less than 30 years China was able to become a superpower. He was a reformist to the core who changed the map of the world, wherein Europe ends up being an archipelago of Asia and the BRICS no longer take their clues from the United States. China could breathe again (“It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white; if it catches mice, it is a good cat”).

Still, problems remain inside and out. Too often China hides behind its “non interference” policy to observe moral decay, economical depletion, and environmental downfall without intervening. It frequents loathsome regimes as long as it can take advantage of faulty or broken states. This is one of the major reasons why international institutions or the Security Council do not function as they should. While it must be admitted that the West has been an accomplice of unsavory regimes in Latin America and in the Middle East, Beijing’s business-class relationships with the likes of Iran, Zimbabwe or Venezuela are equally inexcusable. The end of the story may very well be that the West gets cheated by the offspring of the so-called Arab Spring, while China faces undesirable outcomes in Myanmar or North Korea. Kim Jong un did not catch the first available train to take his marching orders from the Middle Kingdom.

China risks never being a model. Speed is not everything. The lure of the lights in coastal China does not compensate for the abject poverty in the west, or the cost of dissent which is increasing by the day. Furthermore, China is often unappreciated in the surrounding neighborhood where it projects a perverse form of a Pavlovian society, which is unappealing. America, for its part, is still able to maintain its exceptional aura which continues to fascinate. Lately the US is presenting itself more and more as a Pacific power, which is the right strategy, given that Europe lags behind, both in the fields of soft and hard power. Nevertheless, the strategic location of Western Europe should not be underestimated, given its proximity to possible theaters of conflict. In the monetary area, the European financial Gordian knot seems inextricable while, on the contrary, the financial problems in the US look solvable and do not affect as much its standing worldwide.

China (and Russia) is too lenient in its handling of pariahs for the sole sake of acquiring the raw materials it so badly needs. This contributes to the creation of breeding spaces wherein failed states and non-states alike can create unremitting havoc. China should never forget that sleeping with the enemy can be lethal. Like Russia, it is in the eye of the storm of terrorism and of the possible consequences of the black market of weapons of mass-destruction in the Caucasus. China will have to face difficult choices in Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, or the Straits of Hormuz. Wen’s visit to the region was not accidental.

Beijing remains obsessed by the United States. It steals, hacks, copies and fakes full-time. It has little respect for intellectual property rights and continues to discharge poorly finished goods on markets which are eager to buy and sell cheaply in these difficult economical times. This will inevitably again lead to some crisis which will eventually ebb away. With few exceptions it is difficult to brand Chinese-wear, which is looked upon with rightful suspicion. At the same time it manipulates its currency and in so doing corrupts offer and demand, or elementary market rules. Rightly, the West has avoided protectionism or engaging in economical warfare. Talking might not be enough but in the end it is better than provoking some neo-Boxer revival. The Chinese are not really territorially aggressive (with the exception of Taiwan and Tibet, considered to be part of the Motherland) but they are often psychologically insecure and are an easy instrument for the leadership to manipulate for chauvinistic reasons. The Chinese remain multifariously resistant to atonement. There is a dormant dangerous force there which has to be integrated into any strategic thinking with regard to most things Chinese. Tensions with Japan or the US can be diverted into cacophonous and dizzying reactions of the street, stirred up by the system. The better manners displayed during the Olympics and the Shanghai World Fair have already disappeared in the smog which has made a remarkable come-back after numerous factories (closed during the events) reopened.

Here and there one can witness the rising of a civil society on the local level. Slowly the central government has taken sometimes harsh measures against corruption and some timid interventions with regard to violations of intellectual property (when there is foreign coverage). A marginal but vibrant intellectual life and creativity are daring to come out in the open, be it at a price (Ai Weiwei and the empty chair at the Nobel prize ceremony in Oslo speak loud), while the authorities still look at what is going on in the cultural and intellectual fields with suspicion.

The new leadership is probably going to choose continuity over innovation. There are too many potholes in the street ahead of them and China’s state capitalism formula is still more fragile than what is perceived, however, I do not share Gordon Chang’s doomsday scenarios because there are many signs which indicate that the Chinese are reclaiming their identity after having regained their dignity. The Zhongnanhai will not suddenly become a glass house, nor is it expected to become one. Chinese civilization is one of order and hierarchy, of face and a mix of Confucianism and seniority. Seen against this background, Mao appears today to have been an aberration. He will always be remembered for the Long March and his handling of the Sino-Japanese War. His successive U-turns, which almost derailed the psyche of a society, left too many scars. I believe that the achievements of his heirs are astonishing. It is to be hoped that the upcoming leaders will be able to add to the current upswing reality a more humanistic, qualitative dimension which supposes agile diplomacy, added connection with the citizen, a “better” rather than “more” quality of life, and a participatory presence in world affairs rather than an opportunistic, voyeuristic one. Premier Wen’s engagement in the Middle East is an encouraging sign.

Just as there is no Europe without the United Kingdom, there is no West without East.

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