China shouldn't be inscrutable

With the Beijing Olympics starting today, you might think this would be an occasion for serious analysis and reflection about China — how to understand the country and its changing society, how to handle the regime. Instead, we've mostly heard a familiar recitation of cliches.

By Fareed Zakaria (Beyond Olympics)

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Published: Fri 8 Aug 2008, 10:01 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

Conservatives rail against a "rising autocracy" and exaggerate China's military strength. Republican Sen. Sam Brownback went to Beijing and discovered — surprise! — that the Chinese government engaged in espionage. He fumed to CNN that the authorities could "listen to anybody and everybody and their communications and their recordings." One month earlier the senator had enthusiastically voted for the FISA Amendments Act, which allows the US government to do pretty much the same thing.

China bashing is not just a right-wing phenomenon. The New Republic, mostly left of centre, ran a cover story last month with the headline, MEET THE NEW CHINA (SAME AS THE OLD). Inside, the magazine thundered that "our ultimate solidarity" should lie not with the "odious government" in Beijing but "the billion long-suffering men and women of the world's largest dictatorship."

Except that Chinese people (who, by the way, number 1.3 billion, not 1 billion) seem to disagree. About the same time as The New Republic hit the stands, the Pew Research Center released the findings of its 2008 Global Attitudes Survey. Of the 24 countries surveyed, the Chinese people expressed the highest level of support for the direction in which their country was heading, 86 per cent. Nearly two out of three said that the Beijing government was doing a good job on issues that mattered to them.

The survey questioned more than 3,212 Chinese, face to face, in 16 dialects across the country. And while Chinese might not always speak freely to pollsters, several indications suggest that these numbers express something real. Such polls have been done for years and the numbers approving of the Chinese government have risen as the economy has grown (which should be expected). Those polled did complain about corruption, environmental degradation and inflation. And these attitudes — general approval of the country's direction coupled with many specific criticisms — are also the ones reported by most scholars and journalists who have travelled in China.

China is a complicated country. It has a closed political system but an open economy and an increasingly vibrant society. It is building up weapons systems at a fast clip, yet is not directly competing against American military power. It has been helpful in the negotiations with North Korea but callous in shielding Robert Mugabe and the Sudanese regime. Capturing these realities is difficult, but still we have to try. To say that this new China is the same as the old (meaning Mao's totalitarian state) is to be ignorant or ideological, or both. It is not an accident that many ferocious China bashers have rarely visited the country.

This ignorance of today's China has serious policy consequences. We don't understand how the country works. We don't know what to make of the views of the Chinese people ("our true allies" The New Republic tells us), who are more aggressive than their government on many issues, including Taiwan and Tibet, and who often seem more anti-American. A recent essay in The New Yorker by Evan Osnos brilliantly captures the complexity of the rise of nationalism in China — simultaneously Western and anti-Western — through the eyes of one intellectual, an expert in Western philosophy, who is also the creator of a wildly popular nationalist Web video.

The collapse of the Doha trade round — the first breakdown of global trade talks since the 1930sóis vivid evidence that we have not found a way to partner with newly rising powers like China and India. If this pattern of misunderstandings, disunity and stalemate continues, there will be little progress on all kinds of urgent global issues — energy, food, environment, human rights, security.

There is enough blame to go around for the collapse of Doha. The Indians, Chinese and Americans were too obstinate in protecting their farmers. But the United States and Europe have not adjusted to the new balance of power. The last set of trade talks, in Cancun, was derailed by Brazil. These were blocked largely by India. (Dealing with these democracies has often proved as complex as with the Chinese dictatorship.) Our impulse is to criticise these countries for all their shortcomings, but in fact our goal should be the opposite. We should be making them feel empowered so they see themselves as rule makers, not free riders on the global system.

The greatest failure of Western foreign policy since the Cold war ended has been a sin of omission. We have not pursued a foreign policy toward the world's newly rising powers that aims to create new and enduring relations with them, integrate them into existing structures of power and lay out new rules of the road to secure peace and prosperity. If the emerging countries grow strong outside the old order, they will freelance and be unwilling to help build a new one. The new world might well be the same as the old — the 19th-century world, that is, marked by economic globalisation, political nationalism and war.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International

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