How fragile is China right now?

IT'S not always easy to do right by China. Should you choose the path of unthinking flattery, you will eventually lose self-respect. On the other hand, should you take the path of honest public comment, praising where praise is due but not pulling your punches when issues surface, you run the risk of incurring the wrath of Beijing.

By Tom Plate

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Published: Fri 13 Jul 2007, 9:51 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:13 AM

Such was the unhappy experience of Norway's ambassador to Beijing. He opened his mind — not to mention his mouth — to the idea that the ruling party of China cannot continue to prevail as it has for much longer. In effect, Tor Christian Hildan, undiplomatically, predicted the fall of the Communist Party in China in a recent interview with the newspaper Aftenposten. The riposte from the Chinese spokesman in the country's embassy in Oslo was defensive: China is doing just fine and the last thing it requires is advice from misinformed Westerners.

But China is not doing just fine and perhaps the thing it could use most right now is more of the caring thoughts of Westerners like Ambassador Hildan and thousands of other Westerners who in fact are not - repeat, not — rooting for the breakup of China.

We are not rooting for China's collapse because we fear that the aftermath could prove worse than what now exists, because we appreciate that the Chinese people have suffered enough, and because we worry about our friends in that neighbourhood (Japan and South Korea, especially), whose tranquility would be upended if China's suddenly ended.

So making excuses for China is in nobody's interest, especially not China's. And surely this Norwegian diplomat is hardly the first to wonder how in the world the monolithic Chinese Communist Party of the People's Republic of China can continue to hold it all together. For all its wealth production, China today has spawned a titanic income gap between rich and poor, an urban-rural cleavage wider than its awesome Three Gorges Dam and a bubble economy that looks to be at some point inevitably puncture-worthy.

And so the ability of the party to ride out the rapid and wild rise of China is far from certain. Debate on this issue is perhaps as fierce inside China as in the West. The fate of the world's most populous nation is no small matter. In France, for example, a major philosophical clash has occurred with a sophisticated ferocity that perhaps could only take place among, well, the French. At its simplest level, it pits the opposing views of famous French philosopher Francois Jullien against his foremost critic, the French-Swiss scholar Jean-Francois Billeter.

The core of their semi-civilised clash involves the former's view of the essential Confucian superiority of the "People's Republic of Confucius, Sunzi and Laozi" — as he might reverentially put it — and the latter's view that any reference to Confucian ideology is little more than a transparent attempt to justify the party's imperial rule. Belleter worries that the mythification of Chinese rule beclouds the West's understanding of China's fundamental realities. Professor Henry Zhao of Sichuan University quotes Billeter in the March-April edition of the London-based "New Left Review" (my favourite intellectually zany "little" magazine) as emphasising the urgency of the current situation: Although "in the past the Europeans and the Chinese lived apart, this ancient separation is no more. Today we are facing the same historical moment, and should act together and understand each other." The return of Confucian themes in China and in academic writing about China is, "beyond doubt," writes Zhao in a deeply penetrating analysis, "ideological in its agenda, an attempt to fill the vacuum of values in modern-day China. Spurred by China's increased economic strength, the [Confucian] 'fever' will develop rapidly."

We observe China as the bustling and reborn baby of many millennia that is struggling to evolve into mature adulthood. But is its parent — the Communist Party — too strict for the times? Or in fact is it too consumed by private self-doubt to be tough enough to steel itself for the holding-together of the Chinese family for the long run?

The scholar or journalist pretending to know the final answer to this millennial question would be a fool, of course. But unless the inherent and unique power of Confucian philosophy is more as Jullien would have it than as Belleter would, the CCP in its present form will be hard put to ride the tiger created by the economic reforms over the past two decades. The party must increasingly accommodate disparate points of views — even wildly differing perspectives — if it expects to reflect the enormous debate and basically healthy dissent with the country itself.

If it cannot do that, though, then put me on the side of the undiplomatic Norwegian diplomat. The party won't make it. How can it possibly?

American journalist Tom Plate, who recently returned from a reporting trip to Hong Kong, has been since 1997 a full-time adjunct professor of communications and policy studies at UCLA. (c) Tom Plate, 2007

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