At a recent state dinner in London for visiting People’s Republic of China (PRC) Premier Li Keqiang, British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made a number of undiplomatic comments, saying that the people of China were “politically shackled” to a communist one-party state guilty of human rights abuses. Unsurprisingly, given this government’s economic drive, Downing Street distanced itself from the statement, with Michael Fallon, the business minister, saying that human rights should not “get in the way” of trade links. Instead, UK Inc. reported that BP and Shell were due to announce multi-billion dollar deals with PRC oil companies. Indeed, investment from the entire visit by the PRC delegation was said to be worth more than 18 billion pounds. That, it seemed, was that.
Until recently, the policy approach of many Western nations towards the PRC has been based on a singular assumption. This assumption was that the West would do business with an authoritarian regime because it was thought that engagement would change the nature of that regime. In simple terms, trade would change the PRC from within, by building a middle class. The Clinton White House was the first to translate this assumption into policy – in 1994, Clinton delinked trade from advances in human rights and political reform, and, in addition to giving China most favored nation (MFN) status, signed a trade deal in 1999, which helped China accede to the World Trade Organization. The Americans were not alone. Japan, Taiwan, ROK and many EU states like Germany, the UK, and France encouraged trade ties with the seemingly reform-minded authoritarian regime. Many billions of dollars were injected into the country.
So far, business has been good. No one can deny that the economic rise of China has been a triumphant success of the capitalist model: Beijing’s double-digit growth rates have dominated Western headlines for nearly two decades. An unprecedented influx of US, Japanese, Taiwanese and EU investment has rapidly changed the Chinese economy from a backwater to a global powerhouse less than two decades after Deng’s Southern Tour. As the World Bank and others have pointed out, China has lifted more than 500 million of its citizens out of poverty since market reforms began, an incredible humanitarian achievement. If anyone fretted that the Communist Party had not yet relaxed political control over its citizens, optimists would simply add a sotto voce ‘yet’. After all, money was coming in, and it would only be a matter of time before China’s intelligentsia and growing middle class began to clamor for political rights, as had their predecessors in restoration Britain and revolutionary France.
To date – sadly – nothing of the kind has happened. True, the average Chinese citizen now enjoys liberties that his parents could scarcely dream of during the Cultural Revolution, such as the ability to own property or travel within and outside of the PRC. But, overall, the trajectory of human rights in China is not promising. In fact, China’s ‘miracle’ can be summarized in three critiques: First, the PRC has not built a liberal capitalist system, but rather a corrupt, oligarchic one that features the largest income disparity in the world. According to a study by the University of Michigan, based on Peking University statistics, the PRC has greater income disparity than even the US. Much of the new wealth in the PRC is concentrated in relatively few hands, particularly those of Party officials or their relatives.
Second, despite a brief respite during the Beijing Olympics, government control of political speech has become more rather than less restrictive. Over the past decade, Beijing has spared no expense building a great Fire Wall to control Chinese netizens’ access to the internet. Furthermore, since Xi Jinping has taken office, there has been a crackdown on online forums, bloggers and netizens who voice political opinions online, with three-year prison sentences becoming standard. In early May, a prominent journalist, Gao Yu, was detained as part of a targeted campaign against activists in the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, an anniversary that was eerily silent in Beijing.
The final criticism and perhaps the most significant from a global perspective is a function of the PRC’s growing global influence. In trade terms, China’s rise has been a boon to many countries, but, in terms of global security, it has been extremely negative. China has openly supported authoritarianism around the world and blocked humanitarian efforts in Sudan, Libya, and Syria, among other places. When the West was attempting to isolate Russia for its expansionism in Crimea, Beijing decided to sign massive natural gas projects with Moscow, with Xi offering Putin a new security pact seemingly against the West. Nor has this negative influence been merely in other regions. One has only to look at how the stability of Southeast Asia deteriorated in the 1990s under the pressure of Chinese maritime claims. Few regional experts now believe that the PRC can become the responsible stakeholder they thought it might become. May and June of this year saw the PRC accelerate its efforts to absorb the globally vital South China Sea, bludgeoning aside Vietnamese and Philippine protests. Its incremental strategy in this and the East China Sea has severely shaken the confidence of ASEAN, Japan, and other maritime states that depend on the waterway.
As many in Washington, Tokyo and Brussels have realized with dismay, the dream that China would liberalize politically has faded. The Western notion of a ‘China Dream’ has been replaced by the ‘China Dream’ of the Communist Party. Worse still, it is not China but the West that has been compromised by this ‘Faustian bargain.’ As the recent deal between the PRC and the United Kingdom shows, it is increasingly difficult to discuss human rights or values, lest they get in the way of trade. A human rights specialist that I recently interviewed, who took part in many EU-China Human Rights Dialogues (and who chooses to remain unnamed), said of her work, “There might have been initial idealism on the European side at the beginning, but that soon gave way in the face of Chinese hard play and our own diverse economic interests… In the end, [the dialogue] was mostly for show with economic aspects being tacitly paramount.” In many ways, this could summarize Western human rights dialogue with China as a whole. In the 1990s, there was optimism that China could be Westernized. The truth is that the PRC has changed the West and made it more accepting of authoritarianism.
No one is suggesting that China needs to be contained or that trade should cease, but the bargain that has been struck needs to be rethought. In particular, the heritage of the Enlightenment – of unmistakable progress in the fields of human ideas, politics and social justice – must be guarded more carefully, especially as Party-run centers like the Confucius Institutes embed themselves in Western universities and seek to restrict debate. On the whole, Europeans must become more mindful of the PRC, and realize that our earlier assumptions about its inevitable democratization were wrong. Once that lesson has been absorbed, the PRC can be examined with fresh eyes.
John Hemmings is an Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS and a doctoral candidate in the International Relations Department at the LSE, where he is working on a thesis on strategic hedging, alliance structures and security policy in the Asia Pacific.
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