Page 1 of 2 In testing times, China's star rises
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - As a year fraught with economic turmoil and loaded with politically
sensitive anniversaries comes to an end, Chinese leaders can breathe a sigh of
relief and congratulate themselves for deftly navigating the nation through
In 2008, Beijing passed through the crucible of its Olympic challenge.
Cumulatively, this past year's challenges were equally daunting. But with the
West, particularly the United States, reeling from the worst economic downturn
since the Great Depression, the Chinese leadership proved equal to the task,
thus enhancing China's international prestige and influence as US clout
Thirty years after the US gave up its Taiwan delusion and established
diplomatic relations with Beijing, American President
Barack Obama found himself in an unusually vulnerable position during his visit
to China last month. When Obama campaigned for the presidency with an inspiring
message of hope and change, no one guessed that this would mean deferring to
Beijing on the international stage.
The dialogue between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao was cordial enough.
But, in a marked departure from past visits by US presidents, no one from
Beijing's growing stable of imprisoned political dissidents was released before
or after Obama's three-day sojourn, and human rights and China's undervalued
currency were politely mentioned but never stressed.
That is a predictable result when the US, with an unemployment rate of 10%,
finds itself in hock to Beijing for US$798.9 billion in Treasury notes. Such a
debt leaves little room for protest.
At the conclusion of Obama's trip, there was a lot of general talk of
partnership and cooperation, but the president could point to no significant
concrete achievement. Even his much-touted, American-style town meeting in
Shanghai was turned into an exercise in control by the Chinese leadership: the
students who showed up for the meeting had been hand-picked and trained by
Communist Party officials. Moreover, unlike addresses to the Chinese people by
past US presidents, Obama's attempt at bringing American political culture to
China was not broadcast nationwide; instead, only a local Shanghai television
station covered it.
Obama made good use of his time in Shanghai to talk up the benefits of freedom
of expression and a more open society, but only a relative few of China's 1.3
billion people saw and heard him.
Ultimately, it was a cautious, circumscribed US president who visited China
last month, and he was received by a newly confident nation whose leaders
firmly established the terms of that visit.
Never had the relationship between Washington and Beijing seemed more equal.
In a year that rocked the global economy and called into question the Western -
especially the American - financial model, China's leaders seemed to make all
the right moves to ride out the storm. A year ago, with Chinese exports
slumping badly as the global economy nosedived, Beijing announced a 4 trillion
yuan ($585.7 billion) stimulus package.
Officials worried that depressed exports would sabotage economic growth
targets, resulting in a big increase in unemployment and (the leadership's
greatest fear) social unrest. Chinese economists maintained that annual gross
domestic product (GDP) must grow by at least 8% to assure social stability.
The stimulus package, along with a relaxed monetary policy, helped the economy
bounce back from its slowest growth in more than a decade, a 6.1% rise, in the
first three months of this year. Growth rebounded to 7.9% in the second quarter
and jumped to 8.9% in the third quarter.
At the same time, the Chinese leadership refused to budge on Western demands to
address whopping trade imbalances by allowing the yuan, which some economists
say is undervalued by as much as 40%, to appreciate. China's trade surplus has
ballooned to $300 billion, with the US accounting for more than half of this.
China’s new assertiveness was also on display at this month’s UN climate-change
showdown in Copenhagen. Blaming rich nations such as the US for global warming,
Beijing’s chief negotiator at the conference, Xie Zhenhua, dismissed targets
for greenhouse gas emissions set by developed countries as "empty talk" and
shrugged off demands that China and other developing nations commit to cuts in
their own emissions. China is the world's biggest emitter of carbon dioxide,
which scientists say is the chief culprit in global warming.
Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei called US climate envoy, Todd Stern,
"irresponsible" and compared developed nations to rich diners at an expensive
restaurant who invite poor acquaintances in for dessert and then charge them
for the entire meal.
After two weeks of wrangling, all the conference could produce was a weak,
non-binding pledge by the US, China, India, South Africa and Brazil to limit
global warming to two degrees celsius. The agreement was unenthusiastically
"noted" by conference members and decried by poorer nations, with the Sudanese
chief negotiator for the G-77 countries, Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, calling
it "a suicide pact".
Prior to the climate summit, Beijing had made a high-profile pledge to reduce
its "carbon intensity" (carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic
product) by as much as 45%, but that will still allow China’s emissions to more
than double by 2030, according to projections by the International Energy
Agency. China’s carbon dioxide emissions will rise from six billion tons in
2006 to13 billion tons in 2030. That’s nearly twice as much as projected US
emissions and also far above the 2.3 billion tons for which India, China’s
rapidly developing Asian neighbor, will be responsible.
Yet there were no apologies for this in Copenhagen; instead of pledging to stop
climate change, Chinese scientists are now talking about "adapting" to it
without disrupting the country’s phenomenal economic rise.
As the new year begins and the US economy continues to sputter, forecasts for
Beijing are rosy; the Chinese Academy for Social Sciences projects growth of
9.1% next year amid plans to encourage greater domestic consumption and relax
the infamous hukou identification system for residency permits to make
it easier for rural residents to migrate to the more prosperous cities.
Many of those migrants will be headed for the nation's financial capital of
Shanghai, where the construction industry is booming as the city prepares to
host the world's fair, Expo 2010, May 1 to October 31. The 2010 fair is
expected to draw more people than any of its predecessors, further cementing
Shanghai's reputation as a cultural and financial center and China's place in
the first tier of nations.
Of course, such showcase events cannot disguise the fact that, while China's
millionaire class is growing faster than in any other nation, most of the
population remains poor. The Chinese economy, now the world's third largest,
still faces a huge wealth gap that poses a threat to future social stability
but, considering the economic perils of the last year, the leadership must be
pleased as the curtain falls on 2009: their plan worked.
Happy and unhappy anniversaries
Beyond the economic challenges of the past year, Beijing faced a spate of
politically sensitive anniversaries that all but guaranteed trouble. Indeed,
this was the anniversary year from hell for China's leaders, yet they managed,
albeit sometimes awkwardly, to see themselves safely through.
While it was easy enough in December of 2008 to mark 30 years of successful
capitalist economic reforms initiated by former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping,
the occasion also paved the way for China's critics to point out, by
comparison, the snail's pace of political reform as the country began its
potential anniversary nightmare year of 2009. Mao Zedong may now be a mausoleum
piece, but post-Mao China remains a one-party state, and most of what passes
for politics there is aimed at maintaining that status quo.
Communism as an ideology may be dead, but the Communist Party is alive and well
and brooking no resistance.
The 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising that led to the flight of the
Dalai Lama to India was a stark reminder of that fact. Tibet, which has
continued, sometimes violently, to resist the iron hand of Beijing's rule, was
under lockdown for the March anniversary. In March of 2008, deadly riots had
racked the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, but this year no demonstrations were
Still, although Beijing may have dodged an anniversary bullet, Tibet remains a
big problem. Along with ongoing trouble in the northwestern Xinjiang region,
home of the predominantly Muslim Uyghur people, continued disturbances in Tibet
serve to highlight the leadership's flawed policy toward ethnic and religious
Granting independence in these autonomous regions, as extremists demand, is out
of the question, but a new approach is long overdue. Demonizing the Dalai Lama
and exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer has not made Tibetans or Uyghurs in
China any more loyal to the central government; in fact, it has only further
alienated them while also making Chinese leaders look brutish in the eyes of
Truly engaging, rather than subjugating, Tibetan and Uyghur culture is the only
way to win hearts and minds in these regions. Including minorities in big
publicity events such as the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer
Olympics was a welcome gesture, but genuine dialogue with them is the only way
to make a real difference. Otherwise, the new year will spell more trouble in
Tibet and Xinjiang for Chinese leaders.
Again, thanks to Beijing's security blanket, the 20th anniversary of the June 4
crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square also passed in
silence on the mainland, although 150,000 gathered for a candle-light vigil in
Hong Kong to honor the Tiananmen dead.