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    Greater China
     Dec 24, 2009
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 perilous times.

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 declined.

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.

Economic woes
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 reported.

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 minorities.

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 the world.

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. 

Continued 1 2  

Dancing the revolution away
(Dec 17, '09)

China reels under a barrage of criticism
(Dec 17, '09)



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