Beijing fails the American test
By Benjamin A Shobert
Last week, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) released its
annual report on the state of United States-China relations.
The report made note of several long-standing grievances Congress has had with
China, most notably the country's currency policies and the ongoing lack of
clarity which surrounds their Indigenous Innovation policy; however, the report
made repeated efforts to draw the eyes of congressional leaders to what they
see as a worrying slip in Beijing's willingness to accommodate dissent and
pluralistic voices from within their own country.
This concern remains the Achilles' heel of US-Sino relations: since the first
tentative steps China took towards America in the
late 1970s, the justification for engagement with Beijing has been that if we
open to them, they will trade with us, a process which will ultimately reform
their political systems to make them look more like us.
As the CECC report states simply but directly early into its analysis, "...
economic and technological progress has not led to commensurate gains in
China's human rights and rule of law record." The commission report goes on to
write, "In the areas of human rights and rule of law this year, China's leaders
have grown more assertive in their violation of rights, disregarding the very
laws and international standards that they claim to uphold and tightening their
grip on Chinese society."
The strategy China has been pursuing was deceptively simple - or, as some in
congress are beginning to feel - simply deceptive.
What many in congress now fear is that China has no real desire to reform its
authoritarian political institutions or to empower the individual Chinese
citizen to more directly participate in his political process. If these
misgivings prove accurate, the United States will have empowered and enriched
an authoritarian regime whose desire is simply to stay in power rather than
foster any meaningful participation in political life for its people.
This would be a terrible betrayal of much of what has driven the two countries
together over the last three decades. If the CECC's most recent report is any
indication, Beijing would do well to signal more clearly to Washington its
longer-term plans for further political reform. Absent clarity on these
matters, Beijing will have to offer even more generous terms of trade in order
to keep America further engaged.
According to the CECC report, 2011 brought forward a test of where exactly
Beijing stood along the spectrum of American expectations. American hopes that
China was beginning to believe it could trust its own people to voice opposing
views without the country spiraling out of control were put to the test in the
days of the Arab Spring.
Fearing what has been called a "Jasmine" revolution, Beijing took steps to
crack down on dissent, including as the CECC writes, "... officials' increased
willingness to disregard the law when it suits them, particularly to silence
dissent. Beginning in February 2011, Chinese police took the unusual step of
‘disappearing' numerous lawyers and activists in one of the harshest crackdowns
in recent memory."
Writing about what the CECC calls Beijing's "disregard for the law", the report
states that "Following the crackdown, the Chinese government announced a draft
revision to its Criminal Procedure Law that would legalize such
These are admittedly troubling signs from within China that American
congressional members are beginning to grow increasingly uncomfortable over.
While they do not yet rise to the level of provoking many to voice an appetite
for disengagement, they are feeding the frustrations of many in Washington who
feel working with Beijing is not yielding the sort of progress that is
necessary to justify further engagement.
As the report shows, 2011 was particularly troubling in the area of political
reform as Washington hoped to see it. The commission made note that it wanted
congressional leaders to "Elevate concern over the increased harassment of
foreign journalists, who this past year have been beaten and threatened with
expulsion for attempting to report on events of public concern".
Similarly, the report notes that freedom of religion remains a problematic area
in China, specifically because the Chinese constitution only ensures the
freedom to worship what Beijing calls "normal religious activities", a term
whose ambiguous definition has ensured wide latitudes for government officials
to shut down and harass many churches during the past year.
Tying the two countries together remains not only the hope for ultimate
political reform from within China, but the enormous vested interests America
has in seeing China's economy further open. Here the congressional commission
wants China to understand that the attempt to separate China's economic reforms
from its political reforms is not going to be accepted by Washington.
The Commissioners write that "... the Chinese government's respect for human
rights and rule of law domestically serves as an important barometer for
China's compliance and cooperation internationally, from trade agreements to
issues of common global concern."
Long-held hopes that China's nascent efforts to make its village level
elections more independent have, as the CECC sees it, been unsuccessful this
past year. Specifically, the report makes note that efforts to let independent
candidates use the Internet to participate in the election process have
The commissioners write, "... the Party discouraged such candidates, and local
officials took repressive measures to stop them." Throughout the 2011 CECC
report is a common theme on this topic: the Internet remains something Beijing
is concerned over how to use without allowing it to become a tool that
ultimately unseats the party.
The country's leadership understands the great destabilizing force that the
Internet can become; after all, the Arab Spring was enabled in no small part
because of this. However, Beijing also understands that it must find a way to
peacefully co-exist (and possibly even exploit) the fact that its young people
look at the Internet as an important outlet for their voices.
The report notes that "Younger workers, born in the 1980s and 1990s, continue
to be at the forefront of worker actions in China this year." These younger
workers not only have higher expectations from the government, but they expect
to be able to use the Internet to learn from others and talk about ideas in
ways that Beijing is unsure how to best monitor and control.
Perhaps as no surprise is that 2011 has not marked a year where the United
States Congress believes China has done everything it should to make its
economy open to US business.
While the major thorn in the side of US-China economic relations remains reform
of the Chinese currency, the issues surrounding Indigenous Innovation simply
will not go away. The CECC writes,
... foreign investors continued to
raise concerns that China's indigenous innovation policy for Chinese domestic
development and ownership of technology is a means to force foreign companies
to transfer their technology to China and a trade barrier, disadvantaging
certain types of companies seeking to access some of China's markets,
particularly China's large government procurement market, including through
discriminatory use of technical standards.
China has long been
able to defray concerns over its halting political reforms by emphasizing both
its economic reforms and the opportunities American business has selling into
China's marketplace; however, as the 2011 CECC report shows, both the American
Congress and certain parts of American industry - in particular the high
technology space - are beginning to believe that the country is not willing to
play fair and if it is not, then we have no business offering them the
incentives we have been for most of the last 30 years.
That organized labor in America is no friend to China is not news, but what is
news is the increasing number of high-technology companies complaining to their
Congressmen that doing business with China is not possible on acceptable terms.
China should be afraid of this and should recall that even in the moments most
fraught with danger between the two countries, it has always been economic
opportunity that has knit the two countries together, a realization that could
incentivize Beijing to make some major adjustments to its indigenous innovation
policies in the coming year.
Even outside the recent frustrations over China's indigenous innovation are
long-standing unresolved issues related to China's state-owned enterprises
(SOEs). Specifically, the report makes note, "Industrial policies limit market
access for non-Chinese companies and in some cases violate the core WTO [World
Trade Organization] principle of national treatment."
Is this enough to finally upset the apple cart of US-China relations? Probably
not; but what continues to be obvious is that American attitudes from both
sides of the aisle, and from both labor and business is changing towards China,
and not for the better.
While the 2011 CECC report makes note of some positive trends in the US-China
relationship, it is also a reminder that all is not well between the two
countries and that much distrust and unease could still threaten a policy of
engagement that has been a pillar of the world for several decades.
Benjamin A Shobert is the managing director of Teleos Inc
(www.teleos-inc.com), a consulting firm dedicated to helping Asian businesses
bring innovative technologies into the North American market.
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