Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Chinese question

I am among the greatest admirers of the Chinese people and of the Chinese nation; it is a matter to be celebrated that the Olympic sports are to be displayed in Peking over the next few days.

There are those who call China an inscrutable nation. It is an ancient civilisation and the present hierarchy can be viewed as little different from the other dynasties that have ruled it over many centuries. I would wish China to be democratic and liberal; but I cannot concur with those who state that democracy is necessary for free trade and industrial development.

It is also a nation racked by frequent natural catastrophes and even as I write I learn of another earthquake in its devastated central provinces.

Does this mean we should, like Lord Nelson, turn a blinded eye to developments in the western part of this nation? By no means!

The Chinese have usually sought a unified and harmonised state; and I believe their experience a century ago, when the country disintegrated, has reinforced this view. Such a philosophy poses special dangers however when rulers seek to integrate ethnicities and religions that are not in accord with their own. I believe that danger applies in particular to the nation of Tibet and the province of Xinjiang, which is at this moment causing alarm to the Chinese authorities. Xinjiang lies in the heart of the vast continent of Asia. The expanse of this region cannot be imagined; I have heard a reporter today describe this single province as being the size of Europe. These people I understand are Muslims, that is they are not adherents to a religion such as Buddhism which will encourage its followers to submit to an invader.

Without liberty and democracy it is inevitable, if regrettable, that they take to arms to advance their cause. The authorities call these fighters "terrorists" and I hear this word echoed by British government reporters. Perhaps they are freedom fighters. Perhaps they are misguided and should bide their time. It is a distant territory of which we know little and yet we should recognise the yearnings of all peoples at all times to be free.

I repeat that the correct approach to China is not and never was to condemn, to make an enemy of this great nation and its great history of civilisation. The level of enterprise within the Chinese people, their ability to make the utmost of those freedoms granted to them is to be admired.

The leaders of western nations should give this eastern Behemoth full respect. But diplomacy and trade may achieve better results than the bluster of a gunboat. Indeed we should continue to urge the advantages of democracy, of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

In the meantime let us celebrate the convergence of nations in the ancient and peaceful contest of the Olympics. Oh that all nations should declare peace for this brief period - as was the custom in ancient times.


Geoffrey Hussein Kruse-Safford said...

Some thoughts on the Chinese. On Xianjiang, there was a report on BBC World Service of a truck bombing in the provincial capital, which is something the Chinese authorities feared would happen as police are moved to Beijing in preparation for the Olympics.

In nearly five thousand years of recorded history the Chinese have ever known two realities - autocratic centralization and anarchic dissolution. While their experience during the collapse on the Manchus is certainly relevant, the experience of much of the current leadership under the Cultural Revolution (forgotten and even unknown by much of the rest of the world, but as horrifically Orwellian as the Kampuchean experience under the Khmer Rouge). Thus the armed slaughter of the peaceful protesters in Tianenmen Square in 1989, and the on-going lockdown of dissidents.

Part of the assumption behind the American approach to China is the false belief that economic liberalization will yield, in time, political liberalization as well. Behind that sits our own experience of federalism and decentralized control (a certain limited autonomy for our states in matters of legislation and taxation). The Chinese have never experienced that, and the call - for example among the ethnically distinct population of Xianjiang, who are also Muslim and not Buddhist or animist as are the bulk of the Chinese people - for autonomy and even independence is nothing more or less than an attack upon the entire Chinese nation and its history.

While it might be the case that politics be set aside for the fourteen days of the Olympics, the Chinese have certainly not set aside their practice of keeping their nationals separated from contamination by foreigners and their ideas. This is hardly in keeping with the spirit of the Olympic Games.

I also think that engaging China without reference to its autocratic ways at home is not only dishonest but strategically short-sighted. While I doubt the Chinese will change their ways - their entire history mitigates against hope in that sphere - we can at least be honest enough to be clear that their limitation of dissent, their arbitrary and corrupt legal system, and their repression of the near-abroad in Tibet and their far western provinces violates both international law and our western standards. It might not be in violation of Chinese standards, or history, but that's OK. While we can understand them, there is no need to approve of their brutality simply because it is part of their history.

Geoffrey Hussein Kruse-Safford said...

I wrote a sentence fragment in the second paragraph. After the parenthetical aside concerning the Cultural Revolution, please add the following: "under the Cultural Revolution . . . is far more relevant."