Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Guest article: Francesco Sisci on China's parochial "world" view

SINOGRAPH Parochial limits to China's world view(Sep 24, '13)
China's responses to the political crisis in Taiwan and to the Syrian malaise reflect distinctly different approaches; Taiwan prompting rumblings over the limits of democracy, and events in Damascus bringing stoic, non-interventionist silence. The common thread through both is a parochial approach to politics that suggests nationalism keeps Beijing out of touch with international destiny. - Francesco Sisci 

BEIJING - Three separate events evolving in the past few days are showing different angles of one problem for Beijing - its difficulty in coping with sudden crises. This should demand deeper cultural changes even before structures are modified.

With growing perplexity and surprise, Beijing is following the political crisis unfolding at the moment in Taipei. Very briefly, President Ma Ying-jiu has expelled popular parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng, who is accused of having pressured the judiciary into investigating Ma's friend in the DPP, caucus whip Ker Chien-ming. The crisis is portrayed in Taiwanese newspapers as a fight between Ma, whose popularity is at a historic low, and the large families controlling the nationalist party, the KMT: the Liens (honorary KMT chairman Lien Chan and his eldest son, former Taipei EasyCard Corp chairman Sean Lien), the Wus (honorary KMT chairman Wu Po-hsiung), the Haus (Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin), and the Chus (New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu).

All in all, it seems that Taiwan's politics are dominated by a few political strongholds that hijack policies on the island. In this fight, the goals and objectives are confused through pressure on the judiciary, investigations, mudslinging, etc. Those are all things that don't give a very good image of democracy at work in a part of China. The situation in Taiwan objectively dampens the already low enthusiasm for a process toward democratic reforms in Beijing. One-party rule at least guarantees that these face-losing power struggles take place behind closed doors, and at least appearances, so extremely important in China, can be saved in order to rule the country.

During the same days, China was a silent player in a political show that is very important for its future: Syria. China is objectively the country most interested in development in the Middle East, and the future of Syria could bode well or ill for that development. China is extremely dependent on energy imports from the Middle East. The United States plans to become energy self-sufficient in a few years, thanks to shale gas, and therefore is no longer interested in what happens in the Middle East.

Russia is indirectly interested in development in the Middle East, as calm or chaos in the region could create a global energy crisis or eliminate one, and thus influence its own energy exports. Because of its high extraction costs, Russia could be forced out of the market by low oil prices, which could happen if there is no chaos in Middle East, where they have lower extraction costs.

Therefore, China should have had a greater interest in advancing a solution in the Middle East, especially since its economy is over four times the size of Russia's.

China disliked the idea of the United States intervening with missiles in Syria, as that could have started a chain reaction, creating more chaos in the region and spiking oil prices worldwide. Russia objectively has less interest in preventing an American intervention. Chaos and energy price hikes would benefit Russian oil and gas exports. Yet it was Russia that intervened in the Middle East, offering to mediate and dismantle Syria's chemical weapons and creating great difficulty for the Obama administration. The Pope, heading a global Catholic movement calling for one day of prayer and fasting for peace in the Middle East, also contributed to America's decision to renounce an intervention in Syria.

This whole situation, though, showed that China seems unable to take charge of its own international destiny.

This may be good news for those who are scared of Chinese global intervention and China's ambition to become number one in the world. But actually, this enthusiasm should be deeply reconsidered. If China does not have a position in the world that is in accord with other countries, it means Beijing is de facto isolated - something that doesn't bode well for Beijing's future. Furthermore this isolation objectively could help nationalist thinking in the country, as these people consider the interests of China with no concern for the interest of other countries.

Russia, despite being an economic midget nowadays, was able to propose an initiative that garnered vast support in the world and actually helped America. This proves that the quest for political influence before moving on to military might and economic prowess depends on the ability to propose political plans and ideas that can be shared by a large number of countries. Russia seems very capable of multiplying the weight of its economy and military by using true strategic ideas.

China, conversely, seems intent on undercutting its economic and military muscle by producing no political initiatives or very naive ones. China should not in fact think of its economic interest alone. Considering one's national or personal interests alone, without taking into account the interests of others, moves into nationalism, it leads to a desire of conquest and annihilation. Conversely considering one's interests together with the interests of the other brings to the exchange of market economy, where both buyer and seller have to gain to repeat the transaction and be happy.

China can strengthen its growing economic and political muscle by proposing plans shared by the largest number of countries possible - that is, through China finding common ground between its national interest and the interests of the world. Having no international profile or a negative international profile only isolates China.

Russia, possibly also because of the heritage of the international communist system, which claimed a global ideal besides the narrow national view, was able to offer a proposal that cut a lot of ice in the world.

What do the Taiwan and Syria issues have in common? A parochial look at politics. China didn't want to put forth a proposal on Syria because Beijing feared making a mistake and it didn't know what to do or say that would be welcomed by the world. Similarly, it thinks political power struggles kept behind closed doors are better than power struggles in the open, which makes all of the leaders lose face.

Besides being held back by those who have an interest in preserving the political status quo, Beijing also believes it does not know how to move from its own present political system to a more open one. But an open power struggle, showing the transparency of the political debate, enhances the international profile of the country. All in all, despite all the scandals, the present political fight in Taiwan has drawn global political attention and much of it is good, as it shows a greater attention to the rule of law in the island. Moreover, internal political isolation may have a direct impact on the pace of domestic reforms (see US hurdles strew China's reform path).

But in both cases, China is projecting an image in the world that does not help it. And this is not just a projection; in the past year or so, it has become a matter of reality. Nobody has clear numbers, but many people in Beijing and Shanghai tell stories of huge capital flights. Many people with money are looking for safe havens outside of China, taking billions out of the country.

The common explanation for all this is that people are growing uncertain about China's long-term objective. They do not know what China will do in the future, so they are scared. This is a direct consequence of China's inability to move on the path of political reforms, which would demonstrate to investors in and out of China a clear long-term path. China's timidity on the global scene makes the country appear as a political dwarf.

The deep reason for all this is possibly in the third event of the past days. On Sunday China gave Bo Xilai, standard bearer of the neo-Maoists, ex-party chief in Chongqing, a life sentence. It was milder than his wife, Gu Kailai, who got death sentence with reprieve, but heavier than his former henchman Wang Lijun, who is to be in prison for 15 years. The sentence then indicates that, according to the court, the responsibility of this whole affair is mostly given to the wife, the husband covered up for her and the henchman was just the loyal executioner.

For Bo Xilai it is heavier than the 20 years sentence many people were talking about, and it seems to mean that Bo was punished for his defiance during the trial, when he did not admit his guilt and was challenging the court thus apparently rejecting a previous political agreement for his public confession. (see Bo breaks from script, but sticks to role, Asia Times Online, Sep 3, 2013).

Yet the issue of the resurgence of new nationalist trends, disguised as neo Maoist thought, is not solved as it remained out of the trial and out of the ongoing debate on the Chinese internet. The political issues may be too complicated to discuss in a public forum in China, but they might be addressed in the forthcoming Party Plenum in November.

The nationalist mindset seems to be the root of the problem. It is conservative at home and unable to take a global view of international affairs. Then it cannot manage to propose solutions which many countries see as reasonable. It considers Chinese interests in isolation, as if Beijing was still the capital of the old empire where everything stemmed from the Forbidden City. But that imperial dream is no longer, and no one in the world supports it.

Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore. His e-mail is 
Posted with his permission.

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