China needs ‘to hear its own people’

TIME magazine in its 11 January 2007 Asia edition published a very interesting article on the development of Chinese international influence. Entitled ‘China Takes on the World’, the article’s main point is that while China is now taking further steps in becoming the world’s next great power, international community (or to be precise, the West) should take a deep look into threats and opportunities it will bring as a great power-will be.

The article starts with some recent developments of China’s projecting its new foreign policy. It is widely known to Chinese watchers that Chinese massive investments and needs for natural resources have driven its leaders to travel a lot, from Africa to South America. Many countries have enjoyed good trade relationship with China that China is seen now as “turning that commercial might into real political muscle”. This may be the case when China also involves actively in six-party talks on North Korean nuclear problems, tries to make a better relations with Russia, India, and Japan, as well as builds a diplomatic offensive in Europe. All of this could be seen as signs that China is changing, that “after nearly 200 years of foreign humiliation, invasion, civil war, revolution and unspeakable horrors, China is preparing for a date with destiny”. This has led to some people even to think that the 21st century will be China’s century.

Perhaps nobody would deny that macro-economically China is ‘quite a miracle’, thanks to Deng Xiaoping with his ‘getting rich is glorious’ call. Nevertheless, I can’t agree more to the point made in the article that domestic turmoil may prevent China from becoming a great power soon. That China is rich is true if we take a look into coastal cities in eastern and southern China; yet, most parts of China are so poor. The article writes, “China is still a poor country (GDP per head in 2005 was $1,700 compared with $42,000 in the U.S.) whose leaders face so many problems that it is reasonable to wonder how they ever sleep.” What surprises me mostly is the fact that despite domestic problems, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have managed to visit many countries in all continents since 2003 – this proves that international influence is perhaps more important to Beijing than domestic one. Isn’t it interesting to find out that in 2004 Hu “spent two weeks in South America – more time than George W. Bush had spent on the continent in four years”? Or, have you ever imagined that Beijing hosted a summit of 48 African leaders at the end of last year?

My point is that China should also pay attention to its domestic policy at the same time it promotes ‘the dream of becoming great power’. I always believe that countries will be respected in international forum not from their military capabilities or economic power, but from how they treat their own people. China should learn to what happens to the U.S.: as their democratic ideals of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ don’t apply to most of the Americans, it loses respect from international community. When Washington forces the ideals to be implemented in other countries, often using hard power, there will be more and more people hate the U.S. If China wants to promote its international image as a ‘friendly nation’, which is very important for the sustainability of its economic development, it has to start with its own people.

Again, while acknowledging that China is developing fast, I argue that such a development may benefit itself as well as international community only if China ‘hears to its people’. China should not underestimate the power of domestic unrest; history should not repeat another Tiananmen. However, as China has its own value, democracy may not the answer for China (don’t forget that the Chinese has never experienced democracy – in its Western sense – during their history as a nation). This means that the West should neither force China to adopt democracy nor be afraid of the upcoming possibility of ‘the century of the Dragon’. However, I myself don’t see that any change to a better China, domestically or internationally, will be pursued under the recent regime or any future communist regime.

[This post was originally published on 14 February 2007 at]

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