In some ways China is not my favorite country. I once went to some trouble to learn its language. I have often had to court rightwing hostility for trying to explain its foreign policies in less than demonic terms. Back in 1971 I even organized, single-handedly and over Canberra’s opposition, an Australian team to join in Beijing’s Ping-Pong diplomacy. (Canberra in those days saw Beijing as evil incarnate, and its efforts to open up to the world via Ping-Pong team matches as a plot to take us all over.)
Yet, on my first day in China accompanying the team I had organized with such effort, I was almost expelled for trying to rescue an Australian journalist in trouble with the Red Guards. A few weeks later I was to receive a formal reprimand from the Chinese Foreign Ministry for trying to help more mistake-prone Australian journalists in trouble.
This, together with some articles I wrote showing less than complete enthusiasm for China’s disastrous Cultural Revolution, put me in Beijing’s bad books for quite some time. Others who slavishly praised China at the time were warmly welcomed.
But while it is easy to be annoyed by China’s hard-nosed realpolitik in choosing friends, it is hard also not to be annoyed by the continual anti-China carping in the West.
Here is a nation that has begun to lift one quarter of the world’s population out of poverty to close to middle-class prosperity in a generation. Yet we are supposed to be upset by suspect paint on some toys ordered to the specifications of a U.S. importer, plus a few other imperfections in the torrent of quality goods helping rescue our Western economies from inflation and improve our own middle-class existences.
China is accused of air pollution and gobbling up world energy resources. But when it dams the Yangtse River to produce over 22,000 megawatts of clean energy in an engineering feat that no Western nation can even begin to match, the Western media complain about the unforeseen erosion of mountain slopes upstream forcing villagers to be evacuated.
So it would have been better not to build the dam, force China to continue to rely on pollution-intense, coal-based energy, and go back to the days when tens of thousands died from flooding in the Yangtse’s heavily populated lower reaches?
Somehow the recent opening of the remarkable 1,142-km, 5,000-meter-high railway line into Tibet is also sinful because it opens Tibet to Han Chinese influence. So it would be better to keep Tibetans in backward isolation forever?
The Han Chinese are supposed to be guilty of creeping genocide in Tibet. But since Beijing allows Tibetans, like other minorities, to have as many children as they want while Han Chinese are restricted to only one child, it seems we need a new definition of genocide.
China, it seems, is also guilty for failing to protest atrocities the West condemns in Sudan’s Darfur and in Myanmar. Maybe it sees hypocrisy in the way the West not just fails to protest similar atrocities elsewhere, but actually helps to create them, as in Iraq, Somalia or Afghanistan. U.S. free-fire zones in Vietnam forcing villagers to live in underground tunnels for years make Darfur’s Janjaweed killers look like a bunch of amateurs.
Maybe we would all be better off if we stopped telling other nations what to do and concentrated on our own affairs, as China does. But the main complaint is that China is not a democracy. Has anyone thought what would happen if China was a democracy?
The first victim would be the unpopular one-child policy, which threatens to cause serious problems for the nation in the future — rapid population aging, a male-female population imbalance, the weakening of family values. Yet, without that policy, the global pollution and resource shortage problems we all face would be far worse. In a sense the Chinese are making sacrifices for our sakes. But they get little thanks. Even the one-child policy is denounced as evil authoritarianism.
Today few criticize Singapore, or Japan for that matter, both of whom chose one-party autocracy during their early growth periods. China’s blend of local democracy with reasonably responsible collective leadership from the top could well be a model for many other struggling societies.
Singapore’s continuing one-party rule suggests that even advanced Chinese culture societies could prefer Confucian-style benign autocracy to Western-style democracy. Democracy is supposed to be about freedom of choice. But our moralists complain when a nation makes a choice they do not like.
Even more annoying is the way the distorted products of myth-making are constantly dragged out to slam Beijing, as with the Tiananmen “massacre” of 1989? Just read the freely available reports from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing at the time to get the true story.
China attacked India in 1962? Read what the historians have long said: namely, that it was India that attacked China and China retaliated.
China wants to take over Taiwan? Almost the entire world now formally recognizes Taiwan to be part of China.
China crushed Tibetan independence in 1959? But no one, the previous anticommunist Chinese regime especially, has ever recognized Tibet as independent. And we now know that the CIA and India were deeply involved in fomenting the 1959 uprising that China felt it had to crush.
True, Chinese leaders have been far from angelic. They have yet to explain their largely unprovoked 1979 attack on Vietnam. Their mishandling of domestic policies led directly to the Tiananmen incident of 1989, and the many other localized riots that continue to occur. But post-Maoist Beijing has been trying hard to reform itself. It deserves more encouragement, less brickbats.
Recent criticisms of China seem aimed to neutralize the kudos Beijing hopes its 2008 Olympics will bring. For some reason the British have long been the most diligent. As proof of Beijing’s continuing authoritarianism the BBC recently went to some lengths to show a young reporter speaking execrable Chinese being refused entry to the closely guarded Chinese leadership housing and office compound in Beijing. Perhaps the guards remembered what happened the last time the British arrived there — the looting of invaluable treasures while crushing the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.
London orchestrated much of the anti-China black information campaigns during Vietnam War days. It has used the Tiananmen myth to persuade the European Union to continue its ban on weapons sales to China. Its former governor in Hong Kong, Christopher Patten, was openly contemptuous of the Chinese regime.
Coming from the nation that launched the two Opium Wars of the mid-19th century — wars that were to lead directly to many of China’s later troubles, including the loss of Hong Kong — the criticisms seem a bit indulgent.
Gregory Clark was a former China desk officer in Australia’s foreign service. He is now vice president of Akita International University. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net