Friday, April 18, 2008

China Conundrum

I recently wrote about my views on the Olympic torch run through San Francisco. As anyone following the torch's unhappy trip around the globe knows, the San Francisco event was quite an embarrassment. Instead of running the torch along the originally planned route, a decision was made by the mayor and police chief to re-route it away from the thousands protesting, without giving even many police officers notice. A brief torch ceremony occurred at a secure pier away from prying eyes, followed by an unannounced run down Van Ness street, miles away from where everyone thought the torch would pass.
I went down to the embarcadero even so, which wasn't such a bad idea as it turned out. No, I didn't see the torch - that didn't really bother me - but what I did witness was a clash of perspectives and allegiances that are becoming all the more important to consider in a time when power is shifting to the East.

The two main conflicting groups present at the protests were, obviously, Chinese and Tibetans, along with their respective sympathizers. The Tibetan's, as could be guessed, had a monopoly on the sympathizer crowed, although a few socialists stood at the base of Market with a banner reading "Say no to U.S.-CIA campaign against China" - read on, you'll understand why. I witnessed tempers flare many times between rival protesters. The most memorable scuffle was between a mid-forties goateed man and an older Chinese woman, in which he yelled at her "we no buy Chinese goods anymore," as she castigated him inaudibly.

That brief argument sums up the larger issues involved in this debate on the Beijing Olympics: economics and nationalism. The nationalism aspect blinds both sides to the implications of their actions, and the economics of a rising trading power, feeding off of nationalism, brings conflict.

As I understand it, there are two main positions present in U.S. foreign policy towards China. The first position is that it is in the interest of the U.S. to continue to integrate with China so as to take advantage of deep reserves of cheap labor. This position is held by those who's interest it is to see the price of labor continue to decline, especially relative to capital. The more trade between the U.S. and China, the higher profits are able to rise as costs are reduced. The price of goods also fall, benefiting consumers. All of this integration, however, comes at the expense of workers. The second position is that China's rise will inevitably bring a precipitous decline in U.S. power. The opponents of rising China, are, obviously, fairly nationalistic. With hard economic times we are likely to see many more taking up this position. In fact, judging by U.S. troop deployments in the Pacific, those wary of China hold sway at the Pentagon.

Now these two China-policy positions often mix, being championed at different times to different people by the same politicians. If history is any judge, the second position is the one most likely to triumph as China bumps up against the U.S. in its quest for resources to fuel its growth. So far China has gone to places the U.S. refuses to do business in order to fulfill its insatiable appetite for raw materials and energy. These places include Sudan, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Iran, and Venezuela, to name a few off the top of my head. The U.S. and Europe has put up quite a fuss about China's trade with "rogue" nations, even as they too trade with their own personal brutal autocrats and dysfunctional countries, as well as start wars to secure resources. There are no good guys.

The interaction of all of the different interests, perspectives, and policy positions are already putting on quite a show in the lead up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. In the corridors of power, in both the U.S. and EU, many different political acts are being staged. Mr. Sarkozy of France is considering a boycott of the opening ceremonies, while Ms. Merkel of Germany has already committed to not showing up. Gordon Brown of Britain is less willing to anger China, and has commited to being at the Olympics ceremonies. In the U.S., the most cacophonous cries for a boycott are coming from the Democratic leadership, especially Nancy Pelosi - I think Ms. Pelosi ought to focus on getting us out of Iraq like she promised and stop being a hypocrite; was that harsh?

All of this brings up the question of what all the fuss is about? Firstly, its about the recent crackdown in Tibet. Secondly, it is about China's human-rights record. Thirdly, its about foreign policy.

As any reasonable person will acknowledge, China's actions against its people, minorities, and citizens of foreign countries have at times been cruel. Yet on many issues things are not as simple as many make them out to be. Take Tibet for example:

Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion was a feudal society. The monasteries and aristocracy owned most of the land, which was worked by a large underclass of serfs. China also had some merit in claiming Tibet as a part of historical China, although going back further than a hundred years to gain invasion license is going to be messy.

The first incarnation - no pun intended - of Chinese rule was fairly light, granting autonomy to much of Tibet, although in two provinces considered not part of Tibet, the Chinese began a land redistribution project that led to a general insurrection. This insurrection in 1959 was supported by the CIA, but eventually it failed. During the insurrection, the Chinese clamped down brutally and killed thousands. Since the rebellion, the Chinese have followed a sometimes-socialist policy, along with efforts to colonize areas with ethnic groups other than Tibetans.

The apparent undermining of Tibetan culture has sparked protests among many Tibetans. China views such protests, as any nation would, as separatist impulses, and, with the memory of CIA involvement from '59 through the 70's, is loth to come to compromises that would undermine its authority. The issue of Tibet has also been staked on principles of territorial integrity: how could the Chinese hope to deal with Taiwan if they were to spin off Tibet as an autonomous region. Add to all this the fact that China's steadfast policy on its rebellious provinces has proven to be pretty successful in holding the country together - Taiwan just elected a pro-Chinese government that wants to further integrate with the mainland - and it is understandable why China does not find it necessary to compromise on Tibet.

On its other inhumane aberrations, the Chinese leadership is just following the example of the rest of the international community. Sudan, where estimates put the death toll at between 180,000-400,000 with over 2 million people displaced, is China's main oil provider, and thus a major trading partner. I see China's involvement in Sudan directly comparable to the U.S. in Iraq, another country with massive oil reserves. Estimates of dead due to the U.S. invasion of Iraq are over 600,000 (John Hopkins University Study) with over 4 million people displaced. While China is giving tacit support to a genocidal regime, the U.S. is active in killing thousands of Iraqis, while acting as an occupational force. The majority of Iraqi's want the U.S. to leave, but the U.S. does not care. Knowing all this, it is a little hypocritical for U.S. leaders to preach human rights (lets not forget Guantanamo as well) as they are committed to a protractive war in Iraq.

The last question that needs to be answered is what the people of China think of the international reprobation of their country? They don't like it, as was on display in San Francisco. They see the condemnation of the EU and U.S., I believe rightfully so, as the first step in a PR war to delegitimize China, rightly or wrongly. Once China is brought low, it becomes much easier to create momentum towards war.
China by no means is a country that deserves much praise. But, by the standards being applied to China, neither does most other countries in the world. In fact China, a huge country with the infamously large million-man army, has been far less belligerent than the morally righteous United States.

Again, it is good to remember there are no good guys in foreign relations. Mostly everyones records have been irreparably tarnished. We ought to remember that and look for protesting positions that circumvent the policies of morally bankrupt states.

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