- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009


Six decades after it was founded, the People’s Republic of China can truly be proud of its remarkable achievements. An impoverished, backward state in 1949, it has risen dramatically and now commands respect and awe in the world. But such success has come at great cost to its own people.

In fact, China’s future remains more uncertain than ever. It faces a worrisome paradox: Because of an opaque, repressive political system, the more it globalizes, the more vulnerable it becomes internally. At the core of its challenges is how to make a political soft landing.

In terms of post-World War II growth, unlike its Asian peers Japan and India, China first concentrated on acquiring military muscle. By the time Deng Xiaoping launched his economic-modernization program, China already had tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the 7,460-mile DF-5, and developed thermonuclear weaponry. The military muscle gave Beijing the much-needed security to focus on civilian modernization, helping it to fuel its remarkable economic rise, which, in turn, has armed it with even greater resources to sharpen its claws.

China’s economy has expanded thirteenfold in the last 30 years. Consequently, China has arrived as a global economic player, with its state-owned corporate behemoths frenetically buying foreign firms, technologies and resources. Add to the picture its rapidly swelling foreign-exchange coffers. Beijing, thus, is well-positioned geopolitically to further expand its influence.

Its defense strategy since the Mao Zedong era has been founded on a simple premise - that the capacity to defend oneself with one’s own resources is the first test a nation has to pass on the way to becoming a great power. So, even when China was poor, it consciously put the accent on building comprehensive national power.

Today, its rapidly accumulating power raises concerns because even when it was backward and internally troubled, it employed brute force to annex Xinjiang (1949) and Tibet (1950), to raid South Korea (1950), to invade India (1962), to initiate a border conflict with the Soviet Union through a military ambush (1969), and to attack Vietnam (1979). A prosperous, militarily strong China cannot but be a threat to its neighbors, especially if there are no constraints on the exercise of Chinese power.

Communist China actually began as an international pariah state. Today, it is courted by the world. Its rise in one generation as a world power under authoritarian rule has come to epitomize the qualitative reordering of international power. As the latest U.S. intelligence assessment predicts, China is “poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country.”

A long-term vision and unflinching pursuit of goals have been key drivers. But China’s rise also has been aided by good fortune on multiple strategic fronts. First, Beijing’s reform process benefited from good timing, coming as it did at the start of globalization three decades ago. Second, the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse delivered an immense strategic boon, eliminating a menacing empire and opening the way for Beijing to rapidly increase strategic space globally. Russia’s decline in the 1990s became China’s gain. And third, there has been a succession of China-friendly U.S. presidents in the past two decades - a significant period that has coincided with China’s ascension.

China’s rise, indeed, owes a lot to the West’s decision not to sustain trade sanctions after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, but instead to integrate Beijing with global institutions through the liberalizing influence of foreign investment and trade. That the choice made was wise can be seen from the baneful impact of the opposite decision that was taken on Burma from the late 1980s - to pursue a penal approach centered on sanctions. Had the Burma-type approach been applied against China internationally, the result would have been a less prosperous, less open and potentially destabilizing China.

Although China has come a long way since Tiananmen Square, with its citizens now enjoying property rights, the freedom to travel overseas and other rights that were unthinkable a generation ago, the political power still rests with the same party and system responsible for the death of tens of millions of Chinese during the so-called Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution and other state-induced disasters.

The greatest genocide in modern world history was not the Holocaust but the Great Leap Forward, a misguided charge toward industrialization that left 36 million people dead, according to “Tombstone,” a recent book by longtime Chinese communist Yang Jisheng.

That the Communist Party continues to monopolize power despite its past gory excesses is remarkable. This is now the oldest autocracy in the world. The longest any autocratic system survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet Union.

Although China has moved from being a totalitarian state to being an authoritarian state, some things haven’t changed since the Mao years. Some other things have changed for the worse, such as the whipping up of ultranationalism and turning that into the legitimating credo of communist rule. Attempts to bend reality to the illusions the state propagates through information control and online censors actually risk turning China into a modern-day Potemkin state.

While India celebrates diversity, China honors artificially enforced monoculturalism, although it officially comprises 56 nationalities. China seeks not only to play down its ethnic diversity, but also to conceal the cultural and linguistic cleavages among the Han majority, lest the historical north-south fault lines resurface with a vengeance. The Han - split in at least seven linguistically and culturally distinct groups - are anything but homogenous.

China’s internal problems - best symbolized by the 2008 Tibetan uprising and this year’s Uighur revolt - won’t go away unless Beijing stops imposing cultural homogeneity and abandons ethnic drowning as state strategy in minority lands. But given the regime’s entrenched cultural chauvinism and tight centralized control, that is unlikely to happen. After all, President Hu Jintao’s slogan of a “harmonious society” is designed to undergird the theme of conformity with the state.

More fundamentally, if China manages to resolve the stark contradictions between its two systems - market capitalism and political monocracy - just the way Asian “tigers” like South Korea and Taiwan were able to make the transition to democracy without crippling turbulence at home, China could emerge as a peer competitor to the United States. Political modernization, not economic modernization, thus is the central challenge staring at China. If it is to build and sustain a great-power capacity, it has to avoid a political hard landing.

Internationally, China’s trajectory will depend on how its neighbors and other players like the United States manage its growing power. Such management - independently and in partnership - will determine if China stays on the positive side of the ledger, without its power sliding into arrogance.

Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the independent, privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is the author, most recently, of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

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