China: The hidden dragon is no toothless tiger
In 2007, Singapore’s first and longest serving Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew angered Beijing by writing that China’s rise created widespread apprehension throughout the region, while the rise of other large democratic countries such as India were either welcomed by most countries or else created little interest or fear.
The former Singaporean leader’s observations are correct. Despite being the second largest economy in the world, China has no genuine allies in the region to speak of. Beijing is intensely distrusted by every major power in Asia – from Japan, South Korea, to Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, to Australia. All of these countries have moved closer to America and each other as an insurance against an increasingly formidable China.
Why is there wariness in the region?
One important reason is that China’s future intentions are not just unknown but largely unknowable. For example, China’s transition from the fourth to the fifth generation of leaders will be a largely closed door affair. The country’s new leaders will be simply presented to the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2012, and subsequently reported to the Chinese people (and the world).
Moreover, the next generation of leaders will not be required to present their policies to the Chinese people, much less explain them. They will probably only issue bland and general statements about economic, social and foreign priorities to local and international media. These will be uncritically repeated by a largely compliant media that is almost all state-owned and controlled.
When in government, decision making processes are opaque and mostly left unexplained. More than 30 years after economic reforms, China still mainly operates in secret.
Then there is the suspicion that a government that does not tolerate dissent, justify policies and decisions, or even trust its own people will be a less compromising and more intolerant international power to deal with.
While economic reforms since 1979 are substantial (although far from complete), the institutions and tools of repression and coercion have been not just retained but modernised. China is allocating US$111 billion to the military-trained People’s Armed Police, an 800,000 strong Party army whose sole purpose is to control unrest throughout the country. That Chinese officials admitted to there being at least 180,000 instances of ‘mass unrest’ in 2011 is evidence that large numbers of citizens are discontented with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) despite high economic growth.
Since 2000, Beijing has spent almost US$1 billion on trying to censor and control the Internet. Its Golden Shield Initiative, commonly known as the ‘Great Firewall of China’ currently employs 55,000 people to do just that. All organisations – labour, religious and even social – need to be registered and approved by CCP committees. Attempting to form organisations independently of the Party is treated as a serious criminal matter.
Finally, there is concern about where China is heading. There are those wanting to reform the Party into a more tolerant outfit. There are also those in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seeking a more conciliatory approach to disputes with other countries, for example over issues in the East and South China Sea. But these more reforming and liberal elements have been losing position and voice within the CCP and PLA over the past decade.
China could yet emerge as a benign and constructive leader in the region but the trends are not heading in that direction.
To be sure, ‘fear’ is a negative sentiment, especially in response to the re-emergence of such a great, enduring and impressive civilisation and country. But fear – different to panic or outright hostility - can also be a prudent and sensible reaction. And planning for the worst does not preclude us from hoping for the best.
Dr John Lee is speaking against the proposition that ‘We have nothing to fear from a powerful China’ at the Intelligence Squared Debate on 31 July in Sydney.
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