What is going on? What happened to those idealistic students from 1989 who went on a hunger strike out of devotion to Western democratic ideals? Part of the answer is widespread ignorance about realities in Tibet fueled by government disinformation and pressure to supports its harsh official attacks on the Dalai Lama. But another part is the success of the Chinese government over the past twenty years in changing the basis of its legitimacy from promotion of communist class struggle to promotion of nationalist wealth and power. They have tapped into the strong ethnic and cultural core of Chinese identity. As a CNN commentator discovered, calling the government “goons and thugs” is interpreted by Chinese as a lack of respect for all they have accomplished.
A friend of mine who once wrote speeches for Premier Zhao Ziyang in the 1980s has written a penetrating analysis of how the PRC mobilizes both economic resources and Chinese nationalist ideology to limit or counter the challenge of democratization in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Its seeming over-reaction to Tibetan unrest has to be seen in this context -- a kind of “domino theory” whereby Beijing cannot tolerate demands for autonomy and demonstrations of democratic governance that include free political choice or an independent military. And (unknown to most in the West) the Dalai Lama, as the spiritual and political head of state for the full-fledged Tibetan government-in-exile based in India, has publicly endorsed demands for autonomy that amount to de facto independence, including free elections of all officials with final vested power in Tibet’s head of state, and establishment of a de-militarized zone with international diplomatic neutrality. This “greater Tibet” would include former areas of the Kingdom now part of the several provinces bordering the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Beijing’s top priority is to counter Chinese democratization in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet-in-exile --over which it has little direct control, and thus maintain its dominance over “greater China.” It has effectively used the “soft power” of identity politics, which requires “patriotic” loyalty to communist party leadership as the sole moral interpreter of national identity, of what it means to be Chinese. Any pluralist challenge to the party-state monopoly thus becomes a challenge to the Chinese nation and civilization. Any Chinese who question the state’s version of the Tibetan crisis becomes a traitor for putting Western values above Chinese values. Thus, conflict with the democratic West over Tibet, seen by outsiders as a disaster for China internationally, actually becomes a bonanza for the CCP internally.
Many ethnic Chinese who are citizens of other countries, especially younger generations, have come to share a pride in and emotional affinity with today’s “rising China.” They share a suspicion that talk of human rights or religious freedom by outsiders may have a hidden political agenda of shaming and weakening China by undermining or even aborting its “coming out party” -- the Olympics. If things go that far, there is a danger that 2008 could bring another downturn in Sino-Western relations like that of 1919, when at the end of World War I. the Western powers gave Chinese territory into Japanese control. Decades of anti-Western, anti-Christian prejudice among China’s educated elite again could follow.
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Meanwhile, the crushing of Tibetan dissent and tighter controls on the media and religion has spurred a new wave of China-bashing overseas. The Weekly Standard article of March 31st, “Gold Medal in Tyranny,” denigrates the “false hypothesis that hosting the Olympics would mellow Beijing’s ruthlessness.” He is echoing the views of prominent Western journalists who recently have criticized the “wishful thinking” of allegedly romantic China specialists, avaricious business leaders and duped political leaders who have assumed that the free market would automatically and inevitably liberalize Chinese politics, to the detriment of the U.S. national interest.
Two examples are the book The China Fantasy: How our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression by James Mann, former Beijing bureau chief for the L.A. Times now at SAIS; and an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on March 23rd, “Behind the ‘Modern’ China,” by Robert Kagan, author of "The Return of History and the End of Dreams,” now at the Carnegie Endowment.
These writings contain nuggets of truth. Proponents of market globalization have often romanticized its benefits; some politicians and rights activists have substituted rhetoric for effective strategies to shape change in China; and business execs and international Olympics officials could have used their leverage to require more of Beijing.
But both “pro” and “anti-China” arguments seem to share a flawed understanding of fundamental social change. They assume:
- a relatively short time frame and smooth, straight-line progress.
- economic growth and technology drive political change, without complex intervening social, cultural and spiritual changes.
- a monolithic China, with no struggle among diverse interest groups.
- external political and economic pressure is the most important or even the only means of engaging and shaping China.
In fact, the long-term strategy of engaging China by “enmeshing” it in international institutions and norms such as WTO (1999) and the Olympics (2001) has not failed. But the unpredictable ongoing process is marked by zigs and zags, cycles of progress and setback, which include the rounds of “loosening” and “tightening” of internal controls by the party-state over the economy and society. Significant social and cultural progress was made from 2000-2004 under policies promoting achievement of international standards in all arenas. Since 2005, in the wake of the “color revolutions” abroad and mounting social unrest at home, central authorities have sought to assert control over new social forces. These reflect the fears and lack of vision of a weakening authoritarian state, not a return to powerful autocracy.
Kagan notes that China is at the same time a post-modern 21st century power seeking peaceful entry into the win-win global market, and an early modern 19th century power seeking to maintain its empire. The Olympics was intended to showcase the former; Tibetan unrest has energized the latter.