What with earthquakes, toxic spills and bird flu ravishing the land, it is easy to draw apocalyptic inferences from media reports that China is sliding into irretrievable chaos. The earthquake in Central China’s Jiangxi and Hubei provinces was bad luck, but the run of coal mine blasts that killed hundreds and the petrochemical explosion that sent an 80-kilometer toxic slick oozing down the Songhua River towards Russia were products of bad judgment. Depriving three million residents of Harbin city of their water supply for the better part of a week was bad enough, but withholding information when the potential contamination of the food chain and relations with Russia are at stake is even more worrying.
Let us not despair, though, and instead see these events as fresh steps in a learning curve as China muddles its way to maturity. One need only glance at the progress in most areas of Chinese life to see the graph line heading up on a firm course north by northeast. One must also acknowledge from the outset that China is not a settled country with well-oiled, ever-perfecting social machinery that has been in place for generations. Instead, it is being cobbled together anew, a veritable "ad hocracy" with one thing added to the other in the hope that it will work better than whatever was in place before. It’s called trial and error, and China does a lot more of it than anyone else.
China is a country that has pulled itself up by the bootstraps in little more than 20 years and is racing to catch up with the world. Is it so surprising that things sometimes break down? Looking on the bright side of disasters, each one brings improvements. Every time a coal mine blows up, mine managers bring in new safety measures, if only to shield themselves from the harsh penalties which follow such accidents.
Even reports of torture in China’s legal system have a positive aspect, in that a United Nations investigator was permitted to tour the country to look into the matter, an authorization that would have been beyond imagination even a few years ago. While Beijing has denied the accuracy of the UN report, it’s safe to bet that the wheels are turning to ensure that such practices will be reduced if not eliminated very soon. China wants to look good in coming years and does not want to be vulnerable to such harsh criticism. The same can be said for plans to hold death sentence appeal hearings in public, thus placing legal procedures in accordance with modern judicial practices where justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.
It also must be remembered that the western world has become increasingly sensitive to everything. Behavior and practices that would not elicit a cross look 20 years ago are now considered intolerable. The only time one hears of "tolerance" today is when it is firmly attached to a "zero." It is a world which judges progress not so much on a record of achievement, but only on whether that achievement meets expectations of whatever critics imagine their world should be. So fond of faultfinding, the world does not want to give praise even when it is due. In an otherwise uneventful wire story about bird flu, the writer buried the real news in an obscure lower paragraph – that is, the World Health Organization praised China for its "textbook" response to the pandemic.
On China’s part, information flow, while not the best, is far better on bird flu than it was when the SARS scare hit in 2003. And while the old Leninist inclination to say nothing unless forced to held true in the early days of the Harbin toxic spill, policy quickly changed to something like the information delivery one might expect in the West. Again, a considerable net improvement.
The international media’s reluctance to report the positive is one of its key faults. Reporters seem happy to just highlight the negative, stressing the superficial view of the most apocalyptically minded expert they can find. In this way, they convey an unfair and inaccurate assessment of China and all the while cast doubt on anything the state media say.
It might even be argued that in some notable cases, western news outlets lag behind the state media standard in terms of information delivery, their veracity undermined by their practices. That said, China’s long-standing disposition to keep even the most mundane of information under wraps, or at the very least, making it difficult to obtain, only encourages western media to make everything as scarifying and sensational as possible.
When Irish author Brendan Behan said there was hardly a situation that a policeman could not make worse, he might have been talking about the media. Those following Chinese affairs in the press might well take counsel from another author, Barbara Tuchman, who once said, "things are five times less worse than they are reported."
Suggestions that occasional rural unrest will coalesce into widespread conflagrations to overthrow the government are truly over the top. Nor does it look, despite the vociferous views to the contrary, remotely possible that China will plunge itself into a nuclear winter-like environmental disaster, so beloved of the green partisans fanning fashionable fears.
While it is plainly true that China remains immature, it is also true that it is growing into maturity fast. There will be less to complain of a year from now than today, and less again five years hence.
The key relationship
Relations with the United States are the most fundamental element of China’s foreign policy, as is the case for all nations in the world. And China looms increasingly large on the foreign policy horizon for the US as well. Indeed, relations with China have become a top diplomatic priority for most of its trading partners in the developed world in the past few years.
The biggest problem for China-US relations for decades has been Taiwan. But recently, the US has begun to seem less visible in the Taiwan issue. That, plus the defeat of President Chen Shui-bian’s DPP in municipal elections in December, suggest a sidelining of Taiwan in terms of the relationship between China and the United States.
Looking back now at President George W. Bush’s November visit to Beijing, it seems like a non-event, which is not a bad thing at all. There were no breakthroughs, but no serious confrontations either. It could be said that the relationship is becoming more and more normal, business as usual. No longer a conversation between different universes, more a dialogue between members of the same global club.
US politics have prompted Bush and other officials to make demands for improved human rights and a higher valuation of the yuan. The political need to satisfy wounded domestic interests was appreciated by a savvy Beijing, which took care that the US$5 billion Boeing aircraft contract was announced during Bush’s visit, thereby ensuring he did not leave town empty-handed. In truth, the present positive tone to relations between the two countries owes something to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which induced the US to take into account its relationships with other countries in ways it had previously not thought necessary.
True, the trade imbalance remains a big problem, but China’s gargantuan levels of exports to the US must be balanced against the benefits to US consumers and ever-rising US exports to China.
It must also be remembered that China has done far better balancing its trade with the world than Japan did 20 years ago, or does today. Japan still has not managed to do what China has done in half the time. In the late 1980s, there were battles over foreign business access to Japanese markets, and today those disputes persist. In China, foreign businesses are allowed to operate with a surprising degree of freedom, and overall business is booming to the benefit of all.
The yuan, while still a hot-button issue in the US Congress, is rapidly fading as a matter of substance, largely because the market is unexcited by the currency’s limited float. But credit is also due to departing Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who in a rare plain-spoken moment said the yuan’s value has little to do with the trade imbalance, depriving protectionists of meaningful support for their complaint.