Scold­ing China won't help

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - James Zim­mer­man

As some­one who has seen first­hand China's progress over the last two decades, I have been deeply dis­ap­pointed in Bei­jing's treat­ment of Liu Xiaobo since he won the 2010 No­bel Peace Prize. The China I live in is one that has in­creased per­sonal free­dom and ac­cepts greater pub­lic dis­course than ever be­fore. Yet the face that China presents to the out­side world does not re­sem­ble the mod­ern and dy­namic so­ci­ety that it is work­ing to be­come.

Many of my Amer­i­can friends do not re­alise that to­day Chi­nese peo­ple are al­lowed to ex­press them­selves, pub­licly and pri­vately, in ways un­heard of 20 years ago. While clear re­stric­tions re­main, Chi­nese cit­i­zens can now vent on­line, protest in pub­lic, ap­peal to govern­ment for re­dress, and lit­i­gate in court. The vast ma­jor­ity of China's peo­ple live, work, mi­grate, vacation and en­ter­tain them­selves rel­a­tively un­fet­tered. This is a dra­matic trans­for­ma­tion.

Yet the govern­ment's over­rid­ing con­cern for so­cial sta­bil­ity has too of­ten been the sole pri­or­ity. When China took a hard line on Liu Xiaobo fol­low­ing the No­bel Com­mit­tee's de­ci­sion, it ob­scured from in­ter­na­tional view real ar­eas of progress. For ex­am­ple, pub­lic de­bate on the In­ter­net has been a ma­jor break­through in China, even if it falls short of Amer­i­can or Euro­pean open­ness. Con­trol re­mains heavy handed on topics deemed "sen­si­tive." One re­sult is that far more peo­ple out­side of China know about the coun­try's No­bel Prize win­ner than in his home coun­try.

De­spite these tight con­trols, there are green shoots of fur­ther po­lit­i­cal re­form. Re­cently, Prime Min­is­ter Wen Ji­abao talked pub­licly about the in­tro­duc­tion and im­prove­ment of demo­cratic prin­ci­ples in gov­ern­men­tal in­sti­tu­tions, and the en­force­ment of laws gov­ern­ing re­spect for hu­man rights and civil lib­er­ties. These pro­nounce­ments have raised both hope and skep­ti­cism. If talk of re­form is sin­cere, there is still much work ahead for the Chi­nese lead­er­ship to demon­strate full re­spect for a di­ver­sity of views. The lead­er­ship has yet to get com­fort­able with the un­der­stand­ing that ro­bust de­bate, even when un­com­fort­able, is a healthy com­po­nent of a dy­namic and durable civil so­ci­ety.

Clearly, in­se­cu­rity re­mains about dis­cus­sions of po­lit­i­cal re­form, no mat­ter how tepid they may be.

There is an irony that China con­tin­ues to demon­strate self­doubt about its own do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal con­trol at a time of Amer­i­can hand-wring­ing over China's rel­a­tive strength.

Even as China has come out of the fi­nan­cial cri­sis stronger than ever, Bei­jing's lead­ers re­main vig­i­lant about any per­ceived dis­sent by peo­ple like Liu Xiaobo. If China still needs to learn how to be­come com­fort­able with dis­sent, con­versely, Amer­i­can and Euro­pean lead­ers should un­der­stand that stri­dency with Bei­jing can back­fire. Chi­nese na­tion­al­is­tic fac­tions fre­quently use Western crit­i­cism to at­tack the mod­er­ate voices that drive eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal re­form.

For ex­am­ple, voices in China call­ing for cur­rency ap­pre­ci­a­tion to ease in­fla­tion were drowned out this fall by hard­lin­ers who ar­gued that Bei­jing could not yield to US pres­sure. The back­lash prob­lem is am­pli­fied on the sen­si­tive is­sue of po­lit­i­cal re­form. Nonethe­less, there are ac­tions the West can take to sup­port China's peace­ful demo­cratic tran­si­tion.

First, Western lead­ers should ap­pre­ci­ate that open and fre­quent govern­ment-to-govern­ment di­a­logue and le­gal, cul­tural and com­mer­cial ex­changes are the most ef­fec­tive tools. China came out of its shell three decades ago due to vig­or­ous en­gage­ment with, not lec­tures from, Washington and Brus­sels.

Sec­ond, we should give Bei­jing credit where credit is due. Those that de­serve credit are the mod­er­ate voices that have taken bold steps to lead China down a path of re­form. Un­for­tu­nately, few elected of­fi­cials in the United States would even con­sider giv­ing the Com­mu­nist lead­er­ship praise for its ac­com­plish­ments. Ac­knowl­edg­ing progress on prob­lems like poverty helps build cred­i­bil­ity on more con­tentious is­sues.

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