Tuesday, August 5, 2008

China Today

Beyond Beijing Olympics

From The Statesman
ND Batra

China seems to be a nation that is inebriated with great expectations about its future, while rest of the world is just struggling to get along with bad debts, spiralling prices and random bursts of terrorism.

From die-hard communism to marketplace capitalism has been a long march indeed, though not what Mao Zedong might have conceived. But that is in fact a great tribute to China’s genius, its adaptability and resilience, creating the perception of China’s relentless and inevitable rise to a global superpower. Today China is healthier, better-educated, richer and more optimistic about its progress than most other developing countries. A recent Pew Global Attitudes Project survey showed that 86 per cent of the Chinese said they were happy with their country’s direction provided by the Communist Party.

China fascinates the global corporate with its controlled narratives of boundless opportunities and more so with the power of its ruling party’s collective will that rules 1.3 billion hardworking, entrepreneurial and yet obedient masses. China has come to believe that since the world cannot do without its inexpensive goods and talents, there’s not much to worry about intellectual property, currency manipulation to boost exports, massive trade surpluses, and rising foreign exchange reserves that end up as US Treasury notes, so no harm done.

Now the whole world is waiting for the 2008 Games to open ~ hopefully ~ under Beijing’s clear blue skies “to refashion the Olympics from a sports and merchandising extravaganza to an engine of political and social change”, as The Wall Street Journal had optimistically put it once upon a time. China won the right to host the Games in spite of its record about human rights of the people of Tibet, the followers of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, and political dissidents and scholars, some in jail waiting for a fair trial. Doing business with China is more important than human rights, though Americans along with rest of the world go on paying lip service to the issue. The US House of Representatives passed a near unanimous resolution (419-1) last Wednesday criticising China’s human rights record. President George W Bush will be attending the Olympics but last Tuesday he met a group of Chinese dissidents and promised to raise the human rights issue. China of course protested, and that’s the end.

Trade and the Olympics had little humanising effect upon Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union; therefore, to expect wonders to happen in China because of the Olympics in 2008 or increasing international trade is expecting too much from China’s monolithic system. It is doubtful if rising prosperity would persuade China’s Communist Party to loosen its control over power and become less authoritarian. Since China took the road to capitalism about three decades ago, its economy has been opening up and growing rapidly with its gross national product (GNP) rising to more than 9 per cent annually, which has made the Chinese, especially its elite and entrepreneurial classes, ultra nationalistic and patriotic.

Tiananmen has been wiped out from the nation’s historical memory.

Many long-term economic benefits would accrue from the 2008 Games because the whole enterprise has necessitated massive investment, billions of dollars in infrastructure and information technology to modernise and showcase Beijing for the events. Hundreds of thousands of tourists are pouring into China and the organisers hope that apart from enjoying the Games they would admire the rise of new China. China seeks global acknowledgement and respect for its achievements.

China feels that it can compete with the best without the noise and chaos of an open society like the United States, where the people demand accountability from their political leaders. No wonder Beijing with the help of US telecommunication companies, Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and Cisco, has been trying to expand its control into the digital domain. Social scientists say that large centralised political systems break down due to internal pressures triggered by communications technology, unless they have built-in capabilities for adjustment.

So it is too early to say what might happen in China in the age of the Internet, satellites, cell phones and hosts of other wireless, digital, and interconnected sensing devices that are becoming available to the masses. China might succeed in controlling the digital generation and guide it into a nationalistic upsurge as it happened during the recent Tibet protests. Some US corporations cannot stop thinking that by offering selective partnership to Chinese businesses they would be able to co-opt China’s brain-power. For example, after selling its ThinkPad to a Chinese company, Lenovo Group Ltd. in 2005, IBM alerted the public about the inevitability of China’s rise and the need to harness its strength for corporate America. A full-page advertisement amusingly admonished: “The future is a dragon. Do you hear it coming?” The IBM boasted of access to a global pool of Nobel laureates, research labs and no less than 3,000 scientists, engineers and technologists. Instead of paying the salaries of scientists and technologists to solve complex problems, the ad asked, wouldn’t it be great simply “to rent their minds?”

Renting brain-power from China for doing specific jobs may sound more acceptable than outsourcing, but post-Olympics China’s intellectual and manufacturing power may no longer be available for renting. The Japanese too have been hearing the dragon coming. In 2005, the Chinese government permitted loud and sometime violent protests against Japan in several big industrial cities, including Shanghai and Hong Kong, regarding Japanese insensitivities to their bruised feelings.

The Chinese claimed that their feelings had been hurt because some Japanese school textbooks showed no regrets about the atrocities the Japanese troops had committed against them during World War II. There were other reasons. Japan had begun to explore undersea oil and gas deposits in a disputed region of East China Sea; and of course Japan’s continuous strategic alliance with the US regarding the Taiwan issue has been an irritant. When Japan asked for an apology and compensation for vandalism and damage to its diplomatic and commercial property, China said it had nothing to apologise about. Before the street protests, the Chinese government had allowed an online petition drive by millions of Chinese against Japan’s effort to seek permanent membership of the UN Security Council. The unprecedented online phenomenon showed how China could mobilise its masses.

Just as the Chinese authorities aroused the Chinese to come out and protest against Japan, with the same speed they ordered protesters to shut up. The Communist Party is capable of generating and controlling mass enthusiasm through nationalism, as it is doing for the Games now. It will be interesting to see how the Games affect China as the world turns.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University)

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