Wednesday, June 26, 2013

As China rises, will it become liberal?, my short essay on what China's rise means in terms of the global order...

Here's a short essay on what China's rise means in terms of the global order. Will it become truly liberal embracing some of the universally accepted principles and ideals such as rule of law, democracy, individual, media freedoms, among others?

It is not in India's interests to see a weakened US being replaced by China that pays no heed to some of the universally accepted principles and ideals like democracy, rule of law, individual freedoms, among others. India should be mindful of what awaits them in a post-US dominant world. What will the global order look like under Chinese dominance? Does India have the ability and willingness to try and shape a world order in the coming decade that is more congenial to its interests?

For the full essay, click here.

This is not to suggest that China may never come to accept the above-said universal values. In fact, in 2010, while addressing the graduates of the leading business schools, Qin Xiao, chairman of a state-owned bank, China Merchants, urged them to follow "universal values" like freedom and democracy. While this debate has caught on in China as well, this is not across the board. But more importantly, this may only be a means to achieve a larger objective of becoming number one power. Until and unless the power transition happens where China clearly emerges as the number one, Beijing may adopt or embrace the values and practices that it thinks might help it get there.

On the other hand, one might argue that China does not need these principles to get there and that it is primarily its economic might that has made its rise so phenomenal in the last few years. While there is merit in such articulations, the threat and destabilising consequences of China's rise have been debated intensely over the last decade. Chinese leadership has tried to convey that its rise is going to be peaceful but there has been a teeny-weeny problem - the Chinese actions have not matched their words. Others, particularly China's neighbours, are not convinced that China's rise will be peaceful, considering China's behaviour over the last few years. In such a scenario, embracing such universal values and ideals may help in diluting or softening China's image. It may also help build up China's image - an image of a China that is respectful of rule of law, individual and media freedoms and adherent of human rights and such practices. This might provide China a shield, contrasting with the image that China does not shy away from the threat or even use of force, in its dealings with other states.

On the other hand, it is unlikely that China will ever embrace these universal values as these are seen as threats to the one-party rule by the Communist Party.

What has strengthened China's claim to be a great power in the last few years was their ability to come out relatively untouched by the 2008 global financial crisis. This along with their ability to lend money to the financially-battered Europe gave China a huge boost in their dealing within the region and beyond. This new-found confidence has not created a China that is at peace with itself. During the same period that China became economically powerful, one has seen further tightening on personal freedoms of citizens, in terms of stringent online censoring, serious actions against dissidents, human rights activists and so on. Therefore, the argument that better economic performance and greater economic interdependence in a globalised world will lead to greater political and other kinds of freedoms is unfounded, at least in the case of China.

It is also a fact that China's economic performance over the last decade has changed the economic status and living standards of a large section of its people and that the citizens were willing to forego some of their freedoms for a better life, though it is doubtful how long this compromise would last. The continuing rhetoric of social good, harmony, mostly publicised through neo-Confucianism, also helps the party to strengthen its political legitimacy. All these may be amenable to Chinese citizens. But if China were to shape a world order that might be bereft of some of these universally accepted principles, it may be problematic for many countries, including India.

Having said that, China has time on its side for reforms. After all, the 19th century Japan and Germany did not embrace liberal ideas until much later in their development process. A strong centre with less space for individualism marked those regimes too in the early stages of their growth. With major emphasis on public good and welfare, individual freedoms fared no chance.

China already has some of the trappings of a major power, but it is not there yet. So it could set in motion the process of instituting political processes at a pace that does not break the system.

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