Beijing. Flickr / ErnopThe awesome opening of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing was much more than an entertainment spectacle. It contained a clear political message for the masses of Chinese watching on their TV’s around the country, and for the rest of the world too. It was that China was great once and that China will be great again; that China’s moment has arrived.

Conspicuously absent from the opening ceremony of the Games was Mao Zedong. There was not even a hint of his contribution to the “liberation” of China and other achievements long credited to him. Perhaps it is because too many Chinese still have bad memories of the Great Leap Forward which left their families famine stricken, and of the Cultural Revolution which saw family members turn against each other in the political turmoil and persecution intended to keep Mao at the top of the political totem pole.

Or maybe it was because communism does not speak to the new generation of Chinese. That would explain why the opening ceremony had such a focus on Confucius and his 3,000 disciples. Although Confucian thought had been purged under 60 years of communist rule, it has been reinstated under President Hu Jintao, who leans heavily on the Confucian concept of a “harmonious society” to hold political dissent and social unrest at bay.

Clearly, China is at a crossroads. The direction it takes could shape the next 100 years for both China and the world at large, for good or bad.

To have and have not

Next year completes three decades since Deng Xiaoping turned Mao on his head to build a “socialist market economy” by opening the door to the outside world and allowing experiments with ownership of private property. What transpired came to be known as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. But during the intervening years it had moved so far away from socialism that the current government of China, led by technocrats Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao since 2003, started to take fright at the economic juggernaut that had been created.

For more than a decade, China had seen double-digit economic growth. But unfortunately, not everyone shared in its prosperity. The Communist Party’s version of “trickle down” economics had failed to see the wealth spread fairly around the country. While a small coastal strip from Tianjin in the north to Guangzhou in the south thrived, much of the rest of the country languished. Today the income disparity is largest between professionals working in the coastal cities, many of whom can earn from US$20,000 to $50,000 a year, and farm workers in the nation’s interior and western regions who get by on less than US$800 a year. An estimated 40 per cent of rural villages do not have access to running water. An estimated 100 million people, more than the population of Germany, transverse the country annually looking for work; many of them taking jobs in the construction industry in the booming coastal cities, despite low pay and poor health and safety standards: in Beijing alone some 3,000 construction workers are said to be killed in workplace accidents annually.

Rural school in ChinaCan more be done to help China’s underprivileged? Undoubtedly. If the EU is discounted as an economic region, China has the third largest economy after the United States and Japan, larger than the EU’s powerhouses of Germany, Great Britain and France. China is now a bigger producer of automobiles than the United States and in the last few years its economy shifted from being export dependent to dependency on domestic consumption for its high annual GDP growth. Indeed, China’s demand for energy and minerals has pushed global prices higher. China spent an (under)estimated US$35 billion on its military last year, and put a man in space five years ago. It’s determination to rival America’s superpower status comes at considerable cost. The 35 per cent of China’s population living at subsistence level on US$2 a day without access to adequate education, healthcare and drinking water are carrying the burden of the Communist Party’s ambitions to stride the world stage.

Under Mao, at least, many feel, they weren’t being left behind. Despite his absence at the Olympic opening ceremony he continues to be revered by ordinary people; it seems only the political leadership’s faith has wavered, perhaps because they know that house is built on sand and fog.

China’s lost horizon

The “harmonious society” motto, for example, is really just code for conforming to the requirements of the party and the state, while the government, at best, tinkers at the edges of much needed political and social reform. Official corruption and the failure of the rule of law continue to frustrate many. Since 2005 official figures have shown that around 75,000 “civil disturbances” take place across China annually. The real number is thought to be much higher. Most of these disturbances occurred in small towns and villages in rural regions, sparked by issues ranging from unfair taxes levied by local officials, illegal appropriation of land by property developers, and widespread corruption at the local level.

Most protests are quickly quashed by local authorities, some violently. A case in point is the handling of the devastating earthquake that hit Sichuan Province in western China in May, killing more than 70,000 people, and leaving nearly four million homeless and one million without jobs. Many of those killed were children crushed in sub-standard school buildings at the time the earthquake struck, while local government buildings withstood the devastation. Parents who lost children have raised questions about why the schools were not built to earthquake resistant standards like the government offices. Their protests have been quieted. In particular, the government has prevented them from speaking to the foreign media. Rumours abound that some vocal parents in Sichuan have been arrested while many others remain under the watchful eyes of local authorities. The national media, which started to ask why so many schools collapsed, has been muzzled. Instead, the Chinese media, in what can only be described as blatant propaganda, only reported on the heroism of local government officials during the quake. Since the start of the Beijing Olympic Games the victims of the quake have been all but forgotten in the massive media coverage of China’s medal haul and profiles of its sporting heroes.

Two ethnic minorities feel particularly aggrieved: the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in the western Xinjiang Autonomous Region that borders Afghanistan, Pakistan and the central Asian republics that once made up part of the Soviet empire. Both Tibet and Xinjiang are strategically important to China because of their potentially vast mineral resources and geo-political importance. But the Uyghurs and Tibetans feel their languages and cultures are being swamped by the large-scale Han migration into the regions. The Han make up 92 per cent of China’s population and dominate politics and business around the country. While China has pursued inclusive policies and tried to respect the traditions of its 55 other ethnic groups, Tibetans and Uyghurs feel alienated by the atheistic policies of the Communist Government. Indeed, Beijing’s demonization of Tibetan Buddhism’s top spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and demands that monks renounce their loyalty to him was at the core of the recent unrest in the territory prior to the commencement of the Games.

Dissent in both regions has been put down, at times ruthlessly. Imprisonment and torture are common, and in some cases the death sentence has been meted out. Western diplomats and human rights groups, like Amnesty International, fret that Beijing has been using security for the Olympic Games as an excuse to crack down on political dissidents from these regions, even labeling them terrorists. While there are terroristic elements within the Uyghur separatist movement, it is an exaggeration to try and portray the groups in the same ilk as al Qaeda and Hamas. Uyghur activities remain a far cry from those organizations both in terms of philosophical objectives and organizational ability.

Amnesty International, which raised a number of concerns about abuse of human rights in China in the lead up to the Olympics, alleges that “China is still the world’s top executioner” with more than 65 crimes, including non-violent crimes, punishable by death.

One of China’s winning arguments in bidding to host the 2008 Olympics was that playing host to the world would help the country to open up and liberalise further. But democracy, even in a limited sense, remains a dream for many Chinese. Many of the middle class and wealthier, however, have been happy to trade that dream for the material comforts that have come with China’s explosive economic growth. They seem little concerned with the plight of the other half of society. There is no political movement demanding a better share in power to address the wrongs that might be there.

The Chinese, rather, have learned to work around the corruption and inequalities that exist. The less well-off have learned, as the Chinese saying goes, to “eat bitterness.”

One world, one dream

Refugees from DarfurThe Chinese motto for the Olympics, “One World, One Dream”, is ironically Orwellian. While it was meant to convey a message about the spirit of the Games, it evokes a sinister image of China’s global ambitions. To be sure, China sees itself as a rising superpower, sparring with what it condemns as US “hegemonism”. And the Government plays to a fervent nationalism that sees any outside criticism of China’s policies and actions as an attempt to hold the resurgent nation back.

The reaction of the Chinese people to criticism of China’s policies and actions at home and abroad is difficult to fathom. But for the average Chinese, criticism of the government is akin to criticism of the people. There is a deep sense that the matters raised with respect to Darfur and Tibet are internal issues for the Sudan and China, respectively, and not to be interfered in by “outside forces”. Chinese genuinely believe that they do not have a responsibility or right to pressure the government of Sudan to change its policies in Darfur. Similarly they believe the West does not have a right to demand changes in Tibet; to them Tibet is an integral part of China’s sovereign territory and China has the right to manage that territory as it sees fit.

But the West needs to keep a vigilant eye on China’s policies and practices both at home and abroad. In both cases Beijing needs to be pressured to improve its behaviour if it is going to become a responsible member of the international community. China will understand and react appropriately so long as the rest of the world does not waver. Indeed, China has tempered its support for North Korea in the past, at one point turning off the supply of natural gas to the Hermit Kingdom in order to force Pyongyang back to the six-nation talks intended to keep Kim Jong-il from acquiring nuclear capabilities.

China has strong commercial and political links with Africa because of the continent’s wealth in much needed mineral resources. In 2006 China hosted a summit meeting with Africa’s leaders to improve its ties and push its commercial interests forward. Presidents and prime ministers came from all over the continent to hear the piper’s tune. China is undoubtedly in a position to affect change in many African states ruled by despotic leaders. But to use its leverage, China will first need to see that it is in its long-term interest to bring about positive political change in Africa. By supporting unpopular leaders, China’s state-owned corporations that are actively pursuing business opportunities in Africa may find themselves out of favour if the despots are forced from power. China is right now walking a tightrope in many African countries from Angola to Zimbabwe. It could do well by supporting the movements for change.

The West can play a part by pushing, albeit quietly, through diplomatic and business channels, for a more responsible approach from China. It is difficult for businesses and governments to be too loud because Asian cultures prefer quiet, closed door discussions on sensitive topics over public brawls and political humiliation. But it is important for the West’s politicians and business leaders to understand that quiet, back room diplomacy does not mean appeasement. History holds too many lessons of the failures of appeasement for it to become the approach to China.

But it is equally important that the Western media and Hollywood illuminati continue to exercise their freedom of speech and push China more vociferously for change in its policies at home and abroad. High profile celebrities and media focus on China does draw attention from the Chinese public and will ultimately lead to change, even if incremental at first. If the Western media were not effective the Government wouldn’t be so determined to block critical information from being reached across the Internet. And China’s growing population of netizens, many of whom read English, are looking for ways around the Great Firewall of China.

There is a small window of opportunity before China achieves its ambitions for superpower status. If change is not affected before then, there will be less chance for success when the dragon is breathing fire.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.

Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based business consultant.