COVER STORY: The real China the West prefers to ignore
by Joseph Poprzeczny
News Weekly, July 5, 2008
So euphoric are Western businessmen and political leaders at the prospects of conducting lucrative trade with China that they downplay or ignore Beijing's repressive police-state apparatus and corrupt business practices. Joseph Poprzeczny reports.
Westerners are in danger of ignoring what is really happening in China because of endless media reports and political commentary that focus solely on what is described as the Chinese economic miracle.
According to China-born New Zealand-based academic, Professor Dong Li, growing numbers of blinkered Westerners are failing to present a complete picture of what is happening in his former homeland.
Professor Li, once an academic at the prestigious Shanghai International Studies University, delivered a keynote address at the annual Summer Sounds Symposium held in Blenheim, New Zealand, during June 20-22. In his talk, titled "What hasn't changed in China that should worry us? Wealth, authoritarianism and an uncertain future", he warned against overlooking a range of other, but seldom publicised facts.
"In the past 30 years, China has changed from an economically undeveloped, financially poor, and isolated (in every sense of the word) country to a powerhouse of the global economy, the world's number one creditor and a star player in the club of international traders," Li said.
The following measures demonstrate the turnaround:
• China's GDP in 1978 was US$143.3 billion. Today, after having grown 10 per cent annually for 30 years, China is the world's fourth largest economy, having overtaken Britain in 2005.
• China's foreign trade has increased a whopping 100 times in 30 years — from US$20 billion in 1978 to over US$2 trillion last year — thus making China the third leading trading nation.
• China is set to overtake Germany's economy to become the third largest economy, with a GDP expected to reach US$3.9 trillion; 27 times that of 30 years ago.
However, despite such dramatic growth, much remains "set in concrete".
"The most populous country and the third largest economy in the world is in the tight grip of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)," Li said.
"The CCP has a total monopoly over political, military, judicial, cultural, educational and economic powers, as things have been since 1949.
"What this means is that the past 30 years have seen unprecedented changes in the economic sphere and fundamentally a stand-still in the political sphere.
"The main source of the CCP's power lies in its absolute control of China's huge armed forces."
He said that, in addition to the People's Liberation Army — which was ready at all times to answer the party's call to crack down on any major uprising — there was also the well-equipped People's Armed Police and regular police that maintained everyday order.
In addition, the CCP's propaganda organs sought to control people's thinking, outlook and attitudes.
China now has over 2,000 newspapers, 2,000 television channels, 9,000 magazines and 450 radio stations, all of them coming under the watchful eye of the party in Beijing and provincial propaganda departments.
"On July 1, 2003, half a million Hong Kong people staged a massive demonstration demanding democracy; but across the border, not a single word was uttered about it in the Chinese press, radio or TV," he said.
Journalists who report the truth risk being "suspended from working", or even imprisonment.
According to the latest Amnesty International edition of State of the World's Human Rights (2008), about 30 journalists were known to be in prison and at least 50 individuals had been jailed for posting their views on the internet.
"People are often punished simply for accessing banned websites," Li said.
In addition, education and religion come under strict CCP control, and the Chinese government is a front for the CCP.
"Nominally China has its parliament, the National People's Congress, but its delegates are all appointed by the CCP," he said.
"The majority of the delegates are party and government officials. The rest are celebrities such as film stars, Olympic medallists, prominent academics or successful businessmen."
Being a National People's Congress delegate is basically like being included on the Queen's royal honours list. Delegates have no power, just an element of standing and prestige.
Moreover, although China appears to have a fully-fledged judicial system, with prosecutors and judges, these also are CCP appointees.
Li said a crucial fact most short-sighted western politicians, businessmen and journalists overlook is that this monopoly network permeates China's modernising key business sectors, thereby ensuring the CCP of funds.
"These include banking and finance, energy (oil, natural gas, electricity), air, rail and sea transportation, telecommunication, war industry and defence projects, and the very lucrative tobacco industry," he said.
"Of Fortune Magazine's top 500 global companies, 15 are Chinese companies, and they are without exception all state-owned ones."
The state ultimately retains majority ownership of most nominally private enterprises "by a complex system of accounting and ownership rights".
It is popularly supposed that economic development and wealth accumulation ultimately lead to political democratisation. However, as China has become increasingly wealthy and technologically savvy, the CCP has been spending ever more on all-seeing electronic surveillance systems to strengthen its grip over society.
"CCTV cameras are installed in internet cafes and even school classrooms," he said.
"In the southern boom town of Shenzhen, 200,000 surveillance cameras have been installed, and over the next three years as many as 2 million will be installed in that city.
"And these cameras will be linked with other forms of surveillance: the internet, phones, facial-recognition software and GPS monitoring to form an ambitious nation-wide surveillance plan, called 'Golden Shield'.
"When this project is completed, Chinese citizens will be watched and listened to around the clock.
"China will become a super police state — George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four will prove to be lacking in imagination."
Also rarely highlighted by short-term stopover visitors to China is the fact that one-party China has adopted Confucianism as its guiding principle.
Li said Confucianism, the most influential native philosophy, was best described as "paternalistic authoritarianism".
"The Chinese word for 'country' or 'state' is composed of the two ideograms of guo and jia, meaning 'state' and 'family'," he said.
"China is ruled like a family, where the rulers are parents and the people are infants. As 'Father know best', the rulers make decisions for the people, from what they are allowed to know to how many children a couple may have — namely, one.
"The people have no civil rights, no freedom of speech or assembly, and their participation in public affairs is tightly controlled.
"The trouble with paternalistic authoritarianism is that the rulers are not genuine parents of the people. Consequently, the rulers will not genuinely and sincerely be concerned with the welfare of the people as genuine parents are with the welfare of their children.
"Instead, with unaccountable power in their hands, China's rulers have without exception been corrupt, bleeding the people dry to accumulate fortunes for their own families. CCP officials have set a new record of personal wealth accumulation at the expense of the people."
The former editor-in-chief of the London Observer, Will Hutton, in his book, The Writing on the Wall: Why the West Must Embrace China as a Partner or Face It as an Enemy (Free Press, 2006), has said: "The morality of revolution — that the end justifies the means — becomes a morality that justifies corruption."
A 2006 Chinese investigation disclosed that the income of party and government officials was between eight and 25 times that of urban dwellers and 25 to 85 times that of rural people.
In a country of 1.3 billion people, the top one per cent of officials and their families own 70 per cent of the private wealth, and 75 per cent of all shares on China's stock market.
Dong Li said: "Of the 3,200 mainland Chinese whose personal wealth exceeds 100 million Chinese Yuan (US$18 million), 2,932, or over 90 per cent, are adult children of top Chinese leaders. At the same time, 400-500 million rural Chinese, almost 35 per cent of the population, still live on under US$2 a day, or at subsistence level.
"Paternalistic rule is supposed to contain leadership by moral example, but this element is sadly lacking in the Chinese version of paternalistic authoritarianism today, as the CCP is woefully deficient in morality."
Despite all this, China is extending its international reach and influence both methodically and aggressively among some developing countries which see China's approach as "an inspirational example of fast economic development under an undemocratic political system".
"The CCP is also an active and often the sole significant supporter of despots from Kim Jong-il of North Korea to Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. It is safe to say that, in today's world, scratch the surface of any dictator and you will find the CCP nearby."
Li said noted Israeli political scientist, Azar Gat, has rightly warned that liberal democracy is now faced with two challenges — radical Islamism and authoritarian superpowers.
"Of the two the latter is more significant, as radical Islamism, furious and destructive as it may be, is totally unattractive to most people and therefore does not offer a realistic alternative to liberal democracy," says Li.
"Authoritarian superpowers are attractive to many people and its replacement of liberal democracy is a real possibility.
"Should this replacement take place, it would mark a serious setback of humankind's quest for human dignity and a fair and humane way of organising societies."
— Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance journalist and historian.