In a speech given just before the 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress in 2007, Premier Wen Jiabao rebuked those agitating for political reform and told a domestic gathering of policymakers and intellectuals that China would not be ready for democracy for 100 years. Maybe Wen was merely stating a fact but events over the past week suggest that China might not be ready to assume leadership in the region, let alone the world, for perhaps almost as long.
Several months ago, a group of state-sponsored Chinese scholars released a best-selling new book entitled Unhappy China—The Great Time, Grand Vision and Our Challenges. It argued that given the growth of Chinese national strength, China should put prudence aside, break away from Western influence and come to recognise that it has the power to lead the world.
But one high-profile critic of the book is Hu Xingdou, a highly respected economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. Hu called its publication a sign of the "ideological chaos" in China. According to Hu, extreme nationalism is not the answer. More than this, he argued that China is not ready to lead. In Hu's opinion, China cannot yet exercise international leadership because its "value systems"—cultural, political and ideological—are not yet part of the regional or international mainstream. Beijing's example is not an attractive one for other countries. Subsequently, reserves of "soft power" required for leadership are far from adequate.
Two events in the past week bring out Hu's arguments.
First, tensions in Xinjiang, as in Tibet, are complex. There were acts of violence against both Han Chinese and indigenous Uighurs. But the root cause is a combination of historical animosity, as well as the systematic cultural and economic suppression of ethnic minorities. In China, Beijing has a genuinely held stated goal of social "harmony" but this is defined as harmony under the dominant Han culture. Beijing's respect for the different minority cultures within its country is still superficial and for show.
There is no better example than the children in traditional dress, representing the 56 different ethnic groups within modern China, who were paraded to the world at the Olympic Games opening ceremony last year. It was subsequently discovered that the children were all from the majority Han Chinese race.
Second, the detention and arrest of the Australian mining giant Rio Tinto's Shanghai-based executive, Stern Hu, an Australian citizen of Han Chinese heritage on charges of espionage for illegally attaining commercial information, is deeply worrying. The fact that the arrest comes shortly after a failed bid by the Chinese state-owned company Chinalco to increase its stake in Rio Tinto is unlikely to be purely coincidental.
Moreover, although details of what Hu is alleged to have done have still not been revealed, the fact that he has been arrested for spying and charged with causing grave economic loss to the Chinese state, thereby causing harm to China's national interests, is indefensible. It merely confirms again that Beijing has grave difficulty separating the public and the private—differentiating national and security interests from normal commercial and business ones.
The fact that Chinese courts at all levels explicitly remain under the ultimate jurisdiction of the Chinese Communist Party also means that judicial due process in China which Hu will be subject to has a very different meaning to what we call "rule of law."
For China to displace America as the regional hegemon, other Asian states need to accept the legitimacy and desirability of Chinese pre-eminence and leadership. Although Asian states generally use a "realist" framework in their foreign policy outlook, they still recognise that what Hu Xingdou calls domestic value systems—cultural, political and ideological—have strategic and practical significance. Asian populations can sometimes find American rhetoric about values shrill and annoying, but they also accept that America has largely delivered on its rhetoric and has provided a stable, fair, open and liberal order for the region to thrive since World War II.
Unless compelled by the threat of overwhelming existential force or left no option by American withdrawal, Asian states will not accept Chinese leadership, let alone dominance, in the region while Beijing's value systems remain closed, intolerant to differences, vengeful and overbearing.
Much has been said about Beijing's advances in building its soft power. This is overstated. In soft power terms, China has plucked what diplomats might call "low-hanging fruit." It has convinced the region it is a legitimate rising power—that its re-emergence should be accommodated. But it has a long way to go until it convinces Asia it has the credentials to be a benevolent leader and constructive dominant power.
If Premier Wen gets his way this could take 100 years.