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China's One Hundred Years of Ineptitude

John Lee

Just before the 2007 Chinese Communist Party Congress, Premier Wen Jiabao had sharp words for those agitating for internal political reform. In a much-quoted speech, he told a gathering of policymakers and intellectuals that China would not be ready for democracy for 100 years. Events over the past week suggest Wen was right, that China is not ready for democracy — and that it might not be ready for leadership in the region, let alone the world, for perhaps as long.

Many influential thinkers in China hold lofty, impatient ambitions for their country. Several months ago, for instance, a group of state-sponsored Chinese scholars released a bestselling book titled Unhappy China: The Great Time, Grand Vision, and Our Challenges. It argued that, given China’s growth, it should put prudence aside, break away from Western influence, and come to recognize that it has the power to lead in Asia.

But this is by no means the overwhelming consensus among Chinese thinkers. One high-profile critic of the book is Hu Xingdou, a highly respected economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. Hu called the book’s publication a sign of the “ideological chaos” in China and derided the rise of extremist political strains. Further, he argued that China is not ready to lead because its “value systems” — cultural, ideological, and political — are not yet part of the regional mainstream. Beijing’s example is not an attractive one for other countries. Subsequently, China lacks the ample reserves of “soft power” required for real world leadership.

Two events in the past week support the argument that China needs to develop internal political stability and allow for productive dissent and competition before it begins exporting its cultural, ideological, and political fruits.

First, the disruption in Xinjiang. The situation there is as complex as is in Tibet and involves trespasses against both Han Chinese and indigenous Uighurs. But the root causes are historical animosity and the systematic suppression of ethnic minorities. In China, Beijing has a genuinely held stated goal of social “harmony,” aiming to foster peaceful relations between its ethnic nationalities. But in practical terms, Han Chinese constitute 90 percent of the population and remain dominant in all aspects of society, economics, and politics. Beijing’s respect for minority cultures and rights remains superficial at best.

There is no better example than the children in traditional dress representing 56 ethnic groups, paraded to the world at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games. It was subsequently discovered that the children were all Han Chinese.

Then there’s the arrest of Stern Hu, an executive for British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. This second event is deeply worrying: China has charged the Shanghai-based Australian citizen (who is of Han heritage) with espionage, alleging that he illegally obtained commercial information related to Chinese steel mills’ bids for iron ore. The timing of the arrest, shortly after a failed proposal by state-owned Chinalco to increase its stake in Rio Tinto, seems especially suspect.

Moreover, even if Stern Hu did illegally obtain such information, it seems absurd to imply that he caused a serious economic loss to the Chinese state or harmed the country’s national interests. The charge of espionage, rather than larceny, confirms that Beijing has grave difficulty separating the public and the private — keeping national and security interests distinct from commercial and business ones. Laws are phrased ambiguously and offer officials wide discretion in their application. This incident also demonstrates Beijing’s tendency to use its laws for political purposes. And the Chinese Communist Party’s complete control of the courts means that the judicial due process in China to which Stern Hu will be subject is not exactly the “rule of law.”

Both incidents send a message, strong if implicit, to China’s neighbors: The country overreacts to moderate threats, preferring a strong arm to a skilled hand in everything from minority groups to economic competition. It is the wrong message to send if China intends to supplant the United States as the regional hegemon.

For China to lead, other Asian states need to accept the legitimacy of Chinese leadership — including its political and policy value systems. Although some Asian countries may find Washington’s rhetoric shrill, they accept that the United States provides a stable, fair, open, rules-based, and liberal order. But Beijing remains closed, intolerant, vengeful, and overbearing. Unless compelled by force or left no choice due to a U.S. withdrawal from the region, Asian states will not accept such a leader.

Much has been said about the advances made by Beijing in building its soft power, but China has plucked only low-hanging fruit. It has convinced the region that it is a legitimate rising power and hopes to convince the region that its emergence should be accommodated. China has a long way to go, however, before Asia believes Beijing really has the ideology and the credentials to lead. If Premier Wen gets his way, it could take 100 years.

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