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The Dragon, an emerging soft colonial power


The Olympics was supposed to be China's coming out party

By M Rama Rao

The dazzling display at the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympic Games may have reminded some of the Mao-era mass parades in the Tiananmen Square. But not to the people across the world who were glued to the TV sets what with their fire works, pyro-techniques, and more than 2000 beating drums with their hands and florescent drum sticks in perfect unison. And their verdict was unanimous: China has arrived though Tion Kwa, a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in Washington DC prefers to dub it as China's synchronised anachronism.

According to him, it is not easy to think of such a display as being in line with modern norms. "The Chinese economy may be more market-oriented today than ever before, but, because the Communist Party is still in charge, China remains out of sync with those parts of Asia and the rest of the world where communism has long since come to be viewed as an anachronistic oddity," Tion opines.

Many studies

Of late, there have been many studies that have focused increasingly on the internal factors at play in China. One such study by Minxin Pei opines that there are several systemic risks in Chinese domestic politics. In his view unless these are addressed seriously, the survival of the regime may be at risk. Pei, who is director of the China Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, goes on to say that the surging pace of the Chinese economy is blinding the world to its political risks.

We cannot be oblivious to another reality. It is that from Thailand to Myanmar and from Sri Lanka to Nigeria Chinese goods are being lapped up by the dozen every day. Simply because these are affordable at all ends of the scale.

In Pakistan for instance, as the Lahore daily The Nation says, Chinese motorbikes, medicines, toys and shoes are forty to forty-five percent cheaper. Stationery making units are on the verge of collapse because of availability of cheap Chinese imported and smuggled items like pencils, another Lahore daily the Daily Times reported on June 6.

In the El Dorado of the 21st century, United States, consumers looking for low prices have snapped up Chinese-made goods in recent years, Economic Policy Institute, a Left-leaning Washington think-tank says. Its finding that the US trade deficit with China cost 2.3 million American jobs between 2001 and 2007 may fuel debate about free trade ahead of November presidential elections.

New global order

More so because a professor of management and human resources at the Ohio State University has just published his new book asking Americans to be prepared for a new global order. "Hundreds of years ago China was one of the world's leading powers and they want to be number one again," Oded Shenkar writes in his book, The Chinese Century: The Rising Chinese Economy And Its Impact On The Global Economy, The Balance Of Power And Your Job (Wharton School of Publishing).

These pundits are worried that China could one day pass the US as a major economic power. Well their concern is understandable. But in their America centric pre-occupation, they are ignoring another reality. It is that China has taken a leaf out of colonial masters of yore in its single minded pursuit of geo-political, strategic, energy and economic goals.

Politics, as a scholar once said, is built on two foundations: military and economic. The two interact and support each other. This is clearly brought out by the power play China is practising in Africa and Asia. Ian Bremmer, President of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy sums up the situation thus: 'The go out strategy has paid remarkable dividends and will continue to do so at least in the short term'.

 There is a flip-side to the Chinese rise and its business deals with unstable regimes: Beijing has become a target of attacks from Pakistan to Iraq, Nigeria, Yemen and Mogadishu. The abductors are often faceless local groups with scores to settle with the authorities.

Well documented

Like the gunmen in the Southern Niger Delta, who had abducted five Chinese workers on January 5, 2007. "They did not want money but release of four prisoners of Niger Delta origin in the Nigerian jails," according to a Reuters report of the day from Abuja.

The attacks on Chinese engineers and workers across Pakistan are well documented. From the turbulent FATA region bordering Afghanistan to Islamabad, Chinese have not been safe in recent years. They are not a large community numbering around 5000 in all but they are present in all segments of the Pak economy from the lowly massage parlours in the capital to mining, drilling and construction of telecom towers. The message by the Lal Majid clerics (June 23, 2007) is illustrative of the local mood.

While releasing seven Chinese women 'picked up' by the students of the Madrasa attached to the Masjid from a nearby massage parlour, the clerics said, 'while we value friendship with China we will not allow even Chinese women to work as prostitutes and damage the morale of Muslims.' The pick-up and subsequent events had led to Chinese pressure on the military regime of the day to act against the mosque authorities.

That the Chinese are pursuing what an Indian Leftist calls as Marwari capitalism is also clear from another aspect of Chinese involvement in Pakistan. Jiye Sindh Quami Mahaz is against China's financial aid to construction of big dams like the Bhasha dam for instance. Several rallies in Sindh and the Northern Areas have not moved the Chinese investment agency to rethink its offer.

Economic carrots

Apparently, Beijing is concerned with the economic carrots Islamabad under General Musharraf had dangled. These ranged from a rail link parallel to the Karkoram highway ending at Havelian. That will be connected to Gwadar port, which provides the Chinese alternative sea route to foreign trade.

Like the earlier generation of colonialists, the Dragon today is ever willing to play with whoever suits its bill. For it, ends matter. May be for it the adage precept is better than practice and the Gandhian concept of ends and means to an end matter equally are dated.

Consider how Beijing had dealt with the LTTE and Colombo alike. Also how in Myanmar Chinese nationals carried out illegal gold mining in Laiza and Namsan Yang areas, some 80 km ( 50 miles) south east of Myitkyina, Kachin state. Yangoon Junta was forced to step in and ban all mining activity in the area since the second week of June, 2008.

China earned the wrath of local movement for justice in Northern Niger with its patronage of the Niger government. Chinese companies supplied arms to the authorities as the trade off for the permission to undertake uranium mining. But faced with abductions, uranium mining was shut down (2007). China has supplied arms to several governments and rebels in Africa for mutual benefit.

Take for instance China-Sudan ties. China buys two thirds of Sudan's oil and in return sells arms with no concern whatsoever for the Darfur imbroglio.

Human rights

Johannesburg's publication, The Weekender reports that the Mugabe regime is getting Chinese weapons. Foreign office in Beijing termed the report as a groundless rumour. Professor Humphrey Moshi of the University of Dar-es-Salaam doesn't appear to be a taker of the denial. This is clear from his advice to China: Give up engagement with rouge nations.

His contention is that China's engagement with such countries undermines human rights values. In his view, "Chinese investments will likely fuel conflicts as also delay the conflict resolution and mediation process."

A close study of Chinese presence in Africa and Asia shows that the professor's advice has no takers in Beijing. Because, as Drew Thompson says in a James Foundation report (Volume 4 Issue 24, December 7, 2007) its efforts are aimed at creating a paradigm of globalisation that favours China. His conclusion is based on his study of how Chinese interests in Africa expanded to spheres of influence and access to energy and raw materials through diplomacy, trade, aid and investment.

These observations are equally valid for Asia since China has adopted the same route in countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar. What should however be of equal concern is China's promotion of its own brand of economic development and reform, a model amongst the Third World countries. Beijing has been encouraging friendly countries to send high level delegations to learn from Chinese experiments and experience.

Observation

Pertinent is the observation of George Friedman, the Stratfor expert. Says he: "The dramatic economic development has benefited the coast and left the interior - the vast majority of Chinese - behind. It has also left China vulnerable to global economic forces that it cannot control and cannot accommodate. This is not new in Chinese history, but its usual resolution is in regionalism and the weakening of the central government. Deng's gamble is being played out by his successors. He dealt the hand. They have to play it.

The question on the table is whether the economic basis of China is a foundation or a balancing act. If the former, it can last a long time. If the latter, everyone falls down eventually. There appears to be little evidence that it is a foundation. It excludes most of the Chinese from the game, people who are making less than $100 a month."  


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