A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
China is flexing its muscles today. They’ve organized a boycott of the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony for Liu Xiaobo. He’s one of the few survivors of Tiananmen Square in ’89, and he’s currently serving an 11 year prison sentence for not keeping his mouth shut. China’s position on his Peace Prize was made clear when they said, “We are against anybody making an issue out of Liu Xiaobo and interfering in China’s judicial affairs. We will not change because of interference by a few clowns.” I’m not sure whether anybody knows if the “few clowns” are confined to the Nobel Committee or not. Either way, the boycott is supported by all the usual suspects: Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, Venezuela and about a dozen other countries who think Human Rights are something the Americans made up just to piss them off. Russia has joined the boycott too, but that’s understandable insofar as they don’t want of string of their own dissidents trooping to the podium in the future. The most notable of the absentees, however, is going to be Navi Pillay, head honcho of the United Nations Commission for Human Rights. Somehow, she suddenly discovered she had a subsequent engagement. While it’s true the UN has basically been turned into a Will Ferrell comedy, it’s still significant to note that China has enough pull in the Hall of Has-Beens to push their Commissioners around. Diplomats are like dogs; they know who’s jerking their chain.
The United Nations isn’t the only place that China is calling the shots, these days. More and more, developing nations, especially in Africa, are looking at China as the model to build political and financial power around. They see double digit economic growth as a good thing and they want to get in on it. The inherent value of democracy pales in comparison to money in the bank. China is using this situation to enhance its power around the world. They are dropping billions into developing markets with — and this is extremely important — no strings attached. In other words, financial assistance from China doesn’t come complete with the Clintons wandering around, asking awkward questions and wanting to see the receipts.
To be fair, China isn’t doing anything that much differently from any other world power in history. They’ve amassed a certain level of economic and political stability, and they want their “place in the sun.” In their minds, they think they’ve earned it and they don’t feel the need to be lectured at by western democracies who collectively look like a train wreck. On the one hand, I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t really be interested in the EU telling me what to do, right now.
On the other hand, China has a lot to answer for. They didn’t get to their present position of power without some casualties along the way. Their environmental record sucks. Their safety standards are literally murderous. And their trade practices are on the Tony Soprano side of criminal. There’s also Tibet and their treatment of the Uyghur and a few other ethnic minorities. These are serious problems that China is going to have to address very quickly. In an ever-shrinking world, their impact is felt far beyond China’s borders.
Then, there’s the whole question of Human Rights. Since Tiananmen Square, there has been an ever-increasing constriction on what ordinary Chinese people can see, hear, say and possibly even smell. Even as we speak, most western news agencies — including the BBC and CNN — have been blocked out of China. Over the last decade, China has vigorously defended its cyber-sovereignty and aggressively kept things like Facebook and Google from reaching into the Middle Kingdom. They see western ideas of personal choice and freedom as dysfunctional in Chinese society. They maintain that you can’t build the world’s second largest economy when you have a billion people running around in all directions. That’s why a Nobel Prize to a dissident like Liu Xiaobo is such a big deal to them. They believe he is the potential thin edge of the wedge that could tip the whole structure over and send it crashing into chaos – and they’re absolutely right.
History teaches us that you can’t give a modern society economic power without political power. It’s impossible. In a nutshell, a robust economy breeds a middle class, which has to be educated to keep the machines running. Educated people discover ideas, the great equalizer in any society. And people who believe in equality don’t like to get pushed around. It’s just that simple. Totalitarian regimes have tried throughout history to suppress ideas, but the only thing that happens is discussion goes underground and the accumulated anger and frustration continue to build. Eventually, it boils over. China has a rendezvous with history that cannot be denied. They can either accept it, and avoid catastrophe by slowly moving towards an open democratic society, or they can carry on deluding themselves and suffer the consequences. It’s not as if the Dragon Throne hasn’t seen revolution or two in its time. Believe me, this particular dynasty isn’t much different from all those other ones.
In the short term, however, China’s power will continue to grow in exact proportion to the world’s appetite for cheap consumer goods. They will continue to fuel the collective Western economy with surplus cash, and they will continue to suppress internal discontent. Liu Xiaobo will languish in prison. Academics in North America will slap on another bumper sticker beside “Free Tibet,” and the world will continue to spin. But one of these days, unless something changes very soon, another Liu Xiaobo is going to come along, and the Mao Dynasty is going to end up just as dead as the Ming.