Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Fragile Superpower

Dr Susan Shirk's long relationship with China began back in 1971.

She jokingly explains she was on the second plane to the Communist country after the ping pong team.

And some 20 years later became deputy assistant secretary-general during the Clinton administration.

Her experiences and insight led her to write China: Fragile Superpower and she recently gave a talk about it at The Bookworm.

And in it, her main premise is that Chinese leaders are insecure; they focus more on domestic policy. When she told people in China the title of her book, they were surprised by the word "superpower", thinking their country has yet to become a superpower.

They were also intrigued by the word "fragile", as they would hardly call China a country that would easily fall apart.

In any case, Shirk recounted the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. The United States had got the wrong information and completely destroyed the building, killing three Chinese journalists and injuring some 20 others.

She had just left the State department to go home when she got the call and had to turn back to go back to the office.

The US had to apologize right away, she said. But President Jiang Zemin wouldn't accept President Bill Clinton's call; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was refused at the Chinese embassy in Washington; a US envoy was stopped at the airport from going to China.

Shirk explains the historical context at the time:

Three weeks prior to the bombing, 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners surrounded Chinese political leaders at Zhongnanhai without any prior notice which scared them; and a few weeks later would be the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident.

Chinese people's emotions would be running high.

So the government bussed students to US embassies all over the country, where they threw Molotov cocktails, rocks and sticks in order to make sure people's anger and frustration would be directed away from the central government.

She also goes back further in history analyzing what happened in 1989.

Shirk considers it a "close call" for the Chinese leadership because at the time there were protests in over 130 cities and a split in the leadership. The Berlin wall had just fallen and Communist governments falling in other countries.

The Chinese government has learned three lessons from 1989.

The first is that the leaders today don't have the same charisma as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. She even described them as "mediocre" and "colourless".

Since reform and opening up started 30 years ago, the government is having a harder time of keeping track of the population. Some 200 million are constantly on the move.

Also, people have much more information about the outside world than before, with some 250 million and counting who use the Internet regularly, especially university students.

There is also the increasing gap between the rich and the poor. And for China, the gap is considered to be politically loaded, as many think those who got rich achieved their wealth through corrupt means.

The Gini Coefficient is a mathematically way to calculate the income gap, and the closer to zero the better. For example the United States is at 0.1. But China is between 0.46-0.49.

So for the government to show that it cares about the poor, Premier Wen Jiabao is frequently photographed in the countryside, sympathizing and sometimes even crying with them. Shirk likes to call this "compassionate Communism".

But despite the efforts the government has made to reach out to the poor, there are still protests.

The second point Shirk makes is that the central leadership does everything it can to prevent public splits in the top ranks. That is what happened in 1989, showing cracks that gave people motivation to protest against the government.

She argues ambitious leaders will always try to compete with others to get ahead and this is normal. But how do you keep that quiet? With the age of the Internet, it will be harder and harder to keep this under wraps and she believes this will no longer be sustainable.

Finally, Shirk says, it's important for the Chinese government to keep the military loyal. Again, she says that if the military did not follow the 1989 directives of crushing the students, the China we see today would not exist.

And because the military did follow orders, the government spends a lot of time and money cultivating relationships with the military as seen in increased spending in this area.

Another threatening issue is the rise of Chinese nationalism.

The central government has seen how the Qing Dynasty and the New Republic fell to nationalism. It is one of the few unifying things that could topple them, which is why they bend over backwards to prevent it from happening to them.

She finds the increased reporting of protests interesting and says it's partly because of competition with the Internet that domestic state media can't compete. Shirk also thinks the reporting of these protests are a way to check on local governments who are not spending on allocated budgets on health and education.

But Shirk says this is a dangerous ploy by the central government because in a way it is condoning these protests as a check and balance of local governments and could backfire.

Shirk hints the end of the book has advice for future US policy makers as well as for Chinese leaders. Her insight and analysis mainly point to moderation and context, remembering that the Chinese government will try to preserve itself, practically at all costs.

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