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Friday, June 6, 2003

State of the 'empire'

Despite weak opposition and pliant West, China must still face its basic contradictions

Special to The Japan Times

BANGKOK — China has suffered most from the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus with thousands of victims, a few hundred deaths and new cases being uncovered daily as the disease spreads from major cities to the countryside.

The fascinating question still to be answered is whether the biggest casualty of SARS might still be the ailing, diseased but powerful Communist Party rule over the world's largest country.

SARS has exposed China's leaders and shown them to be withholding information, dissembling, prevaricating and indeed openly lying.

The virus first appeared in Guangdong back in November, having probably leaped from domestic animals to humans in an area where people and their pigs, chickens and other barnyard animals live closely together. The Chinese authorities hushed it up, possibly from ignorance of what it was and the potential damage it might cause.

By March, it was clear that this was a deadly outbreak with chilling consequences for travel, economy and trade and indeed for human society, given its lethal impact and possible mutation. Hong Kong desperately tried to stem the outbreak, but China kept up a pretense that it was not much affected.

Later that month, the rulers in Beijing made a partial admission but negated it by refusing to permit the information to be published in the all-embracing state media. Two journalists who braved the silence were sacked (and still have not been reinstated).

Not until April, under pressure from the World Health Organization did Beijing come clean and admitted that there were hundreds of cases in the capital alone. At a stroke, China leaped ahead of Hong Kong in the casualty stakes. But the WHO still admits to distrust of Chinese information. It may be telling the truth at last, but not yet the whole truth.

So is this the killer disease that will also finish the Communist Party's 54-year reign in China. The Economist magazine in a cover story asked whether SARS might prove China's equivalent of Chernobyl in aiding the breakup and demise of the Soviet Union and its empire.

Certainly China scholars have been waiting for something like this that will expose and finally break the frailty of Communist rule. The Hungarian Jesuit Lazslo Ladany told me back in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square killings of prodemocracy protesters that he thought this was the beginning of the end of communism and the student demonstrators who escaped would soon be back to claim the inheritance of their country.

Yet almost 14 years after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the student leaders have become middle-aged in exile, Zhao Ziyang, the party secretary general who dared to negotiate with the students remains a nonperson, and official history is that this was a bloodless victory for the people over lawless elements. The Communist leaders are feted all over the world.

It was French President Jacques Chirac who invited new Chinese President Hu Jintao, responsible for repression in Tibet, to join the recently concluded gathering of global leaders at the annual economic summit in Evian, France. The Group of Seven has virtually become the Group of Eight with the addition of Russia to its political proceedings, and Chirac has tried to clear the way for it to become the G9 without China making any sacrifices for democracy. International leaders, if they are impolite enough to refer to 1989, talk of the "Tiananmen incident" as if it were some spring cleaning that caused a few casualties.

Market power

One reason for Chirac's courting of Beijing is that, unlike the Soviet Union, which was on its economic deathbed, China is a booming economic power with potentially the biggest market in the world. Soon, economists predict, China will surpass the U.S. in terms of its economic output. China's annual economic growth rates have been leaping in double-digit figures that have economists at bodies like the World Bank gasping in awe.

There is need to be cautious about the official statistics. It is little short of amazing that China manages to produce official statistics within a matter of days of the end of a year, whereas smaller more developed countries take weeks. An Indian economist friend expressed his skepticism of China's growth figures because, he said, its overall economic growth had spurted ahead of energy rates, whereas normally energy use grows faster in a rapidly developing poor country.

Nevertheless, China in the 21st century is rapidly earning the title of "workshop of the world" and in the process at least testing economic laws, such as that of comparative advantage. For countries, as for people, it pays to specialize where you have a competitive edge: if you are the world's greatest lawyer and the world's best secretary, it would pay you to specialize in the job you have a comparative advantage, not to do a bit of each.

But China is so big and has just an ocean of cheap labor that it seems to be beating the rest of the world at everything, producing sneakers for Nike and Adidas, mobile telephones for Motorola, computers for IBM, cars for General Motors and Toyota, steel in cooperation with ThyssenKrupp, televisions for Japan, and everything else from soft toys and instant noodles to widgets for everywhere.

Corporate investors from all over the globe are beating a path to China's door. Last year it sucked in $52 billion in foreign investment, surpassing the United States.

China's political system is also different from any in the West, which makes the task of prediction harder. In a new book the U.S.-based Australian Ross Terrill has again pointed to the political fragility of China, but also to some key differences in the way that China's polity operates. In "The New Chinese Empire" (just published in the U.S. by Basic Books), he takes a broad sweep of Chinese history and shows just how the latter-day Communist empire resembles and is heir to old imperial traditions.

Old cloak, new name

Imperial China that was swept away by the collapse of the monarchy in 1911 saw itself as "the Middle Kingdom", in other words the center of the world. Terrill says the Communists have just put on the old cloak with a new name. The Communist rulers of today's China share much in common with their imperial ancestors, not merely in the fact that their legitimacy does not stem from the people.

Through his journey through Chinese history, Terrill shows how even the term "state" is different in China from modern Western usage. In one modern definition, a modern government at least in the West "is seen as a cash register that totals up and then averages the preferences and political power of societal actors."

China's version of the state can be traced back to Emperor Qin Shihuang in 221 B.C., whose tomb is accompanied by terra-cotta soldiers and who was praised by Mao Zedong: he "set up a totalitarian regime two millennia before the English word was uttered," notes Terrill. The Chinese emperor did not invoke the divine right of kings. An edict from the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) declared: "The height of the emperor is as great as that of Heaven, his width as huge as the Earth. His radiance matches that of the Moon and Sun, his honesty and faithfulness is equal to that of the four seasons."

For the subjects of the Chinese emperor, there was no talk of "freedom" or "equality"; "duties" and "hierarchy" were central. Outsiders were kept outside by the clear-cut distinction between hua (Chinese) and yi (barbarians). Lord Macartney discovered this when he went in 1793 on a trading mission to China — or, in the Chinese view, as a representative of the vassal George III to pay tribute to the Celestial Emperor.

Two main philosophical trends in Chinese history were Confucianism and Legalism. The Confucian ethic stressed education, decorum, respect, treating others as you wanted them to treat you. Legalism, older than Hobbes, emphasized the maximization of state power, suspicion of intellectual endeavor, was skeptical of virtue and stressed the importance of force.

Terrill sees the modern versions of the two symbiotic philosophies emerging in Marxism and Leninism. Mao did not assume the title of emperor, but the reach of his Communist Party poked and prodded further than any previous regime through local party members who spied on individuals on every detail of their everyday lives. In these latter Communist days where to get rich is glorious, Marxism has been junked but Leninism survives.

Unfocused opposition

It is difficult to predict how vulnerable the modern Chinese empire is because, unlike the West or Eastern Europe, there is no focus of opposition, no John Paul II or church or appeal to a set of alternative eternal values. The dissident Harry Wu, a Catholic, noted after burying a friend who died in a labor camp where the two men were confined: "Human life has no value here. It has no more importance than a cigarette ash flicked in the wind. But if a person's life has no value, then the society that shapes that life has no value either."

The Beijing rulers are certainly nervous enough: witness the reaction to the Dalai Lama and his "splittists" or to Muslims in the large parts of the empire that are not indigenously Han Chinese, about a third of China's empire, or indeed the branding of Falun Gong, a group practicing exercises that claim a 2,000-year-old, very Chinese history to increase the body's energy, as an "evil cult" endangering the empire's very stability.

SARS in its own way could be a substantial threat to the crumbling claims of the Communists. Western media in the last few weeks have emphasized how the power and great reach of the party can now be used to take control of the disease, quarantining anyone at any suspicion that the virus has invaded an area.

As an intent of its determination China has said that anyone deliberately spreading SARS will face execution. But the leaders of China have been caught lying. The resignation of the health minister and the mayor of Beijing as scapegoats will not absolve the new President Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao unless they can get a hold on the still spreading outbreak.

Moreover, the very outbreak of the disease itself points to a failure of the rulers in a key area of modern China. If the rulers get the praise for improving lifestyles and livelihoods, will they not expect to get blame for human disasters like SARS?

Highly vulnerable

In spite of the economic boom, China's economy has major vulnerabilities. Reform of hundreds of state-owned enterprises has thrown tens of millions of people out of work, but loss-making state corporations are still a drain on the state. Corruption and favoritism are rife, as China itself has acknowledged by putting on trial some of the handful of gloriously rich who had graduated to the ranks of the richest people in the world according to U.S. magazines.

Most of the major banks are technically bankrupt, thanks to making bad loans to loss-making bodies at official direction. Farmers are increasingly resentful about having to pay higher taxes.

The difficulty is to know when the spark to ignite the discontent will catch combustible material.

Tiananmen Square was dramatic and public enough, but in the end was a small corner of the capital and Deng Xiaoping did not hesitate to crush the dissent. No Chinese dynasty has ended without blood being shed, and the People's Liberation Army, which obeyed the rulers in Tiananmen Square in 1989, is the only source of major weaponry.

Deng's successor Jiang Zemin, who gave up the party leadership to Hu last year and the presidency this year, was careful to keep his position as head of the Central Military Commission in control of the troops and their generals.

The Chinese leaders may feel confident that they still have time, especially without an alternative focus to lead dissent.

The West will stay clear — as former Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten noted, Westerners treat China as if it is a precious Ming vase. But time alone will not solve the country's great problems, some of which go point to contradictions at the very heart of the empire.

Kevin Rafferty, former Hong Kong editor for Euromoney magazine, is editor in chief of Business Day, published in Bangkok.

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