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Sunday, July 19, 2009
Like it or not, China is not about to go away
By TOM PLATE
KUALA LUMPUR — There was never the slightest doubt in the mind of a single reputable expert anywhere in the world that China was a caldron of ethnic unrest ready to boil over. Nor was there the slightest possibility that the masters of the People's Republic of China would be able to escape, within its capacious borders, some measure of the Muslim assertion of identity that was flaring up elsewhere.
In fact, when the previous American government sought out a helping hand from other countries in its infamous "war on terror" after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Beijing, noticeably, did not say no. It had, after all, its own "Muslim problem" and could anticipate its own future pain — and thus the need for understanding by others, if it could get it, should a crackdown prove necessary. And indeed, China's turn has come.
Its problem, in the far western desert plains of China, concerns the Uighurs, the Turkic Muslim ethnic group that once dominated Xinjiang Province. But with the massive Chinese Han influx, aggressively promoted by the central government, Uighur identity had come under siege.
And so Chinese President Hu Jintao was forced to take apologetic early leave from that big-shot confab of hot air in Italy known as a Group of 8 summit to scramble home. Yes, it was a bit embarrassing, but he wasn't the first leader to have to scotch plans to deal with domestic unrest, and he won't be the last.
The Uighur insurgency is in fact instructive. It serves to remind the world that China is no seamless totalitarian state of mechanized citizen-robots that dial up or down depending on the buttons that are pushed in Beijing. It's a big sprawling tableau of a nation, with problems of every kind and every size.
Could it come apart like an overloaded, unstable isotope? "That you would not want to see," emphasizes Mahathir Mohamad, the well-known sage of Malaysia, outspoken prime minister from 1981-2003, now in outspoken retirement. "It would be a mess. It would be another Yugoslavia."
Mahathir would thus be the first to suggest to the West that it be careful for what it wished for — if its secret geopolitical wish is to see China come apart. "Since ancient times, China has been ruled by an emperor," explained Mahathir in the course of a long private interview held in his Perdana Leadership Foundation office in Putrayjaya, the government center.
"You know what will happen if China becomes democratic? Civil war!" he said. China is a lot of different people who happen to be in the same large geographic area. That is all."
For all China's problems, Mahathir has no doubt that China's rise will proceed steadily apace, and predicts the current surge will be mainly peaceful. He worries more about the capacity of the U.S. to accept the inevitability of China's rise in the 21st century. Rather than develop a misguided and ill-fated Cold War-type "containment" policy for China, it would be better, he suggests, if the West mapped out a carefully calibrated "acceptance" policy.
Over the years Mahathir has had many critics, inside and outside his beloved Malaysia. Yet, his general views on China and the West reflect a growing consensus among the region's policymakers, intellectuals and media commentators. Live with it, get used to it — they say about China. It's not going to go away.
Back in the States, however, that perspective seems lost amid myriad narrow perspectives. Our most thoughtful and sophisticated international journals seemed mired in the past. The cover of Foreign Policy magazine (July-August edition) trumpets the view that all this talk about the inevitable rise of Asia is silly hype. "BAMBOOZLED!" proclaim the editors on the cover.
Even the ordinarily forward-looking Foreign Affairs, America's lead international journal, seems to be looking back over its shoulder wistfully at the past. Pessimistic cover articles in the May-June edition raise doubts about whether policy gaps between American and China can ever be narrowed, whether "engagement" as a policy has run out of gas, and whether the much-touted "liberalization" of China's political system hasn't kicked into evil reverse.
Reasonable people can disagree with all these points, and past issues of Foreign Affairs themselves, under the progressive and cosmopolitan editorship of James F. Hoge Jr., provide plenty of contrary fodder. Nonetheless, both international magazines now manage to present readers with a conceptual error.
America has no choice but to engage with China, which is moving dynamically through the 21st century as an unstoppable force. Despite periodic uncomfortable Uighur-type moments — a Mahathir might say — we had better get used to it. This is the new world in which we all will live, like it or not.
Syndicated columnist Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International policy and a board member of the Pacific Century Institute, has been travelling in Southeast Asia. © 2009 Pacific Perspectives Media Center