Why Burma Was Crushed: As Burmese Pro-Democracy Activists Are Rounded Up, the West Looks to China to Intervene. We Are Failing to See the Seismic Changes That Authoritarian Capitalism Is Bringing the World

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In Beijing you might never have known about the saffron revolution that started with a bang and ended with a whimper in Burma. No pictures of chanting monks on state-controlled television, no anguished politicians saying "something must be done". Yet the consensus in Washington and European capitals was that only China could resolve the crisis.

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Over the past year, there have been similar cries about Darfur and North Korea. Suddenly China has become what the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright once called her own country--"the essential nation". It is not just China's new diplomatic reach, born of economic muscle, that is drawing international attention, but also its system of "authoritarian capitalism", which is increasingly seen as a counterweight to liberal democracy.

Like football coaches urging on their team, western diplomats call on the People's Republic to become a "responsible stakeholder in the international system". But the Chinese are aiming at a different goal. George Bush and Gordon Brown are pressing for democracy in Burma--the Chinese, by contrast, care about stability. They had no desire to see brutality by the troops on the streets, but the last thing they wanted was a revolutionary overthrow in a neighbouring country. "What really concerns China in the issue of Myanmar is that a failed state of any political persuasion may lead to the disintegration of the country and a revival of civil war, which will have serious repercussions in the region," writes Xiaolin Guo, an anthropologist based at Uppsala University in Sweden.

An estimated 2.5 million people of Chinese descent live in Burma; several ethnic groups straddle the 2,000-kilometre border dividing the two countries. Believing the junta's inflexibility to be inherently unstable, the Chinese government has tried to persuade the generals to come to some accommodation with the political opposition and rebellious ethnic fighters. Chinese officials have met opposition leaders in Kunming, on the Chinese side of the border, and in June they facilitated a meeting between US and Burmese government representatives. The current upheaval may have stymied that initiative, but according to the Burma specialist Larry Jagan, Beijing had hoped the contacts could herald a process similar to the six-party talks that have brought North Korean and US negotiators together.

Western leaders dream of a Burma reinvented in their image--with a little lustre from association with the revered opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi rubbing off on them. But China is still ruled by the Communist Party that shot and mowed down protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and which suppresses Buddhist monks in Tibet.

Authoritarian capitalism, not liberal democracy, has made China successful. The Beijing government's ideal would be for the Burmese generals to allow limited political participation, so that stability could be assured and China's supply of timber, gemstones, oil and natural gas guaranteed.

China may have bankrolled and armed Burma's generals and plundered its neighbour's natural resources, but it still hides behind the rubric that it never interferes in other countries' "internal affairs". In the early 1980s, as China began to open up, its then leader, Deng Xiaoping, said his country should "adopt a low profile and never take the lead". He predicted that it would take China between 30 and 50 years to come near the economic level of the west. "We do not mean to catch up with, still less do we say to surpass, but only to approach the level of developed countries," he said.

But the rocket fuel of globalisation has propelled China's economy faster than anyone could have imagined. Just 25 years after Deng outlined his modest goals, China has the world's fourth-largest economy, smaller only than those of the US, Japan and Germany and poised to overtake the last. …