How Tibet Protests Have Dented Chinese Pride; AGENDA Be Careful What You Wish for. These Words Could Well Be Reverberating in the Collective Consciousness of China's Increasingly Rattled Political Elites, Says University of Birmingham Professor Mark Beeson

The Birmingham Post (England), April 30, 2008 | Go to article overview

How Tibet Protests Have Dented Chinese Pride; AGENDA Be Careful What You Wish for. These Words Could Well Be Reverberating in the Collective Consciousness of China's Increasingly Rattled Political Elites, Says University of Birmingham Professor Mark Beeson


Byline: Mark Beeson

How has China's much-anticipated, Olympicsized coming-out party become such a source of potential domestic instability and foreign humiliation?

Answering this question reveals much about the limits of Chinese power. China's foreign policy-makers still have much to learn about the way the international system operates, despite the remarkable and very real progress they have made over the last 20 years or so.

But whether the rest of the world thinks China's behaviour is good or bad, it has little option but to pay attention. China is simply too big and potentially too powerful to be ignored.

In some ways it always has been. To understand China, it is helpful, as the Chinese do, to take the longer view - in this case, two or three thousand years.

When ancient Britons were still running around covered in blue paint, China had a sophisticated civilisation that dominated the entire East Asian region of which it is once again the central part.

Other countries literally paid tribute to China in acknowledgement of its power, prestige and the superiority of its culture.

Even as late as the 19th century, China was the biggest economy in the world. Unfortunately for China, however, the barbarian challenge proved more formidable than its complacent and insular imperial rulers had imagined.

The expansion of European economic and military power into East Asia in the 19th century triggered the downfall of the Qing dynasty and inaugurated 'one hundred years of shame'.

China's traumatic 20th century history, in which it was consumed by civil war, invaded by Japan, and generally pushed around by powerful external forces it could do little to resist, is the key to understanding its contemporary leaders and the resurgence of national pride.

Hosting the Olympics is a defining event for both the Chinese leadership and its people more generally. China finally has the chance to receive the respect it feels it deserves and recover its rightful place as one of the world's major powers.

Seen from a Chinese perspective, acknowledgement of its status and its achievements seems no more than it deserves. After all, it is only about 30 years since its former leader Deng Xiaoping inaugurated the economic reforms that would have such a profound impact on both China and eventually the wider world.

No other country in history has managed such rapid economic development on such a monumental scale as China, and never in such a breath-takingly short timeframe.

Lifting millions of people out of poverty so rapidly is an unprecedented feat and one which its economic and political leaders might understandably feel proud. But many in the West have been reluctant to praise China's leadership too fulsomely.

It's not hard to see why. For much of the 20th century China was on the wrong side of the Cold War divide. When China's leadership did eventually decide to embrace capitalism, they did so in their own way.

Economic reform in China has not meant political reform. China's rapidly expanding business class has not been pushing for similar forms or political liberalisation.

On the contrary, many of China's entrepreneurs are either former communist party officials or have close links with the Chinese Communist Party, which remains by far the most powerful political organisation in the country.

This is disconcerting for many in the West, especially in the United States, which has a very different history and strong views about the importance of democracy, freedom of expression and individual liberty.

This is why, of course, the fate of Tibet has become a touchstone for both sides.

While Tibet has the potential to poison relations between China and the West, the balance of probability suggests it won't.

China's growing importance in the global economy means that maintaining good relations with China is essential. …

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