The suffering of earthquake victims should not mask the authoritarian tendencies of the ruling elite, writes Antony Loewenstein.
The ongoing humanitarian catastrophe after the Sichuan earthquake has revealed a side of China that is rarely glimpsed. After months of controversy over Beijing’s abuses in Tibet and elsewhere – and many Tibetan activists are lamenting the switch of focus – the global community almost seems relieved to be obsessed on something else (though this hasn’t stopped leading actress Zhang Ziyi chastising participants at the recent Cannes Film Festival for knowing little about the disaster.)
Israel has provided aid to victims. Jewish news agency JTA writes: “In a gesture of support, one of the world’s smallest countries is sending aid to the world’s most populous nation in the form of $1.5 million worth of equipment for earthquake relief.”
One American teacher living and working in Beijing wrote in the New York Times: “As tragic as the Sichuan earthquake has been, perhaps it can do some good by helping dispel a widespread myth: that the new generation of Chinese students are materialistic and selfish.” Daniel A. Bell hoped that, “events can dispel another false impression: that young Chinese are xenophobic nationalists who cheer for their country, good or bad.”
Columnist Nicholas D. Kristof expressed a similarly optimistic attitude, though perhaps naively believed that “grass-roots politics” was taking shape in the world’s most populous nation. Although parents who lost children in shoddily constructed schools are demanding action on “tofu” buildings – and bloggers are now harassing corrupt government officials – authoritarian rule is as entrenched as ever.
There is no doubt, however, that China’s rulers, at least briefly, allowed a freer society to be glimpsed and both local and foreign reporters were allowed relatively unfettered access to the disaster zone.
“In the face of such suffering”, writes China’s correspondent for Britain’s Channel 4, Lindsey Hilsum, “it would be heartless and probably over-optimistic to herald the Sichuan earthquake as the beginning of civil society and accountable government in China. And yet, this natural disaster may have done more than years of campaigning by human rights and democracy activists to force the Chinese government to start opening up.”
Realists, however – and my experience tells me that the Chinese Community Party is unlikely to relinquish its grip on power anytime soon – place the regime’s response to the quake in an historical context. Geremie Barme, professor of Chinese history at the Australian National University, says that, “People have responded generously to this vast human tragedy but many are also aware that the Party is zuo xiu, that is ‘putting on a show’ for mass consumption. There’s a tradition reaching back into dynastic times in which power-holders display their virtue through great shows of munificence through disaster relief.”
China’s global, economic power is never far from the surface and Western multinationals have every interest in joining the boom. Yahoo, Microsoft, Google and Cisco were recently grilled in Congress over their role in China. Revelations about Cisco were particularly worrying, though unsurprising. Money talks the loudest language of all. Calls for US web companies to cease locating servers in repressive regimes is one, solid suggestion.
As the Olympics begin in just over three months, it remains unclear what restrictions journalists will face during the event. Censorship is rife, with a popular bridge-building website between China’s Muslim population and Han Chinese shut down in mid-May.
After the devastation of the earthquake is long forgotten, the rules of the Chinese game will remain set. Human rights have rarely been a determining factor in capitalist development and Beijing has no desire to change this equation. Mr X, a foreign media entrepreneur based in China, outlined the rules of this (profitable) game:
“Ultimately, to succeed in China, businesses must assume the goals of the Communist Party as their own. One of the first steps into the market for a major multinational is to hire a government-relations director who will interpret China’s policies and articulate the company’s fealty to those policies as its “commitment to China.”
“In fact, conflating the interests of the Chinese Communist Party with the interests of businesses operating in China is what makes China Inc. work. For the last 30 years, China has been building a social system that establishes an identity between business and broader political or social interests.”