Growth + power = abuse?

My following article appears in the Amnesty International Australia’s Uncensor campaign about human rights in China:

China’s rapid growth is often forgotten when analysing the country’s human rights record, but these issues should not be ignored in the rush for super-power status, writes Antony Loewenstein.

Amidst all the current stories about China and the Beijing Olympics, it’s easy to forget that the country has progressed extraordinarily fast in the past decade. Some facts are in order:

  • 30,000: The expected number of Chinese MBA graduates in 2008. The number in 1998: 0
  • 500: The number of coal-fired power plants China plans to build in the next decade
  • 540 million: Number of mobile phone users in China, with an increase of 44 million in the past six months
  • 33: The number of Chinese journalists thought to be held in prisons in 2008
  • 22: The number of suicides per 100,000 people, about 50 per cent higher than the global average. Suicide is the fifth most common cause of death in China, and the first among people aged between 20 and 35
  • 30: The number of different animal penises on the menu at Guolizhuang, Beijing’s ”˜penis emporium’. A yak’s costs about …£15, while a tiger’s (which must be pre-ordered) will set you back …£3,000

The rise of China continues to fascinate and frustrate the world. Very few other nations would warrant leading articles discussing the “dark side” of its existence.

Of course, China has come a long way in the last years, something revealed by this hilarious news story from 1982 about “sexy adverts” upsetting a Chinese workman. At that stage, advertising had only returned to public visibility after years of being banned as a “bourgeois capitalist practice.”

The last months have revealed intense anger towards perceived Western-led, anti-Chinese media coverage. Death threats against foreign journalists is increasing, according to a recent warning issued by the Beijing-based Foreign Correspondents Club. Chinese bloggers want to talk about patriotism and protestors in Korea who attacked Chinese students during the torch relay. Interestingly, Vietnamese bloggers recently expressed their displeasure about past Chinese behaviour.

Despite these issues, however, the regime is busily trying to present a welcoming face to the hundreds of thousands of visitors expected in August. The news that authorities won’t guarantee web freedom during the Games is a bad omen as is the arrest of yet another freelance writer. Zhou Yuanzhi was charged with “inciting subversion of state power.”

Tibet remains a thorn in the side of the authorities (and a provocative piece in last week’s Financial Times argued that the province had a stronger international law case for self-rule than Kosovo). The Dalai Lama and his cause are still misunderstood in the West. The leader of the Tibetan people is angry towards China but remarkably conciliatory. The charged area of Xinjiang remains under the Chinese jackboot.

While the political masters attempt to avoid potential embarrassments, Western multinationals continue to operate like business as usual (despite Google being investigated by Chinese officials for possibly breaching state secrecy laws by showing “illegal” maps of the country.)

Google co-founder Sergei Brin told last week’s shareholder meeting that he was “pretty proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in China”¦Google has a far superior track record than other internet search companies in China.” What’s a little censorship when there is money to be made? Unveiling a translation service to rival search engine’s Baidu’s dominance is a clear sign of future directions. At least Reporters Without Borders asked a few pointed questions at the Adidas shareholders meeting about the company’s attitude to human rights abuse in China. They received little positive response.

The Western fear of China is never far below the surface, however. China bashing is the favoured sport of the American presidential nominees but achieves little. Respectful dialogue between the various sides is the only rational way forward.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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