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.
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. Many of its 1.3 billion people still live in poverty, but its $1.4trn in reserves, much of it held in US treasury bonds, give it unprecedented influence over the global financial system. China is already changing the way the world works, by influence and example.
Western leaders continue to assert that capitalism inev itably brings democracy in its wake. “As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it cannot be closed,” said Bush in 2005. “As the people of China grow in prosperity, their demands for political freedom will grow as well.” The US president cited South Korea and Taiwan as examples. “The economic wealth that South Korea created at home helped nurture a thriving middle class that eventually demanded free elections and a democratic government that would be accountable to the people,” he said.
But, as the scholars Azar Gat and James Mann have pointed out, China – unlike smaller east Asian countries – is not under the US military umbrella. It is forging its own path and it is not the one that Bush predicted. As the Communist Party of China prepares for its 17th Congress this month, scores of popular websites have been closed. Meetings of Aids activists have been banned and environmental campaigners have been jailed. Human rights campaigners say that far from more freedom being allowed in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the space for dissent is narrowing.
Premier Wen Jiabao talks vaguely about democracy as some distant ideal, but in an article for the People’s Daily, published in February, he said: “We must adhere to the party’s basic guidelines of the primary stage of socialism for 100 years.”
Meanwhile, as a result of the “reform and opening up” policy, the economy powers ahead at 10 per cent annual growth. The Chinese middle class is getting more prosperous but showing few signs of clamouring for democracy. Young people have pop stars, not politicians, as cult heroes, and seem more interested in voting for candidates in reality-TV shows than elections. Last month, fans of Li Yuchun, winner of the second series of Super Girl, China’s first Pop Idol contest, waited at a Beijing recording studio for seven hours to watch her perform for MTV. Asked about politics, 26-year-old Li Bohui, an office worker, shrugged. “I don’t care,” she said. “It doesn’t have any impact on my life – all that seems so far away. I’m more interested in Li Yuchun because when I see her face I forget my frustrations and troubles.”
Disney and death
It was Lee Kuan Yew, the former leader of Singapore, who predicted that the system he championed would work in China. He turned Singapore into an immensely rich, alarmingly clean, politically repressive city-state, described by the science-fiction writer William Gibson as “Disneyland with the death penalty”.
“If in 20 years they bring China’s progress, not just in the coastal areas, but also the interior, to conditions like those of Korea of the 1980s, the Chinese people will buy that,” Lee said in 2004. “The people’s ambition at present is not to achieve political rights or representative government. They just want to arrive as a developed nation.” It may not last. The Chinese government worries about rising discontent among those who have been left behind – peasants whose land has been confiscated, those who become ill because of polluted water, the victims of unscrupulous officials.
But China is no longer alone. Russia’s retreat from democracy at a time when high oil prices are boosting the economy suggests that an alternative axis is coming into being. China and Russia parted ideological course in 1960, but today, once again, they share a vision.
The Russian economist Sergei Karaganov, dean of the School of International Economics and Foreign Affairs of the State University in Moscow, describes this as a “new era of confrontation”, with China and Russia on one side and the US and EU on the other. “In an environment characterised by acute competition, the fight for the lofty values of democracy will almost inevitably acquire the character of geopolitical confrontation,” he says. “This will impede the probable process of liberalisation in the countries of the new ‘authoritarian’ capitalism – in particular, in Russia.”
Russia’s GDP has risen from $200bn in 1999 to more than $1trn in 2006. Incomes have quadrupled. According to the US think tank Freedom House, “The country has come to resemble the autocratic regimes of central Asia more than the consolidated democracies of eastern Europe that have recently joined the European Union.”
President Vladimir Putin is nonetheless popular, because he has restored a sense of national pride lost in the chaotic years that followed the fall of communism. Many Russians – like many Chinese – feel humiliated by decades of global western dominance. The new “sovereign democracy”, as Russian political scientists call it, has been sold successfully as a way of restoring Russia to its rightful place in the world.
The confidence of the Chinese and Russian governments is bolstered by global economic integration. The European Union and the United States need Russia’s energy supplies and China’s manufactured goods.
The debacle in Iraq, and the wider failure of the American project to bring democracy to the Middle East, have un dermined America’s ideological supremacy. By overreaching itself with a doomed military adventure, the US government has tumbled from its moral pedestal. As Ukraine goes through its third turbulent election in three years, the shine has also come off the various “colour revolutions” trumpeted by western neoconservatives and progressives alike, while making aid to Africa dependent on “good governance” has done little to boost development.
America’s image has collapsed across the world, so China is moving to fill the gap. These days, to many people globally, the Americans seem like the ideologues, with their shrill demands for democracy, while the Chinese are quietly winning friends and influencing people with aid projects, low-interest loans, Confucius Institutes and the aura of success.
The Chinese are less confrontational than the Russians, aware that their ability to extend their reach will be enhanced by better global public relations. It is almost unheard of for a Chinese official to meet representatives of a hostile, foreign non-governmental organisation, but last month Liu Guijin, China’s newly appointed special envoy on Darfur, held talks with the Save Darfur Coalition in Washington.
“We removed some differences between us,” he said on his return to Beijing. Western diplomats, who have struggled with Chinese intransigence for five years, are delighted that members of the People’s Liberation Army will join the new UN/African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur.
The revised policy has cost the Chinese nothing. Their oil interests in Sudan are untouched, and the war has moved to a new stage, as evidenced by the attack on African Union peacekeepers by a band of Darfur rebels at the end of Sep tember. Liu Guijin criticises China’s friends in Khartoum for failing to develop Darfur, pushing the line that the conflict is a result of desertification and poverty, thus neatly avoiding the issue of attacks on civilians committed by the Sudanese government and its militias, using Chinese weapons. The diplomacy is more subtle, the analysis more nuanced, but the principles of China’s policy to support the government of Sudan have not been compromised.
As the monks in Rangoon pushed past the barrier to pray with Aung San Suu Kyi, police in Beijing were demolishing the city’s petitioners’ village. China’s dispossessed – those who have lost land to rapacious developers or been persecuted for exposing corrupt officials – congregate in the capital to petition the authorities for justice. Before the 17th Party Congress, the police are trying to get rid of as many as possible.
On the other side of town, the gleaming new Olympic Stadium is nearly finished, while the leaning towers of the postmodern, experimental new China Central Television building grow higher daily. And in four years, less than the time spent debating Heathrow’s Terminal 5, China has designed and completed the largest airport terminal in the world.
Authoritarian capitalism works. It gets things done.
As the Olympics approach, activist groups will pressure China on human rights, and when the Chinese appear to respond, as they have done on Darfur and could yet do on Burma, western governments will talk of how China is changing. Democracy will follow capitalism, they will tell us, as night follows day. But China’s leaders are embarked on a different course, and it may prove to be the biggest challenge to western certainties since the fall of communism.
Lindsey Hilsum is China correspondent for Channel 4 News
1948 Wins independence from Britain
1962 Ne Win-led coup overthrows elected government
1988 Martial law imposed. 8888 uprising – Rangoon students trigger nationwide demos on 8 August
1992 Than Shwe becomes head of junta
2006 China makes joint investment in $1bn deal for dam on Thai/Burmese border
2007 Buddhist monks lead largest protests since 1988 in Rangoon and Mandalay
Research by Jonathan Beckman