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‘New normal’ in form of old for Beijing?

Thursday, 01 December 2016 | Claude Arpi | in Edit

China has been asserting itself globally. The US's possible withdrawal from the TPP will help Beijing.  Can China be a champion of ‘globalisation' and yet remain an authoritarian regime internally

The new Literature Nobel Prize laureate once sang, “The Times They Are a-Changin”. Lately, they have been changing even faster. Realignments are swiftly taking place, creating a sense of planetary incertitude. Take the example of US President-elect Donald Trump’s announcement that the US would pull out of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); it could undoubtedly create a void that Beijing is dreaming to fill. New York University professor Ian Bremmer noted that “officials in China are excited about Trump’s plan to withdraw from the US’s participation in the planned TPP”.

The New York Times report headlined, ‘China’s Influence Grows in Ashes of Trans-Pacific Trade Pact’, remarked that an apparent defeat was “an unalloyed triumph for China”. There is no doubt that we may soon witness a considerable realignment in Asia, with China taking the lead.

During his keynote speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) in Lima in Peru, Chinese President Xi Jinping renewed his call for ‘globalisation’; he pushed for the construction of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). While the new US dispensation preaches protectionism and is crusading against economic globalisation, Xi plays the ‘global’ card: “We should firmly pursue the FTAAP as an institutional mechanism for ensuring an open economy in the Asia-Pacific”, he said. Were Mao Zedong to come out of his mausoleum, he would not believe his ears.

But nothing is simple in today’s world. The TPP was to promote fairer and freer trade with far-reaching provisions for labour and environmental protection. The US withdrawal may trigger a halt of domestic reforms in the Middle Kingdom. The fact that China will face no restriction anymore, will not help Beijing become a ‘normal’ state. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) pointed out: “The scale of the pact was expected to put external pressure on Beijing to lift its own standards.”

Zhao Minghao, a researcher with the China Centre for Contemporary World Studies, told the SCMP that “the TPP’s demise would be a ‘double-edged sword’ for China”. It pointed out that other deals such as the FTAAP “did not require the Central Government to make painful domestic changes”.

Can China simultaneously promote free-market and remain an authoritarian regime, controlling its own people in a repressive manner? In this context, it is interesting to look at the new counter-terrorism law which came into effect on January 1, 2016. The new law consists of 97 Articles in 10 chapters, covering issues such as terrorism designation, prevention, intelligence gathering, investigation, emergency response, international co-operation or legal liabilities.

While one can rejoice that China has decided to become a ‘normal’ state ruled by law, one is forced to notice that general repression of individual freedom of speech and thought, has dramatically increased since the 18th Congress in November 2012. Though Rule of Law is one of The Four Comprehensives, President Xi’s new mantra (namely build a moderately prosperous society; deepen the reform; govern according to law; govern strictly under the direction of the Party), it is feared that the last ‘comprehensive’ will not be in accord with the third one. Can a state be governed without checks and balances and at the same time follow the Rule of Law?

Moreover, the new federal Anti-Terrorism Law will be part of a ‘package’ which will include a National Security Law, a Non-Governmental Organisations Management Law and a Cyber-Security Law, amongst others. How far can the new law become a tool to further contain the resentment of the people? Will the Internet and social media networks be an instrument of information or repression?

A few months ago, David Shambaugh, a respected Chinese watcher, who is director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, wrote a Saturday Essay entitled, ‘Coming Chinese Crackup’. It was published in The Wall Street Journal, but circulated widely on social media. Later Shambaugh, elaborated his theory in a 203-page new book, China’s Future, where he argues that “China is in a state of ‘atrophy’ and ‘decline’, which will continue if no major political reform takes place in the near future”.

It is certain that the new law will engender more fear among the so-called minorities and though, like everywhere on the planet, religious extremism may exist in China, ‘regionalism’ in Xinjiang or Tibet is always assimilated to separatism and terrorism. The question remains: Can China become a normal state?

Xinhua had reported: “The regional Government of Xinjiang unveiled China’s first local counterterrorism law. Based on China’s Counterterrorism Law, passed in December 2015, the regional law details and supplements the national law in defining terror activities and terrorists, security precautions, intelligence, investigations, countermeasures and punishment.”

The fact that a ‘counter-terrorist law’ was immediately enacted in Xinjiang (it will probably happen in Tibet soon) makes the future of human rights in China quite disquieting. Once again, it is too easy to associate regional resentment with terrorism. Authoritarianism has other implications.

The Diplomat recently published an article titled, ‘China and Germany: The Honeymoon is over’. It said, “The prolonged honeymoon between China and Germany has come to an abrupt halt. In Berlin, awareness has grown that Beijing has moved from being an economic partner to a serious global competitor.” It cited the recent visit to China of Sigmar Gabriel, the German Economy Minister, which “came in the middle of an atmosphere of crisis in German-Chinese economic relations” It added,  “Instead of attempting to improve matters, however, Gabriel set out to teach the Chinese a lesson.”

Gabriel is also Vice-Chancellor and Chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and is a possible candidate for the next chancellorship.

The Diplomat explained that Gabriel burst out by quoting the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “China is by far the most restrictive industrial country in the world. Unlike the freedom of maneuver Chinese companies enjoy in the West, foreign firms in China are not allowed, for instance, to invest in the banking, telecommunication, or media industries. Public tenders usually are awarded to Chinese companies rather than to foreign ones.”

All this together creates a rather confusing situation; it shows that China is far from stepping into the US’s shoes as the world leader.

Indeed the question is: Can China be a champion of ‘globalisation’ and yet remain an authoritarian regime internally? The answers are not easy to get.

(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and author of several books)