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中國必須做甚麼

What China 'must do' Or rather, what American commentators must not do

Tom Plate

Monday, August 14, 2006

It is not difficult to imagine that how we in the West think about China may over the course of time have a heavy impact on our trans-Pacific destiny.

This is not to underplay the unnerving efforts posed by "Islamic fascists." This was the phrase employed by President George Bush as the world learned of the latest apparent crazed mass murder threat to our airports, thwarted by police work, particularly from British and Pakistani authorities. More planned attacks -- though perhaps not on airports for the time being -- can be anticipated.

Right now, this terrorist threat seems all-daunting. China, by contrast, has been playing its diplomatic cards fairly well and has prioritized economic growth and integration with the global economy over everything else. In an odd sense, then, Chinese authorities can be grateful for the emergence of this contemporary Islamic Luddite rebellion -- a loose strand of demented losers railing against the very existence of modern civilization. This bizarre threat tends to put a shadow over almost every other issue, including China.

Despite this, a hardy band of Western academics, former officials and journalists stay on the China-watch alert. They warn of us of China's negative aspects -- from its military buildup to persistent media shackling and so on -- that deserve to be included in the larger picture of Asia and the world. But in some of this commentary, analysis and scholarship is needlessly alarmist. Just as the Scotland Yard, the headquarters of London's famed metropolitan police, described the disrupted terrorist plot as posing a threat of "mass murder on an unimaginable scale," there is pessimistic "China menace" hype, too. The average person is terrified enough about terrorism without the police losing professional perspective and offering monster-movie advertising copy, and the same could be said of some of the West's inveterate China haters. The potential of China -- as a nuclear power and the world's largest expanding economy -- to do harm is serious enough without the need for hysteria.

But there is another issue with some contemporary commentary about the globe's most populated nation that in some ways is even more worrisome. It arises not from the work of the "Red menace" brigade but from some of our most sophisticated and cultured commentators. For instance, in a recent review of a major new book on China -- appearing in a distinguished American newspaper headquartered in a city I will purposely not mention -- the reviewer proposed a kind of chore list for Beijing that it "must do" if it is to succeed in the 21st century.

The tone of the commentary was slightly more cosmopolitan than my summary rendition. The chore-list was not intended to be demeaning, but it was. Generally, China, having been a coherent civilization and country for several thousands of years, does not welcome unsolicited advice about what it "must do," especially from the United States, a country that has been around only for a couple of centuries and which -- it might be said -- has its own share of very serious internal problems.

Frankly, the gravely systemic nature of those problems -- especially the prevalence of inner-city unemployment and under-education -- arguably pose a greater national security threat to us than anything Beijing is likely to come up with. Sure, something as unlikely as a surprise nuclear missile attack would indeed constitute, to coin a phrase, "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."

China's current path of growth and global integration makes such a nightmare "Red menace" scenario less likely by the day. But other irritating and possibly serious issue with China might arise, in part, I would argue, because of our own misunderstandings and misconceptions about how the Chinese tend to think about issues and how they wish to relate to us in the West.

For starters, they do not view themselves -- or like to be viewed by us -- as inferiors or supplicants and they suspect that the advice they receive is not in China's best interests, but in America's. This is certainly not always the case; a real pro like Charlene Barshefsky, for example, rightly earned high grades from Beijing when she was chief trade negotiator in the Clinton administration for her non-condescending suggestions on how to proceed with market openings.

But in general, commentators with even the best of intentions who indulge in the "China must" do this or "must do" that will not only find their prescriptions falling on deaf ears in Asia (that is, when Asians aren't quietly laughing at such characteristic American hubris); this misguided commentary may mislead even thinking Americans about what constitutes the best possible bilateral discourse with the 21st century's likely new superpower.

Precisely because our most sophisticated commentators know so much more and care so much more about China, their responsibility to respect this ancient culture and couch their commentary in a more cosmopolitan way is a moral and professional -- pardon the word -- must.

 
 

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