TCS Daily


Is the World Moving 'Beyond Liberal Democracy'?

By Rowan Callick - December 14, 2006 12:00 AM

BEIJING -- This might seem a very odd exercise if you live in the USA or the Middle East. But for those of us in the rest of the world, it's pretty natural. Simply excise the Middle East, and look at what's happening in most other places. One word will do: China. That's what's happening.

While the USA is preoccupied with the Middle East, it is "losing" the rest of the world. The entire developing world, as well as the industrial powerhouses of East Asia, are already starting to view China as not a mere potential rival to the US but as a new super-power already.

The forced resignation of John Bolton as America's United Nations ambassador reinforces the perception that Washington will be hors de combat for a couple of years, with a lame duck president competing for domestic influence with an isolationist Congress.

This is helping stimulate Beijing's voracious engagement in trade deals of every kind. Its diplomacy is focused and relentless. And its "non conditional friendship" approach is loved by Third World leaders irritated by the attempts of Western countries, international agencies and non government organizations to bring them to account.

Where Japan at its economic zenith in the 1970s and 1980s never succeeded in boxing its true weight in the political and strategic realms, China is already exerting an influence even greater than its fast growing economic clout appears to merit.

From a Washington perspective, this might appear darned unfair, as the US is almost alone leading the war on Islamist terror in the thankless heat of the day, on behalf of most of the rest of the world.

It is indeed unfair. But for many complex reasons, the crucial need for the war on terror is little understood elsewhere, and most European opinion leaders - including those from Britain -- that remain influential internationally are exulting in the USA's being humbled.

Meanwhile, most of the problems, the vanities, the cruelties of the rulers of China are conveniently sidelined as it is vaunted as not merely the Next Big Thing -- a sort of globalization-meets-internet-age super new wave -- but as the Now Big Thing. Call this ungrateful, naïve, greedy, unintelligent, amoral, short-sighted, disloyal, opportunistic - and you'd be right. But it's next to impossible to turn it off.

China Central TV has just finished broadcasting a lavish 12 part historical series on "The Rise of the Great Nations." The message is clear, in a country whose diplomatic catchphrase is its "peaceful rise" - we're next.

At international meetings, the star turn, the person all the others queue to meet one-on-one, is now the Chinese leader - the calculating President Hu Jintao, or the more approachable Premier Wen Jiabao.

Last month China hosted the heads of 48 African nations in Beijing for a sumptuously organized China-Africa summit. Huge billboards, which still punctuate the capital's Bladerunner-esque skyline, make statements such as "La Belle Afrique: Beautiful Africa."

Such unambiguous praise contrasts with the mean-mindedness that African leaders perceive in the complex playing-off between interest groups out of which Western policy eventually evolves.

The first Conference of Sino-Arab Friendship was recently held under the sponsorship of the Arab League, in Khartoum, capital of Sudan.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which China founded and coordinates, has swiftly emerged as the core international body in central Asia.

China has sealed an evolving trade deal with the ten members of the Association of South East Asian Nations and is already the paramount power there.

The Russia of Vladimir Putin is naturally inclined to align itself more closely with tightly controlled one-party China than with its own liberal Western detractors led by Washington.

And of course, China's claim to global greatness is also being quietly promoted by some Western nations, led by France, whose prime aim appears thereby to cut Washington down to size.

This trend - so rapid that it has caught Washington well off guard - is not merely being played out in economic and strategic arenas. It is also triggering a cultural shift.

The earlier rise of authoritarian, Confucianesque "Asian values" promoted by south east Asian leaders bit the dust, rightly so, when the region's economies hit the wall in 1997.

But the concept is now returning with a vengeance, far more powerfully fuelled this time - by the leaders of China who are investing millions of dollars in a global chain of Confucian Institutes.

The view that this is already China's cultural, political and strategic hour as well as its economic hour, decades before many observers had expected, is being echoed in new books such as "Beyond Liberal Democracy," by the young Canadian Philosophy Professor at Beijing's elite Qinghua University, Daniel Bell.

He champions as an alternative to liberal democracy, re-emergent Confucianism, that he sees embodied in the new Chinese leadership of Asia, encapsulated in Hu Jintao's relentless slogan about building a "harmonious socialist society."

Beijing's trumpeting, which will reach fever pitch at the Beijing Olympics in August 2008, is sounding myriad echoes around the region. For instance, Hong Kong's Home Affairs Secretary Patrick Ho said recently that while "the West has promulgated what it describes as the 'universal values' of individual rights... we in the East have consistently stressed collective rights and responsibilities... strong family ties, resilient social structures, and closely knitted community life."

Fellow Hong Konger Willy Wo-lap Lam, a renowned China analyst, says the Chinese regime's treatment of the defenders of marginalised people - like blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng, his four year sentence for conspiring to disrupt traffic recently upheld - hardly promotes "community life."

"Internationally, 'harmony' is supposed to mean the opposite of Bush-style unilateralism," he says. "But it is just rhetoric. Beijing is aggressively trying to subjugate Burma, Laos and other client states, and its behaviour in Sudan is certainly not Confucianist, only creating 'harmony' for the murderous dictators there."

But harmonious or not, the Chinese are inexorably coming.

Rowan Callick is the Beijing based China correspondent of The Australian newspaper.


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