Dr. Steven a. leibo is a Professor of International History & Ppolitics at the Sage Colleges
It was a few years back on these very WAMC airwaves that I found myself arguing with a representative from Amnesty International about China’s human rights record. He kept bringing up one example after another of Chinese human rights violations while I keep pointing out — thinking of periods from the Great Leap Forward to the Anti-Rightist campaign– from the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square – that until recently it had been much worse.
It was of course not that the Amnesty International’s representative was wrong. But that for someone like me, steeped over the decades in the China’s historical evolution the general trend usually seemed to be toward a much more open society. When finally my debating partner blurted out in exasperation that amnesty international didn’t do historical perspective!
At the time, I thought his comment extremely funny but as well a perspective I was quite familiar with. After all, anyone who has worked in the area of Asian studies over the last few decades knows that even in the land of the red and the blue there are still a few things deeply divided Americans could occasionally agree on. And one was that was that China was a very questionable place. While from my perspective hampered as I was by that longer historical view such comments almost always seemed — well, dated.
After all China has been changing faster than any society has ever changed in human history, changing at a pace even I could hardly keep up with. So how could folks less professionally involved have the same sense I did about how much more open China was becoming even as it struggled to return to its former position of world prominence.
Meanwhile I found myself constantly cautioning audiences as Henry Kissinger often does the United States needed to differentiate what in Beijing’s activities represents the natural behavior of a newly powerful great nation and what might more specifically be a threat to the United States.
And then remind my audiences about how much the Chinese had studied America’s relatively smooth emergence as a great power in the early 20th century which was so much smoother, less traumatic than Germany’s bombastic and ultimately disastrous similar attempt. Moreover, today’s Chinese leadership certainly has plenty of reason to be proud.
After all, as the world economic meltdown hit in late 2008 their leadership responded expertly taking their ideological marching orders less from Marx or Mao than the capitalist depression era’s John Maynard Keynes. An economist who had argued that in bad times only national governments had the power to stimulate the economy enough to recover from capitalism’s inevitable downturns. And thus committing China to a massive stimulus that did allow its economy to come roaring back even as the rest of us have stumbled into merely a recovery mode. While allowing Beijing to stage the sort of international coming out party that even their marvelously successfully handling of the 2008 Olympic games did not.
But having said that it is hard not to think that were I again to have another debate on china’s progress I might today have to switch sides because an extraordinary reversal of sorts has occurred over the last year.
No, I am not saying that China’s modernization momentum has slowed. Indeed they are recovering very well from the economic downturn while skillfully positioning China toward the new and inevitable green energy economy. No Beijing has lots of reason to feel more confident.
But it’s not acting that way. Rather domestically they have been acting less confident cracking down more so lately – going after a wide range of individuals and groups it somehow finds threatening.
From those who have investigated shoddy building standards to imposing more harsh crackdowns from Tibet to the Muslim far west — demonstrating a level of intolerance and curiously unnecessary insecurity that’s its recent accomplishments should have banished from its consciousness. But which has clearly made China’s emergence as the world’s newest superpower much more problematic than it once might have been.