Special Reports



Why did China work so hard for so long to stage the Olympics in their country, inviting as it does the spotlight of the worlds attention. This extends beyond the glitz and the glamour, to examine every aspect of this giant amongst nations, bad as well as good? There is much to admire in their history and culture, also in the modernity of what the cameras will show, but as we saw in the ill-judged world tour of the Olympic flame, it is also a time when the downtrodden, the ill-used amongst the billion plus population, have an opportunity to display their grievances to the world. No society on earth is more ‘managed’ than that of China. They have many achievements to be sure. But they also have questionable, even disgraceful matters, which they could not enjoy having exposed before the world.

To host the Olympics, there is certainly an implicit recognition of superiority, of the kind associated with a small number of elite nation states, considered competent to create the extraordinary and costly logistical arrangements implicit in the host's role. These include the ability to invest, not only in the great amphitheatres of sport, but in the surrounding infrastructure of a quality international township, housing many thousand's of the worlds top athletes and their support personnel. It includes the transport required, not only to move the athletes, but also the general public, with particular emphasis on the large number of affluent foreigners who will be present. That means upper levels of hotels. Everything is redolent of cost, every part of the undertaking involves security - now a highly labour-intensive and hi-tech enterprise, of which China can be said to be a leading practitioner.

Always there is risk: that it will not be up to the highest international standards; that some freak occurrence - smog let us say, or some other act of nature that will somehow be tied to China's only relatively advanced, modern society. But the biggest risk of all is political, that which China is perhaps best qualified and better equipped to deal with, than almost any nation on earth. There is the risk of camera-seeking, political demonstrations. At best, of protestors blocking the roads and making forays onto the athletic areas. At worst, the danger of serious murderous violence, such as bombs. 

China has its colonial problems, Tibet for one, a territory they have occupied since 1949 which is growing increasingly restive but whose political leader, the Dalai Lama already a political refugee, has an absolute determination to use only non-violent methods of protest.  Although he has already voiced concerns about his continuing ability to rein in some of the younger protesters. 

Xingjiang on the other hand, China's most westerly province has an Islamic resistance claiming, it is said affiliation to Al Qaeda and prepared to use violent methods, particularly to gain world media attention as the August attack on the border post near Kashgar demonstrated. But this reaction is less religious than ethno-political, since their complaint is that their once Turkic Uighur state has been 're-settled' by immigrant Chinese over many years, and ‘Sinified’, so that the population of some 17 million is now fully 50% Han Chinese, a majority in fact, in the towns. 

The essence of the determination to bring the Games to Beijing always had to be of a political character. It amounts to a declaration, a challenge: "Look at us"! Yet any objective observer, be he citizen or journalist, is not going to fail to 'look' yet in doing so ignore what has been happening for example, in Tibet. Or to refuse to examine the sometimes desperate problems of China's rural poor, definitely a helot community - untermenschen within a communist state. They will not in all reason look away from these realities, to concentrate only on China's impressive economic or sporting performance.

We consider why, given these public-relations risks this nation at this time has planned and plotted to have the merciless spotlight of the world's media turned upon it, by hosting the premier athletics event in their capital? 

The Chinese "Idea" 
Modern China, more than any other nation on earth, is the owner of a national 'idea,' largely because it has been conscious of its identity for so much longer than most. It has long held this fancy that it was contiguous with 'the middle kingdom,' effectively that which lies between Heaven and Hell. Although it has had many fractious uprisings and indeed has often been successfully invaded, it has never lost a sense of its superiority. China's emperors were the sons of heaven, with a mandate from that place.

For much of Chinese history they regarded all outsiders as barbarians, and in relative terms they were often right. China made great strides in discoveries of all kinds - military, economic, navigational, agricultural, cultural, scientific, medical, at a time when a very large proportion of the world’s inhabited surface was peopled with humans who were far back in terms of development, whose life style, if it may be termed that, was primitive, and who understood nothing much about the finer things of life. By contrast, picture a meritocratic nation where many centuries ago the ruling class of civil administrators at all levels below the throne, were appointed by merit after examination, amongst other things not just for their knowledge of literature, but for their personal competence at writing poetry.     

Like all great powers of which they were probably the first, they sought to dominate their neighbours, but this was not just a military or economic superiority. Long ago China was capable of creating a cultural superiority, which resulted in the long-lasting Sinification of neighbouring Korea, Vietnam and Japan, each of which readily adopted Chinese modalities across a broad spectrum of human activities. Indeed in Vietnam and Korea, the court and civil administration was clearly modeled on that of China. The art and architecture of all these nations can be seen to be heavily dependent on the pervasive Chinese influence. Their varying modified forms of Buddhism were diffused from that which two and a half millennia ago travelled down the silk road from India, and first took root in China. Even their myths – take the imperial dragon for example- can be identified as ‘borrowed.’ 

In the context of the 21st century, we witness the Sinification process as it takes place, currently in Tibet, and most recently where it is largely now completed, in Xingjiang. There a Turkic native population in this central Asian territory was matched (and outnumbered in towns and cities), by a persistent immigration of Han Chinese encouraged from greater China by bigger salaries, or loans for new businesses, or a relaxed ‘one child per family ’ policy strictly enforced elsewhere in China. Where the teaching language in the schools is now Chinese. Where all senior jobs are reserved for Han or Sinified locals. Permanent troop concentrations and repressive police methods deals with protest, if and when that arises. The objective is to create and maintain stability of the region, as an organic and economically contributing part of the whole state of China. 

This same process is well advanced within Tibet, but there it is substantially less successful, partly because the unique Tibetan culture is itself so powerful a force. In Tibet there is a focus for rejecting Sinification because of the existence of a large diaspora, and a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, headed by the Dalai Lama, a leader widely respected across the outside world. 

The fact is that China’s creeping embrace within Xingjiang was successful, because it was low-key. Tibet is high profile and likely to remain so. That ‘roof of the world,’ ‘land of snows,’ imagery, the highest country in the world with four of the worlds ten tallest peaks, an awesome and unique religious culture, plus its admired leader, gives it a dimension of universality. In a way it belongs to all of mankind! The original crude colonial tactics used in Tibet, greatly exacerbated by the enormities of the cultural revolution, can be seen to have been serious mistakes in forcing the indigenous leadership to ‘up stakes’ and set up abroad. After many years, solutions are again available to China, because the exiled leadership are not seeking their independence. They acknowledge Tibet is a part of China, that military and foreign affairs should remain with Beijing, but that a country that is officially described as ‘autonomous’ internally, should be exactly that and enabled to preserve what is precious about its traditions and its culture. China invented the concept of ‘One Country Two Systems’. They already have highly successful autonomous territories in Hong Kong and Macao. This is the deal on offer to Taiwan. Why not also Tibet? 

If China were to agree to a genuine TAR, where the Tibetans could safeguard their culture; where the diaspora, including the Dalai Lama could come home, they would be widely admired for having achieved that degree of political maturity. Their prestige and PR gains would rise in the world more than in any series of triumphs at the Olympics. 

But can China show that degree of vision? Don’t hold your breath.                

Given the title of this piece, some readers might speculate that ‘What China Wants’ is world domination. In that context it is instructive to consider what might have been. 

Nation states, apart from their earlier colonial ventures, began in the 16th 17th 18th 19th,centuries to have a truly global geopolitical reach. The extraordinary fact is that before this China was centuries ahead of the rest of the world in long distance navigation and voyaging. The full extent is still not finally agreed to this day, but arguably six centuries ago, it was global. (“1421:The Year China Discovered The World.” Gavin Menzies. Bantam Books). Without question they had reached East Africa, Arabia and the Red Sea, Persia and of course both coasts of India, long before the Europeans, the next most advanced explorers of the world. 

They travelled, they traded, but they did not colonise, The strategy pursued by the emperor Zhu Di was to bring all of the world into China’s tribute system, not by force but by trade, by seduction - inviting ambassadors to partake of a sumptuous life in the Chinese capital – which was just moving to Peking. By his fleets bringing lavish gifts for the rulers and their families and the nobility, and then taking back to the emperor, their return presents, this classified by the court as ‘tribute.’ Perhaps overall the most powerful method of bloodless colonization, was by overawing the locals through the sheer display of just being there, so far from home, with their mighty fleets of great ships, full of troops and technologies, all so far in advance of those of the rest of the world. 

For domestic political reasons, at a change of dynasty – the Chinese gave up this huge advance in world affairs, believing on economic grounds, overseas colonization to be no advantage at all. The fact is that unlike today, they measured such activity by the criteria of their own settled empire, which was then in almost every respect self-sufficient. 

"What," the new emperor was said to have asked, "was the point of sending an expensively equipped, mighty fleet to the coast of Africa, when the only really novel product to be brought back was the giraffe?" 

It is significant however, that although imperial China centuries ago, dropped its overseas tributary policy - apart from that towards its immediate Asian neighbours - Chinese merchants since even before that time systematically entered the economies of a myriad of Asian countries and more recently the fully global economy. After the political takeover in China following the defeat of the KMT in 1947, they became more generally and enigmatically known, as the “Overseas Chinese”. 

This is a group that is probably as wealthy as it is secretive, being largely based on mercantile families and operating in a way in which the early British merchant -adventurers in Hong Kong, had an insight in learning from them – indeed it is called the ‘Hong’ system. These are people who can confidently read the yearly ‘Fortune 500’ lists of the richest of the world, knowing that they will not be embarrassed by being included, since they are ‘off the charts’ in more ways than one. 

But there was another important omission by China collectively, which was that having developed real technologies, they failed the follow-up of adequately exploiting them. Gunpowder is the obvious and well- known example. Having developed the chemistry, the product was widely used for firework displays. Once it reached the west it was quickly to be developed as the essential component in the new distance weapons that would dominate warfare for many centuries. How ironic that the western warships, those floating gun-platforms that dominated the coasts and ports of China during the colonial period, were able to do so because their technologists had succeeded in adapting the fireworks material to heavy artillery. 

The advantages the Chinese fleets had in the 15th century, were not only in navigation but in naval architecture. Their ocean-going vessels were several times larger than anything known in Europe at that time. The naval museums in China today illustrate this superiority. One can speculate that if a Chinese fleet with its complement of 20,000 troops, including heavy cavalry, were to have sailed westwards around the Cape of Good Hope, as they well may have done - but then turn north to Europe, which they did not - then conjecture that they had sailed into and seized, let us say Dover on England’s channel coast, and thence across to France. 

They were out on the world’s oceans a hundred years before Columbus arrived in the West Indies, and were technologically in a position to have done that! This in reverse would be much the way the Europeans took over Hong Kong some four hundred years later - and spread out from there. The English and the French at that early time of the 14th century had nothing more than fishing boat-sized ships. Their relatively small armies, typically 5000 to 6000 strong were already pre-occupied with each other, obsessively battling out the hundred-years war. Few people knew that China even existed. An opportunity lost for China perhaps, which might have caused modern history to have been completely re-written. 

It was not longer than a century later before European navigation and naval architecture made sufficient advances to enable the Age of Exploration, with the nations of western Europe spreading out across the globe in voyages of exploration and colonization, but it is salutary to realise that certainly where all of Asia, the Arab countries and India were concerned, China first had it, and then blew it! They had time to reflect on their failure to consolidate their early mastery of the oceans, when the colonizers started knocking on their door, first the Portuguese at Canton as early as 1500, and with the British considerably later and more poignantly, turning trade into explicit political colonization. 

China’s self-sufficiency particularly in food was a reality, as it largely still is today, a factor in their not needing overseas colonies. The first embassy of Britain to Beijing in 1792 was something of a diplomatic disaster. The Earl Macartney had not been invited and was just not wanted. After the Peking court had created every obstacle, after many months of kicking-his-heels waiting, he was finally admitted to the imperial presence. He then refused to kow-tow! Things did not get better, but with his head still on his shoulders, he was graciously permitted to leave, and to return to England. A grumbling letter was sent with him to King George by the Emperor in terms of addressing a tributary, complaining about the lack of respect in even sending an emissary, and threatening to impose sanctions by cutting off England’s access to supplies of…. rhubarb! 

In the 18th century that threat had a little more resonance than now. Unbalanced diets and very different life styles led to constipation being a serious discommoding affliction, and rhubarb was regarded as a good, perhaps the only known ‘physick’ for it. However it is not the stuff of which international threats and sanctions are usually now made.
Globalisation was greatly accelerated by two world wars, and now as a result of cultural, political, military or economic imperialism, frequently belong to 'camps' which often experience 'cross-over' in different circumstances. So China belongs to all manner of international organizations and seems to have every intention of not only joining, but of playing a full part, although they are spectacularly missing from peace-keeping forces. What China was not able to do in the age of militarisation, which probably has now passed, they have done through the strength of their economy, re-inventing themselves into the low-tech workshop of the world, with every intention, as opportunity occurs, of moving up into the high-tech areas of industry. What they have to offer is a well-trained workforce, able to do skilled work at pay rates far below their western rivals. They compete more with India than western nations in that way, and between them, the face of manufacturing world-wide has changed beyond recognition. 

This is the most highly competitive of international gatherings and athleticism and sport generally is regarded by many as a forum for national rivalries. The ‘gold medal’ count may not be in the spirit of the ancient Greek original festival (as we are told), but with a popular press that thrives on discord inclined to think it is all for their benefit, there is no slight chance that it could be otherwise.

China as host can be confident that it will not be lagging amongst the low performers, vital since a large part of the staging of the event is to demonstrate national prowess to their own citizens. The constituency that matters to the rulers of China is the middle class, many of them party members. What is important is that the CCP remains in control of everything, and that nothing is allowed to challenge this cosy arrangement. The workers leaders are co-opted into the party, the underclass are wretched and with no power, but the party membership itself contains all the cadres and they must receive the rewards of their essential loyalty. Prestige therefore matters and this privileged internal audience, is a key component of the whole exercise. 

China sent its first Olympian athletes to Los Angeles in 1932. Political disputes (over Taiwan) saw them withdraw in 1958. When they returned in 1984 they won 15 gold medals. In 2004 at Athens, China took 32 medals, second only to the US with 36. It is then entirely feasible that they will top the 2008 gold medal list. 

The determination to bring the Games to Beijing was backed by a high degree of confidence about the medals outcome. It is a rare competition in which just about every nation on earth can take part and the message of success will be particularly powerful in China itself and in Asia generally, if Asian athletes can be seen to take on and beat the best of the west – within which definition they would include Russia! 

None of this will be due purely to chance, or native individual ability alone. Their training system starts as early as six years old for the few who show sporting ability at that young age. They are sent to specialised sports schools for full time training. The best of these join professional teams with the top performers sent on to join national squads. No one in China doubts that their individual athletes will do brilliantly well. But Chinese sports teams have had less international success, so how - to what extent this intensive training regime pays off, remains to be seen. 

They have a stable of putative gold medallists just waiting to scoop the pool, but could that mean no more USA, no more Russia, now it’s to be GO C H I N A ? That would be hubris writ large.

So What DOES China Want?

Q: Is it a charm offensive?

A :Partly. Nearly sixty years after their current regime was founded it is perhaps time to show what they have got, particularly to their own substantial middle class who are the key to so much, but also to Asians generally. 
Q: Do they believe that they tread a ‘right path’ that others seeing their example should follow? A: All the evidence is that idealism has long departed from the CCP. Power is the substitute bromide. 
Q: Do they hope to show the world that China is now an affluent nation - to be envied, and perhaps even trusted?

A: Yes, let the world dominated by American popular culture and values, make the pilgrimage to China, to see a new centre of excellence in capitalist terms, and right up there and able to compete in most fields of human activity. Certainly let East and South east Asia know that ‘China is back’ as a leader after some troubled centuries, and expecting recognition of its status, perhaps contiguous to that of the USA with Europe. 

In that context it would be quite logical that one outcome might be an initially economic ‘East Asian Union,’ on the lines of the European Union, with or without Japan. Certainly a joint currency is already mooted and other alignments might follow.   

Q: Is it that China has not arrived at, or taken up that place in the world hierarchy that they may feel that they have earned or indeed, since they have the mandate of heaven, have been wrongly deprived of, by jealous neighbours?

A: Probably. The jealous neighbour unspoken of in such a way, but an immovable object in regional terms, is of course Japan, but China may now be ready to move on, past ancient prejudices.    

Of course it could be all of these things, but it is as well to see China as it really is. Dividing policy priorities between domestic and foreign, there can be no doubt that domestic policy ranks highest. But any consideration of how the hierarchy think, needs to take into account that China has above all a political philosophy of long-termism. All democratic governments have to produce results within a short electoral time frame, or they are replaced. That does not apply to China, nor will it in any foreseeable future. China however understands the long term in a way that the Zimbabwes and the Myanmars cannot do. It is a human failing that we seek to achieve measurable results within our own lifetime. In the world of statecraft it is, short of war, often indeed usually, not possible to do. When China was forced into an ‘unequal treaty’ at the end of the ‘opium wars’ to cede Hong Kong, it also leased the new territories in the realisation that a century or so later, it would all come back, as it surely has done. China allowed Portugal to occupy Macao for five centuries, until such time as they wanted it back. When China was invaded and occupied by the Mongols and later the Manchu, these hateful barbarians over generations, morphed into becoming Chinese. It was only a matter of time before the sybaritic ways of the middle-kingdom replaced the very basic, nomadic way of life in which they had already substituted fine silks for animal skins. 

So whilst foreign policy is less urgent for China than its domestic affairs, today’s leaders will be confident that future generations of leaders, given the absence of war, will have more scope to see things differently. 

Domestic Policy Priorities 
The domestic priority above all, is to maintain the unique power of the CCP. This must continue to be a monopoly of power, not be subject to the masses, so democracy is not going to happen. The existing levels of relative freedoms they can live with. Like the internet, which they have discovered they can effectively control, given some 280,000 / 400,000 estimated pro-CCP bloggers and ‘spoilers,’ who are paid and organised. 

The membership of the CCP is middle-class, not only via the traditional bourgeoisie of shopkeepers, businessmen and the like, but by virtue of being party members. They and their families control everything and intend to continue to do so. The regime goal is to keep the urban middle class happy. Knowing that they loathe the peasants, unlike other countries they are not going to become the well-spring of democracy, nor any engine of change in society. 

They will keep the economy growing and be even more successful, and to that end government will crack down on any attempts to form independent trades unions. The CCP will not share power with anybody, certainly not with representatives of the workers! As it is now, all key decisions in all industries are made by the CCP secretary, who may sometimes combine that role with being chief executive of the same organization. 
Foreign policy 
China’s ‘Near Abroad’ now includes a crescent of friendly regimes, well disposed to Beijing,from Pyongyang through Myanmar, now extending to Nepal, indeed the FSU republics to the west, now no longer mere ciphers for the USSR, can be said to be friendly and responsive to China .The potential ‘contamination’ of democracy is hardly present in any of them, most being dictatorships, so this situation will be stimulated. 

Recovering Taiwan after nearly sixty years, is a major policy goal but this is a good example of the ‘long-termism’ discussed above. Despite some huffing and puffing, it is most unlikely that recourse to military measures would be attempted in any foreseeable timescale. A Hong Kong solution may sooner perhaps, rather than later, become acceptable to the people of Taiwan who have just elected a more Beijing-friendly government. Within weeks they have already made some startling concessions to Beijing and there is serious talk of a Taiwan Autonomous Region. Such a development might assist the Tibetan chances of themselves acquiring a similar status. Talks between the Dalai Lama’s representatives with Beijing, are ongoing. 

Alternatively following the games, when the eyes of the world’s media are elsewhere, there may be a purge in Tibet. If so it would be a lost opportunity, given that for the price basically of awarding real cultural autonomy, Tibet would peacefully accept its role as an economic limb of greater China. Like other ethnic minorities they would be tolerated, and as with other systems like Hong Kong and Macao, be fruitfully incorporated into the ‘empire’. 

Since economic progress is of the essence, developing good relations with nations anywhere that have the raw-materials or the energy resources that Chinese economic growth requires, will be continued, without concerns for human rights issues. 

Knowing they are light-years behind the USA in military weaponry there is little question of any military confrontations when reverses could affect the status quo of the CCP. But the friendly relations with Russia (probably better than at any time in history), are in present circumstances likely to continue as they are, both equally resistant to the USA’s current policies of global hegemony and unilateral interventionism. The military component of the CCP will continue to press for modernising of weapons systems to keep them as prominent players. 

The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation is a perfect vehicle for them, given that they and Russia continue to agree on levels of response. As a putative eastern Nato it might show considerable political advantages as well. But China may have other alternatives. If indeed Taiwan were to freely accept autonomous status, then the USA would have no potential casus belli on that horizon at all. In those terms with perhaps a new US administration softening its hegemonic stance, the complete revision of relations between the USA and China would be possible, and China might be tempted to move away from its alliances with a more assertive Russia, which is potentially a worrying line-up for the rest of the world. 

None of this is to assume that in the long term China will not seek to dominate, but what can that mean in tomorrows world? No one can know the circumstances, except that alongside national differences, the world is confronting global problems of climate and inevitably water supplies, which we predict will occupy future generations, as this one is fixated on oil. 

China through Tibet controls the headwaters of several of Asia’s greatest rivers – names to conjure with: Ganges, Bhramaputra, Mekong, Indus, Sutlej, Yangtse,Yellow River and Irrawaddy. The strategic value of controlling these waters over such a large part of fertile Asia may be seen during the coming century.  If as many suspect it will be water shortages that will next exercise the world’s anxieties, to be ‘a friend of China’ and keep your water flowing, might have similarities to Russia’s ‘stopcock imperialism’ with flows of oil and gas. 

Jared Diamond’s world overview book “Collapse” Penguin Books, includes a chapter, “China - Lurching Giant,” with a mass of detail, and he concludes : 

“How will it all end up? Like the rest of the world, China is lurching between accelerating environmental damage, and accelerating environmental protection. China’s large population and large growing economy and its current and historic centralization mean that China’s lurches involve more momentum than those of any other country.   

The outcome will affect not just China but the whole world as well. …My best case scenario for the future is that China’s government will recognize that its environmental problems pose an even greater threat, than did its problem of population growth. It may then conclude that China’s interests require environmental policies as bold, and as effectively carried out as its family planning policies.”