23 SEPTEMBER 1995, Page 9


Anne Applebaum foretells the consequences

of American messianism and Chinese intransigence: a new Cold War

Beijing IMAGINE JAPAN with a billion people. Even worse, imagine Japan with a billion people, an army of more than 3 million, hundreds of nuclear weapons and a convic- tion that it has no need to conform to the rules of the game — the trading game, the political game, the diplomatic game — set by the rest of the world.

That, at any rate, was what I was thinking while standing beneath the roof of a vast Chinese covered market, gazing out at a vision of endless handbags: black leather handbags, brown leather handbags, red hand- bags and blue handbags, hand- bags shaped like Mickey Mouse, plastic handbags marked 'China tourist', fake crocodile handbags marked 'Pierrs Cardin', handbags with labels reading 'Made in Italy' or `Glocelle or `St Olivier', handbags stamped with Play- boy bunnies and lined with Burberry-plaid fabric.

This vista was made all the more striking by the knowledge that five years ago none of it existed: not the covered mar- ket, not the wooden stalls, not the men playing cards, not the 100,000 shoppers and — espe- cially — not the handbags. So I was told by Yu Li, clad in base- ball cap and trainers, who manufactures large numbers of these in a small factory nearby. 'Nothing here before, nothing but peasants,' he explains; 'everything here is new.'

`Here' is Baigou, a town which lies about two hours' drive south of Beijing, right at the intersection of three counties — a posi- tion which has meant a laxer tax and regu- latory regime than in other parts of China, more crime — and a capitalist mini-boom. For a while, Baigou was the distribution centre in northern China for the flood of cheap goods — safety pins, socks, dolls, thread, the sort of thing once made by the Japanese — produced by entrepreneurs from the southern Chinese free-trading zones. Now the southern entrepreneurs have moved on. Baigou is making its own goods — particularly handbags — and Yu Li, who grew up in a peasant household nearby, reckons he is making more than £50,000 a year.

Neither Baigou nor Yu Li is typical, of course: on the contrary, almost all of China is still rural, and almost all Chinese (about 900 million out of 1.2 billion) are peasants, most with annual incomes closer to £50 than to £50,000. But that was exactly what was so worrying: it is precisely because there are relatively so few Baigous and so few Yu Lis that we should be nervous. By some counts, Chinese growth rates approach 13 per cent a year; depending upon how you do the sums, China may already be the world's second or third largest economy — the only question is whether it is already bigger than Japan.

If that is the case, what will happen to the relative balance of economic power in the world when the other 900 million start making money too? As I looked around Baigou, I couldn't help but remember a promise Nikita Khrushchev once made, and wondered if the Chinese would keep it: they'll bury us.

Most old China hands, and many western economists who write about China, scoff at such apocalyptic thinking. China is over- heating, they say; China cannot control inflation. China is growing unevenly; uneven growth will bring unrest. China's leadership is corrupt, China's army is out of control, China's provinces will soon want to secede. Statistics which rank the Chinese economy up with the G7 are deeply mis- leading; most of the country remains poor.

All of which may be true; nevertheless, economic growth — and no one doubts that the economy is growing fast — has other implications outside eco- nomics. If a Martian arrived on earth tomorrow and was asked to guess, based on objective information, where the next challenge to American and west European political supremacy were going to come from in the post-Cold War world, the answer would not be Russia, nor would it be the pariah states of the Middle East, the two regions which cause the most grief to western diplomats. Nor for that matter would it be Japan, despite the welter of anti-Japanese Ameri- can films and novels, invariably called something like 'Rising Sun' or 'Yellow Peril'. For all Boris Yeltsin's fist-banging over western 'imperi- alism' in Bosnia, and for all Saddam Hus- sein's anti-American bluster, and for all that the Japanese may terrorise American car manufacturers, if there is a new Cold War, it will probably be with China.

China's rapid economic growth is what has created that possibility, but not merely because the Chinese are now able to flood our high streets with 'Pierrs Cardin' hand- bags, or because international coat-hanger production has moved to Guangdong, in order to take advantage of low wages. You don't, in fact, even need to be a protection- ist in order to notice that rapid economic change of the kind taking place in Baigou has forced what was (and still is) a xeno- phobic, isolated group of Chinese politi- cians into the international arena — into trade negotiations, into political institu- tions — where their ways of doing things are already coming into conflict with those of the West. Like peasants suddenly exposed to the bright lights of Beijing, China's leaders have suddenly been forced to face the realities of international politics in the late 20th century — and they don't want to accept the rules which others have made in advance of their arrival.

Listen, for example, to Franklin Lavin, former American deputy assistant secretary of commerce, describing the behaviour of American and Chinese officials during one prolonged series of trade negotiations in 1993. The Chinese, he wrote in the maga- zine Foreign Affairs, had brought politicians and historians to the table; the Americans, economists, trade experts and lawyers. 'The Americans were there to solve problems; the Chinese to state at every turn that their point of view was correct and justified because of China's historical circumstances or current conditions,' remembered Mr Lavin.: 'The Chinese negotiator's job was not to evaluate the merits of a particular position and work out solutions. His job was to say no for as long as possible.'

Mr Lavin also noticed that persuasion and argument made no impression on the Chinese; only the threat of trade sanctions sometimes did. If the Americans were there to negotiate, to find a middle ground, the Chinese believed that the occasion was a test of who was more powerful. In fact, when the Chinese were told to open their markets they did not even 'hear' a request to open their markets; they heard foreign- ers making demands which impinged upon their sovereignty, and complied only because they felt they had to.

But this attitude does not seem to be unique to trade. Curiously, an east Euro- pean diplomat who has spent more than two decades in China told me more or less the same thing about China's attitude to the western condemnations of human rights violations in China, which are grow- ing more frequent: 'When you westerners say "human rights", they immediately think, Aha, foreigners are trying to impose their value system on ours.' When Hillary Clinton came to Beijing for the UN women's conference earlier this month, for example, and made a speech condemning human rights violations — including some well known to occur in China — the Chi- nese could not believe she made this speech because she cared about the plight of Chinese dissidents or Chinese girl babies (or even, perhaps, because she cared about seeing her husband re-elected). They believed she made the speech as part of a carefully orchestrated campaign designed to weaken China's position in world affairs.

The same is doubtless true of Governor Chris Patten in Hong Kong. He may think, as he said this week, that the people of Hong Kong were 'expressing a view about the sort of place they want Hong Kong to be' when they voted last week against pro- Beijing candidates in democratic elections, but the Chinese do not. The Chinese think the whole exercise was simply an elaborate game of shadow-boxing designed to humili- ate China. The election result gives them more incentive to dissolve Hong Kong's Legislative Council when they take over in 1997, not less.

Most of the time, the Chinese deal with ideological opponents like Mr Patten and Mrs Clinton through the not very subtle method of calculated insults. After the American First Lady had left Beijing, the Chinese press agency published a list of conference speakers, complete with their appropriate titles (First Lady of Brazil, First Lady of Singapore, and so on). Mrs Clinton appeared at the bottom of the list, described simply as 'an American'. Then they published a separate article, claiming that Chinese women enjoy a higher stan- dard of living than Americans (`Chinese women are more likely to vote'). Chris Pat- ten, meanwhile, has been described by Chi- nese newspapers as a 'serpent', a 'criminal' and 'a prostitute who, having sold his body all his life, decides to quit and close his business, and then tells everybody he wants to be chaste and to protect his flesh as if were jade'.

But China has also shown in more tangi- ble ways that it is not interested in playing by the western rules that now govern world trade and politics. Through sales of nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan, India and Iran, and through insistence on testing nuclear weapons only four days after sign- ing the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (a tactlessness which surpassed even that of Jacques Chirac), the Chinese have demon- strated their low regard for international treaties. Through the construction of a mil- itary base in the Spratly Islands last Febru- ary, territory which is well within Philippine `Let's commission Birtwistle to compose something for klaxon, party popper and balloon.' territorial waters, they have shown what they think about internationally recognised borders.

However many trade agreements they sign, the Chinese also go on flouting copy- right law: three weeks before Microsoft was due to begin an expensive, worldwide pro- motion campaign for Windows 95, its over- rated and overpriced neW computer software, Chinese salesmen were already gleefully circulating discounted pirate edi- tions. Even China's blatant refusal to con- form to the most elementary rules of diplomatic hospitality at the UN women's conference — hordes of secret police with cameras, visa screening, harassment of del- egates and journalists — shows how little the Chinese care for what we would call the rules of acceptable behaviour, and how uninterested they are in what we think about it. Economic growth has given China power; and power, to the Chinese, seems to mean — has always meant — the ability to ignore the opinions of the outside world.

This does not, however, mean that those opinions will grow any milder, or that the sharp words of criticism will dim as China grows in strength. On the contrary: if China's new competitiveness forces western negotiators to wrestle with China's odd (or `Kafkaesque', in the words of Governor Patten) way of doing things, China's new economic openness also means that more information gets into China — and more gets out. No longer a totalitarian country in which the state controls every aspect of everyone's lives, China is now an authori- tarian country in which at least some peo- ple have more mobility, more freedom to speak what they think if not to write it, and more ways to communicate with the West.

In short, Chinese dissidents and Chinese gulags are now set to achieve, in America at least, precisely the sort of notoriety once reserved for Soviet dissidents and Soviet gulags. There is more than a hint of irony about this change. During the Cultural Revolution, human rights abuses occurred by the million in China, and were ignored by a western public which knew very little about them. Today, human rights abuses in China are far fewer, but information about them is much greater, and methods of spreading that information have multiplied. There is a precedent here: Alexander Solzhenitsyn sparked American moral out- rage in the 1970s, 40 years after the Soviet gulag system was at its height; now, 20 years after China's Red Guards went the way of the Ming dynasty, the fate of Harry Wu, the Chinese-American who revealed the existence of China's gulags and was locked up by the Chinese government for his trouble during a return trip to the land of his birth, has given American messian- ism a new focus for the 1990s.

And messianism it is. Much as the Chi- nese may scoff, and difficult though many Europeans may find it to believe, the American obsession with spreading democ- racy and ending human rights abuse is gen- uine. It is politically popular, it elects presidents; it also brings down politicians considered 'soft' on human rights issues. Much to the chagrin of would-be Machi- avellians like Henry Kissinger, during this century it has been impossible for any for- eign policy to achieve popular legitimacy in the United States unless it is morally justi- fied — that is, as contributing to the spread of democracy, the defeat of communism, the end of war, or the righting of some ter- rible foreign wrong.

Now that the Soviet Union is gone, this moral drive — the drive which settled the American frontier and sent Americans to two world wars as well as the Cold War needs a focus. Saddam Hussein was not frightening enough; Islamic fundamental- ism is not threatening enough. China, on the other hand, with its nuclear missiles, its low-paid workers and its leaders who insist on breaking treaties, disregarding accepted norms of conduct, and doing everything else they can to offend American sensibili- ties, might do very well.

Slowly, the evolution of China into pub- lic enemy number one has begun. In an unguarded moment, Newt Gingrich told the Chinese they would have to 'grow up' and forget about their claims to Taiwan. In Washington, objections (even some from the pro-Hillary Washington Post) were raised to Mrs Clinton's visit to China, on the grounds that she was somehow legit- imising the Chinese regime just by going to Beijing. Briefly, the imprisonment and sub- sequent expulsion of Harry Wu sent Republican presidential candidates into flurries of high rhetoric. Such talk is not going to go away. But China's belief that such talk is part of an elaborate power game designed to force Chinese leaders to lose face in the international arena is not going to go away either.

Up until now, the one factor preventing the outbreak of a full-fledged new Cold War is the fact that China, unlike the Sovi- et Union, does not pose a direct military threat to the United States or to Nato. The Chinese do not, at the moment, have a plan for world revolution, they are not sponsoring phony peace movements in Germany, they are not even trying very hard to penetrate the British journalistic establishment. Their expansionism has been confined to parts of the world which they consider historic Chinese territory, namely Hong Kong and Taiwan.

These two places can, of course, cause plenty of trouble by themselves alone. An unofficial visit of the Taiwanese President to the United States this summer caused a rupture in Chinese-American relations; in the wake of Taiwan's stepped-up efforts to gain international acceptance China has moved 270 fighter planes to a base facing Taiwan, and last August carried out aggres- sive military exercises just offshore. These exercises included, among other things, the lobbing of test missiles in the Taiwanese direction. For a sign of things to come, note that during the UN women's confer- ence the Chinese arrested a television crew from Hong Kong, thereby demonstrating 15 months too early how they. intend to treat Hong Kong's free press, and no doubt Hong Kong's newly elected leaders as well.

But as China's economy strengthens, there is yet another consequence for the outside world: namely, that what the Chi- nese consider to be their internal affairs will inevitably become matters of concern to others. Today China is a problem for Gatt negotiators; tomorrow it may be a problem for Nato. Military conflicts gener- ally begin as either ideological or economic conflicts, and we in the West, and America in particular, have both with China.

A plan for world revolution is unneces- sary; a plan for economic and political domination of Asia, which the Chinese might well decide is in their economic interests, would be threatening enough. What will happen when China begins to ask why Japan, which sits directly within China's immediate line of vision, is a client of Washington and not of Beijing? Or the Philippines? Or South Korea? Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia all contain large numbers of ethnic Chinese as well — why should they not kowtow, so to speak, to the regional superpower instead of the foreign devils across the sea?

We may not have much noticed China's interests in these places, but others have. The Chinese are already a nuclear power, but in the last year or so they have begun making themselves into a conventional warfare superpower as well, buying up Rus- sian aircraft, aircraft carriers and sub- marines — as well as Russian scientists. In response, others, most notably in Japan, India, Taiwan and Indonesia, have quietly started improving their arsenals too. 'The uneasiness with China goes deep' is how Goh Chok Tong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, put it (in suitably inscrutable fashion) last May.

For all those reasons, talk of improve- ment and 'warming', particularly between the United States and China, will probably be ephemeral; the American-Chinese spe- cial relationship and the extended period of Western-Chinese detente may well become the last and most serious casualties of the Cold War.

For the past 20 years, what prevented China from coming more often into more direct conflict with the western alliance was our mutual dislike of the Soviet Union. Kissinger's walk on the wall, Nixon's ban- quets in the Great Hall of the People, all these things were made possible not by common goals or shared values but by a common enemy. Now we have merely returned to what can only be described as a more natural state of mutual mistrust.