Beijing, China — Judging by the boost given to exports from China and the flow of technology to that country from 1993 to 2000, when Bill Clinton was president of the United States, it is small wonder that even low-income ethnic Chinese in San Francisco and New York felt compelled to contribute to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential election campaign.
Although Clinton, now U.S. secretary of state, makes the obligatory warm references to the other giant of Asia, India, these seem to be motivated less by conviction than by awareness of the muscular Indian-American lobby in Washington, D.C.
As the junior senator from New York, Clinton led the effort to get India to concede to China a nuclear monopoly in Asia, by giving up its own weapons-development program. She was visibly unhelpful in promoting a policy of closer defense and technology cooperation with India, besides fiercely opposing the India-U.S. nuclear agreement, along with the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama.
The Clintons have never hidden their affinity for Europeanist policy wonks such as Strobe Talbott or Richard Holbrook, who regard only the European countries as "natural partners" of the United States. They are, of course, wrong.
The United States is not a European country transplanted in North America, but a quadricontinental power that has elements of Europe, Asia, Africa and South America in its cultural DNA. Indeed, such heterogeneity is the reason why "U.S. culture" – a pair of words that many regard as an oxymoron – has had the same powerful impact on the world as the English language did during the 19th-century heyday of the British Empire.
Since the end of World War II, U.S. policy has focused on retaining that country's primacy in world affairs. That status is now being challenged not by a loose confederation such as the European Union, but by the other threat to the West – besides Islamic radicalism – identified by U.S. political scientist Samuel Huntington. This is China.
Since former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping freed large sectors of his country’s economy from the Maoist straitjacket, starting in the late 1970s, the country has developed into the second-biggest power on the globe, catching up rapidly with the United States in gross output. This progress has come on the backs of Chinese workers, who are overwhelmingly underpaid and overworked, due to pressure from international customers on their Chinese suppliers to constantly cut costs.
Because China lacks a "brand boost," its products must be sold through Western labels, at huge profits for U.S. and EU firms. Had the Chinese Communist Party bought up smaller U.S. and EU companies and developed their brands through an aggressive advertising campaign, China would have secured a much higher return on its labor than it does at present.
Indeed, the Chinese worker has ensured low inflation and higher living standards for people in the West in exchange for the country being vilified as an "economic threat."
Although the CCP flaunts itself as the party of "peasants and workers," since the 1990s the party is much more at home with billionaires and millionaires than it is with even the middle class. Whether in Taiwan – where Lien Chan, the super-rich chairman emeritus of the Kuomintang party is preferred to the middle-class (and honest) current President Ma Ying-jeou – or within the Chinese diaspora and across the world, CCP bigwigs regard only the wealthy as suitable partners.
It is small wonder that they treat their own workers with contempt, allowing employers to hire them on subsistence wages with near-zero social security.
For a Chinese family from the 93 percent of the population that is outside the privilegentsia, serious illness can mean economic ruin. In additional to basic charges, many doctors insist on undeclared fees and hospitals charge high prices for medicines. The situation is no better in schools and colleges, with teachers reserving their attention for those students able to pay private tuition fees.
In the Chinese countryside, not only are health and educational facilities abysmal, but peasants often face confiscation of their land at unfair prices to meet the appetite for profit of land developers, almost all of whom are given patronage by CCP bigwigs in national, provincial and local governments. The "workers’ paradise" has now become the "billionaires heaven,” courtesy of the Chinese Communist Party. Not surprisingly, many of the Party’s younger members are unfamiliar with Karl Marx and the "Communist Manifesto."
However, given the brute power of the communist state, it will be difficult for public anger to reach levels that threaten the present regime. Reform is unlikely unless a Gorbachev-style figure emerges at the top of the Party hierarchy. Given the fate of Russia after it passed from the Communist Party to the Yeltsinist mafias, few within the upper ranks of the CCP would consider following the example of former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Certainly President Hu Jintao is conservative, as is the majority within his Standing Committee. Both the Soviet collapse and the escalation in public unrest that followed former President Zhao Ziyang’s experiment in liberalism in 1989 have ensured that political change remains almost nonexistent. In the absence of a catastrophic fall in the growth rate, there is unlikely to be sufficient momentum to sustain a "color revolution" in China.
The CCP has cast itself in the role of defender of the majority Han population of China, weaving an ideology of Han exceptionalism that is fueling nationalism based not on citizenship but on ethnicity. This has meant short shrift to minority populations such as the Uighurs and Tibetans, who find themselves much weaker in influence than the Han even in their home regions.
An example is the fact that the Han leadership of the CCP in Xinjiang – in theory a Uighur autonomous region – has escaped censure or dismissal, despite its evident mishandling of the unrest there in early July. In contrast, there has been a winnowing out of the Uighur cadre seen as too prone to ethnic values and identity. Ironically, these are the very qualities that are encouraged by the CCP within the majority Han population.
Rapid economic growth – in the estimate of this columnist, a minimum of 9 percent – is essential for the CCP to retain its "mandate of heaven" and continue to rule without major convulsions. But this is not enough. There must be a much more equitable spread of the social security blanket, which at present covers just 13 percent of the population.
During the past decade, public expressions of outrage at the cozy relationship between local CCP leaders and financial vested interests – leading to the expropriation of land and exploitation of workers – have risen so that major protests take place almost every week. News of such action is suppressed and care is taken to prevent contact between disaffected groups, so they have thus far not seriously affected the CCP’s grip on power.
However, the efficiency of the party machinery has been diminishing, as has its morale, mainly because of graft and careerism at the higher levels. President Hu Jintao's efforts to snuff out these tendencies have not met conspicuous success.
Will the CCP once again "manage contradictions" within China sufficiently to retain its relevance into the new century? Thus far the party has shown an ability to transform itself to meet emerging conditions. However, as the speed of change within the Chinese economy and society accelerates this task is becoming much more difficult.
Whoever succeeds Hu Jintao in 2012 will need both brilliance and luck to navigate the CCP to safety in the increasingly treacherous waters of public hardship and political greed. However, the prize for success will be the ability to challenge the United States for global primacy well before the close of the first half of the present century.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)