Saturday 30 November 2019

Authoritarian Friends, Democratic Enemies.

What Kind Of Empire? The thing for Kiwis to decide is what kind of empire they want to belong to. The kind that, while offering its own citizens democratic rights, demands absolute obedience from its “friends”? Or, the kind that, while authoritarian at home, takes a relaxed attitude to the domestic political arrangements of its economic “partners”?

UNDERSTANDING AUTHORITARIANISM is challenging. For New Zealanders especially, raised in one of the world’s oldest democracies, official hostility to political liberty is difficult to comprehend. Likewise the carefully organised suppression of individuals and groups deemed hostile to the state. We bridle at the brutality and injustice that characterise authoritarian regimes. “Something must be done!”, we cry. “Cease trading with these butchers! Boycott their sports teams! Send their ambassador packing! Shut down their embassy!” As a means of letting off steam it’s a highly effective strategy. As a useful means of conducting diplomacy – not so much.

The People’s Republic of China, like practically all the previous iterations of Chinese sovereignty, going back nearly 4,000 years, is a rigorously authoritarian state. The Communist Party, within which all meaningful political activity in contemporary China takes place, prizes order and obedience no less than any of the country’s previous rulers. Accordingly, disorder and disobedience are met with swift and ruthless retribution. Though the tenets of Maoism no longer constitute the basis of CPC economic policy, Mao Zedong’s methods of keeping the Chinese people in line continue to be much admired – and emulated. Authoritarianism ensures that the continuities of Chinese history continue to greatly outnumber its discontinuities. The Chinese people would have it no other way.

How does this relate to the treatment of the Uighur people of Xinjiang? Why have the Chinese authorities gone to such extreme lengths to suppress the cultural and religious traditions of this far-flung ethnic minority? The simple answer? For precisely the same reasons the USA invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and is currently imposing swingeing economic sanctions upon Iran. Fear of Islamic extremism. Beijing is also deeply concerned about the opportunities for destabilisation which the spread of Islamic extremism offers China’s enemies.

Beijing looks westward and sees the new nation states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – all of them born out of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The home of the Uighurs, the “autonomous region” of Xinjiang borders no less than three of these Soviet successor states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Rightly or wrongly, Beijing is convinced that Uighur nationalism, allied with Islamic extremism, constitutes a clear and present danger to China’s territorial integrity – and, hence, to its national security. Sporadic outbreaks of nationalistic Uighur violence have only reinforced Beijing’s fears. The mass incarceration of Uighurs in specially constructed “re-education” complexes is the Communist Party’s profoundly authoritarian response.

Those Westerners affronted by Beijing’s actions should, however, ask themselves which is worse: China’s “re-education complexes”, or the hundreds-of-thousands of Afghans and Iraqis killed by the American military? They might also like to consider the moral calculus which allowed the USA to pour munitions into Syria while the country descended into a prolonged civil war which killed tens-of-thousands, displaced upwards of half the civilian population and provided the murderous ISIS “Caliphate” with a territorial base of operations. Beijing’s hope is to “educate” its Uighur citizens out of Islamic extremism; Washington’s preference is to deliver its “lessons” via drone strikes and proxy Jihadi fighters.

New Zealand diplomacy, if it has any meaningful role to play at all vis-à-vis the plight of the Uighurs, might consider working more closely with the Russian Federation which, while no friend of Islamic extremism, continues to have strong economic ties with the “Stans”. If Moscow could reassure Beijing that it would use its good offices to restrain nationalist and religious fervour in the territories adjoining Xinjiang, Beijing, in turn, might be persuaded to relax its iron grip on the Autonomous Region. Because Beijing has great respect for New Zealand’s record of diplomatic independence, the prospect of Jacinda Ardern assuming the role of “honest broker” would almost certainly return better dividends than shouting derogatory anti-Chinese slogans from the side-lines.

Such a course of action would obviously outrage our Five Eyes partners. The expectation of Washington, London and Canberra is that the Russians will, at all times, be treated as international pariahs. One has only to recall the severe “telling-off” administered to Foreign Minister Winston Peters when he dared to suggest that New Zealand and the Russian Federation could secure considerable mutual benefits by negotiating their own free trade agreement.

This scolding from our “friends” raises the question of what – exactly – New Zealand gains from its attachment to the Anglo-Saxon empire. After all, the Americans have consistently refused to admit our dairy products in anything like the quantities authorised by the NZ-China FTA. Perhaps the time has come to pose the question of whether or not the membership fee of the Anglo-Saxon “club” has grown too high for New Zealand to go on paying?

The thing for Kiwis to decide is what kind of empire they want to belong to. The kind that, while offering its own citizens democratic rights, demands absolute obedience from its “friends”? Or, the kind that, while authoritarian at home, takes a relaxed attitude to the domestic political arrangements of its economic “partners”? The United States is an empire of the first kind – and it is growing weaker. China belongs to the second kind and, within the next twenty years or so, seems certain to become the world’s richest and most powerful nation state – albeit an authoritarian one.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 29 November 2019.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

There are certain geopolitical imperatives pertaining to China which we need to come to terms with. I think these mainly stem from the slightly paranoid – but only slightly – fear of invasion, and the splitting up of greater China.
China is not going to give up the Tibetan plateau – it is essentially the high ground, which if occupied by India or an Indian ally facilitates invasion.
It is not going to give up its claims in the South China Sea, given that a huge proportion of its imports – mostly oil – and its exports transit through this area which if my memory serves in parts is as narrow as 10 miles or so.
It is not going to allow any minorities in the foreseeable future anyway any measure of autonomy beyond which the Han Chinese want them to have. Particularly if they are on a sensitive border. This includes the Uighurs and the inhabitants of inner Mongolia – another traditional invasion route. At least traditional in 1945.:)
The Chinese government is rightly IMO paranoid about unrest. They have over a billion people, and they have to keep them relatively happy. This presents them with problems that could be relatively easily solved in a democracy, but they are not. That's the problem with authoritarian governments, the outlets for dissatisfaction tend to be illegal.
What our responses or attitude should be towards these I have no idea, but I'm pretty sure that there are no simple answers to this.

Trev1 said...

How quaint to measure the quality of one's international friendships according to the amount of dairy powder they will import from us. It's almost Muldoonian in its single-mindedness. Remember "foreign policy is trade"? That worked well, not. The future sadly is not in dairy products, it lies in the products of our intellects. At least our traditional friends do not steal our IP. They also respect the freedom of the individual which is the bedrock of an enlightened civilization. China is a busted flush. Its economic model based on providing virtual slave labour for multinationals to exploit is obsolete as other developing countries provide the labour of their masses at even cheaper rates. Meanwhile the aspirations of Chinese consumers grow exponentially and consumption has to financed by massive government debt. The day of reckoning is nigh, and Hong Kong may unravel the whole rotten Communist system. But perhaps New Zealand should still take China's side - we might even get preferential access to the fruits of organ harvesting from political prisoners.

aj said...

"Washington’s preference is to deliver its “lessons” via drone strikes and proxy Jihadi fighters"

This sentence, the prior section of that paragraph, indeed the whole article is right on the mark. Which begs the question, how many civilian dead would there be if one of the largest cities in the US was beset with rioting for month after month, as has been the case in Hong Kong.

sumsuch said...

Bravissimo , Trev 1. Very financial, where I fall down.

Charles E said...

I go away for a while and come back to GS above making good sense. Good stuff.
To add my bit, I have thought forever (perhaps partly with prejudice) that the idea that China will become the world's leading power is wrong. How is that going btw?
This 'world power' idea was said years back about Japan. Especially when they started buying up large assets around the place, in particular in the US. But Japan then plateaued economically and has remained a big economy but not a big power to match.
I think China will do the same. It has a lot of fundamental problems:
Demographics. It is aging fastest and the burden of that cost is very high indeed for it.
Debt. It has the largest in the world. Internal yes but that is another parallel with Japan.
Energy. It is very dependant. On fossil fuel, esp ME oil.
Environment. Terrible issues abound, especially water volumes. Likely to get worse with more CC.
Creativity. It invents little but makes a lot of stuff using others' technology, all of which can be done elsewhere.Like India, African, everywhere.
The Carbon Thing: It has triple the emissions of the US (failing) & rising. Before long the world may apply a carbon tax to its exports. Or not buy them at all.
Political. It's young people may revolt HK style tipping it into chaos. Why should they put up with a bunch of corrupt old men oppressing them?
Soft Power. It has none. Worse really, it has negative soft power. Nobody is trying to storm its borders to become citizens. Or do things its way. Even the countries it is lending big to don't like it.
Accordingly I think it may slowly slow down and turn in on itself again. Remain a big trader but not threaten the West's frankly deserved leadership of humanity.
Unless somehow it becomes a Western-like, rule of law free market democracy. Seems unlikely, although I read in the Economist recently that Christianity is doing so roaringly well there now, the Commie Party is debating adopting it. Seems fanciful, but that could work! Nah ..