China's global discourse disadvantage

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 September, 2008, 12:00am

Despite China's emerging status as a global power, it has, more often than not, been an object of dissection and debate rather than an active participant in the dominant topics of global concern. There are three ongoing debates about the prospects for humankind in the 21st century, and China's international role figures prominently in each one: the resurgence of authoritarian states; the search for resources and surging commodity prices; and humanitarian (military) intervention.

In each of these debates, western policy intellectuals, media pundits, politicians and activists set the agenda and dominate the discussion. China has been at what may be called a discourse disadvantage in making its views heard, let alone respected. One result is that it constantly becomes an object of criticism in the global media, and the country frequently fails to make a case for itself.

Some western criticism is indeed warranted. But, at other times, it is more questionable. For example, linking the Beijing Olympics to independence in Tibet , genocide in Darfur, domestic suppression of dissent and internet censorship certainly looked like an overloading of criticism on what was, after all, a sporting event.

In a recent Foreign Affairs essay, US political scientist Larry Diamond warns of a democratic rollback in the past decade. 'In a few short years,' he writes, 'the democratic wave has been slowed by a powerful authoritarian undertow, and the world has slipped into a democratic recession.'

His concern has been echoed in many western quarters, and resurgent China and Russia are often cited as examples. The debate over authoritarian states is not just about their rising numbers; rather, it is about their legitimacy.

Until their steep corrections started this summer, commodity prices, especially oil, were considered to be going through an upswing super-cycle that would last for years. One of the chief causes was said to be the red-hot economies of India and China, and their insatiable appetite for resources. Both countries have been blamed for refusing to cap emissions of greenhouse gases and ruining the latest Doha Round of world trade liberalisation talks. Beijing has been singled out for criticism over its quest for natural resources in Africa.

Meanwhile, the need in the west to articulate a principle for foreign intervention after the disastrous invasion of Iraq has led to a rush of books on the matter. US constitutional theorist Philip Bobbitt and neoconservative writer Robert Kagan argue that sovereignty is not inviolable and military intervention can be justified if a country is implicated in gross human rights violations. This directly contradicts China's foreign-policy principle of non-interference. In our post-colonial age, every western intervention has to be justified as humanitarian.

Each of these three mega debates is complicated and requires separate treatment. But what is worth pointing out is that, in each case, China has a principled stance and a reasonable case to make.

I am not saying they are necessarily right. But adding a Chinese viewpoint can be valuable and enriching to global discourse. And it won't do for an aspiring power to rebut a foreign critic with stock phrases like: 'No one can interfere in China's domestic affairs.' Tiny Singapore has had a far more successful time in establishing a prominent presence in global discourse. Currently, Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, makes a trenchant case against western- or Washington-centric agendas in global discourse.

There are several reasons for China's discourse disadvantage. The language barrier is one, because English remains the dominant international language. The lack of a significant electronic media presence around the world is another. And, more than ever, China needs home-grown intellectuals like Professor Mahbubani.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post