Western media should rethink its distorted portrayal of China’s rise
L. K. Cheah says Western journalists who regard China’s motives with suspicion and cynicism are cherry-picking facts based on a biased view, and the misinformation they produce as a result is unhelpful
Many in the West are alarmed by China’s rise as an economic power in just 30 years to become the world’s second-largest economy after the United States. Scores of Western writers have penned denigrating articles on China as they believe that a non-democratic country must be regarded with suspicion and fear. Although the “domino theory” of multiple countries succumbing to communism has fallen by the wayside, such writers continue to perpetuate a climate of anxiety and misunderstanding about the emergence of China.
The latest to do so was Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times last month. He claimed that Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) is taking his country in “radical and risky new directions” by abandoning the formula that has driven China’s rise. Specifically, he said Xi has significantly changed the three ingredients for success adopted by Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) – in economics, politics and international affairs – and seeks to follow his own experiment for national rejuvenation. Xi, he said, has created a perilous path for the economy, fostered severe tensions within China, promoted a cult of personality for himself in the likeness of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), and caused confrontation with the West in the international arena.
Rachman is mistaken. On the economy, while it is true that China has had to make changes to its fiscal policies, Xi is dealing with the harsh realities of the global economic environment. He realises China cannot rely on export-led growth indefinitely, given the steady rise of costs and wages in China, and the fact that other countries can do things cheaper.
The move to a domestic consumption model, though perilous, is the consensus solution offered by most Western economists. Xi has little choice but to follow a market-driven economy, as the alternative is worse – the continuing decline in exports could lead to disastrous high unemployment and social unrest. To continue to rely on export-led growth would mean China having to devalue its currency, which would lead to a trade war with other exporting countries and trigger China-bashing by the US Congress (and perhaps even more strident measures by Donald Trump, should he become the next US president).
On the political front, many Western journalists claim Xi is building a cult of personality and has made himself into the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. Xi has, the likes of Rachman say, used this power to launch his crackdown on corruption, resulting in thousands of convictions, causing widespread internal disquiet. Instead of praising Xi’s purge, his actions are disparagingly portrayed as terrifying much of China’s business and political elite.
The rampant corruption in China, where every business transaction has to be greased to close a deal, has to be one of the greatest weaknesses in China’s economy. Far worse, this aspect is symptomatic of a large chunk of society, where even promotions in the armed forces depend on payment to a higher-up authority. This pernicious syndrome makes for an unethical society and disrupts economic efficiency, given the large number of “middlemen” taking a slice of each transaction.
Certainly, it is highly risky for Xi to seek to reform a societal norm, where millions of officials are used to enjoying the easy spoils of corruption. So he needs to remain on guard against enemies lurking everywhere and has built himself up as a strong paramount ruler as a defensive measure. In this way, his authority is respected and the much-needed reforms can succeed. Xi should be praised for his courage and far-sightedness in seeking to rid the country of such pervasive malpractice, not denigrated as a power-grabbing cultist opportunist. Other societies in Asia, such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, have succeeded in largely stamping out corruption and, in doing so, have joined the higher echelons of enlightened jurisdictions. For China to take its place among the world elite, Xi must succeed in this endeavour.
On the international front, some in the West contend that Xi’s foreign policies have become so nationalistic as to challenge US dominance, thereby risking confrontations. This is particularly with regard to Beijing’s tough assertions of maritime claims, epitomised by island building in the South China Sea and sparring with Japan in the East China Sea.
However, what has been forgotten is that the current feud with Japan was provoked by Tokyo’s unilateral nationalisation in 2012 of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. After the second world war, the US security treaty gave Japan administrative rights over the Diaoyus/Senkakus, not ownership rights. This ambiguity was peaceably tolerated by both sides for many years until Japan’s unilateral actions.
In the South China Sea, other nations such as Vietnam have reclaimed reefs and built bases; China was late in staking its own claims. China believes that, based on historical records, its claims are legitimate. To stand aside while others construct islands and bases would be to surrender its sovereignty.
Apart from maintaining ownership rights, there is no reason for China to risk confrontation with the US over the Asian-Pacific region. Yet, America felt compelled to accuse China of bullying its neighbours without considering these historical records or acknowledging that China was only belatedly countering others’ claims. More worrisome is that Washington has encouraged Japan to deploy its armed forces overseas and sanctioned the sale of weapons to Vietnam. In response, China has always maintained it wants to negotiate bilaterally with each of the contesting countries in the South China Sea.
Much misinformation has arisen as a result of Western journalists’ negative and one-sided analyses of China’s motives and ambitions. In the grand scheme of things, China wishes to continue to grow its economy and build a better future for its citizens. It wants to gain its rightful place in the world as a responsible, peaceable and advanced nation. Towards this end, China wishes to act cooperatively with others to increase trade and advance its economic interests. At the same time, it does not want to be harassed and bullied into conforming to the Western way of governance.
Many hurdles remain for China in restructuring its economy and it is learning to create a market economy on the fly. Western writers can do everyone a favour by analysing China in a balanced way, rather than continuing to regard China’s motives with suspicion and cynicism, just because its political system is not the preferred “democratic” model used by the West.
L. K. Cheah, CPA (chartered professional accountant), is a Singaporean residing in Canada