Features | Politics | East Asia

No, China’s Not Arrogant

Chatham House fellow and Wall Street Journal blogger Yiyi Lu says some of the conventional wisdom on China just isn’t very wise.

Are you surprised Google has taken the stand it has over the censorship row with the Chinese government? What does this row say about the prospects for any easing of government control of the Internet?

I’ve got a different take on this from many other people. I’m surprised that Google has taken this stand because when it initially went to China the censorship system was already in place—it knew it had to face this situation and decided to go anyway. But now it’s saying that it doesn’t want to operate like this anymore. Generally speaking, this isn’t a very good strategy for any business entering China. Companies should do a careful study, weigh the pros and cons, anticipate problems and then make the decision.

Of course, as the situation in a country evolves, a company may reassess its position. But, generally speaking, it’s better to announce any new position after a final decision has been reached. In Google’s case, it announced its decision to stop censoring search results first, then indicated it was prepared to negotiate with the Chinese government to see if there might be a mutually acceptable solution. But in my view, it would have been better to try to negotiate first, and only announce any decision once it was clear negotiations couldn’t produce any agreement. Announcing a decision first was seen as an open challenge to the Chinese government, which diminished the chances of a negotiated solution.

I think the Chinese government for its part will certainly avoid any suggestion that it’s giving in to Google’s open challenge to its censorship rules. I think that perception is something that’s very important to them to avoid—not just in dealing with a company, but with any sort of open challenge. I think the Chinese government always feels that it can’t be seen to be weak, that if it’s challenged and is seen to back down, then that opens the floodgates and other people and organisations will immediately follow suit. So in general, they’ll work very hard to avoid the perception that they’ll give in under pressure.

That said, it’s not as if putting pressure on the Chinese government never works. For example, in the past, there have been confrontations with the United States over certain issues and the Chinese government seemed to have no choice but to back down. But it won’t admit it was because of external pressure. So, I think even if at some point in the future the government eases control of the Internet, it will carefully avoid the suggestion that it was because a company or individual or another country pressuring it.

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Recent reports have suggested that China’s budget for domestic public security almost equals the country’s defence budget. What do you make of this level of expenditure, and what kinds of threat is the government currently focused on?

Clearly these figures show the authorities are worried about potential threats to stability, and that’s why you have this huge amount of spending on domestic security. One concern is ethnic tensions. There are vast areas—Tibet and the Uighur autonomous region for example—where there have been serious problems in the last couple of years and which will take a huge government effort to monitor, anticipate problems and try to deal with possible security threats.

There are also underground religious organisations that make the government wary, and many Chinese generally are also disgruntled. For example, there’s been significant media coverage of peasants who have had their land taken away, which has prompted protests. And there are urban residents whose houses were demolished to make way for new developments, but who have not been properly compensated.

There are also workers whose basic rights have not been protected—people who might not have been paid or whose health has been severely damaged because there were no proper health and safety measures in place where they worked. And then there are those who have been forced to work in poor conditions or for excessive hours or who have been injured but haven’t received compensation—all sorts of issues that resulted in labour protests.

In addition, there are intellectuals and so-called dissidents, and the government obviously needs to keep an eye on their activities, as well as those campaigning on human rights issues. For example there are parents who, after the major earthquake in 2008, complained that their children died because the school buildings that collapsed were badly constructed compared with government buildings. So those parents are campaigning and protesting and demanding that the government be held accountable for that. It’s not just a matter of these people writing a letter—they organise and contact each other and political activists help these social groups with their complaints. These are all things that the government needs to worry about.

And of course, there’s also the issue of contact and new technologies such as the Internet that have made it very easy to keep in contact with people both inside and outside China, so the government is also worried about the possibility of foreign forces utilising these complaints and trying to foment instability. The list goes on and on, so it’s not surprising that it costs so much money to try to track these potential threats.

It’s often suggested that there’s a tacit bargain in China between the government and its citizensif the government ensures economic growth, the public accepts constraints on its political freedoms. Is this a fair reflection of the situation, and if so, is this bargain likely to hold?

It’s a cliché, but many China experts do say that there’s this tacit bargain. But I also think this is a little simplistic. Things have changed since 1989, when you had the Tiananmen Square protesters shouting slogans about democracy, freedom and abstract ideals—they weren’t raising issues about any specific rights. Now, I think people have become more pragmatic and clever and no longer directly demand political change—they just focus on their own lives and safeguarding their basic interests. If they can make money and improve their standard of living, then that’s fine. If that doesn’t happen and they can’t afford to send their children to school because tuition fees are skyrocketing, or they can’t afford medical care, then people will protest and there’ll be conflict, and this can then become political.

But I think the idea of some kind of bargain over guaranteeing economic growth is far too simplistic, because when you say the government is ensuring economic growth, the question then is, is it equitable growth and does everyone benefit? If this were the case then it would be fine and there wouldn’t be any problems. But if growth is very unequal then people sometimes protest. Simply achieving eight, nine or ten percent GDP growth each year isn’t enough—the government needs to do a lot more than that.

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I don’t think you can say the Chinese people have ever accepted any bargain with the government. They are focusing on pursuing a better life. If the government doesn’t get in their way, then they can be very ‘apolitical,’ but it doesn’t mean they have accepted constraints on political freedoms. Rather, they may simply feel that the constraints are irrelevant: they don’t affect their daily lives. If they feel that their ‘apolitical’ good life, or the ability to pursue a good life, is under threat—and only more political freedoms can safeguard their economic rights—then they’ll become political. But this doesn’t necessarily happen at the beginning. Gradually, people realise that in order to protect their economic interests, they need more political freedom. But this evolves over time, and certainly isn’t a static bargain with the government.

So what I’m saying is that the Chinese government doesn’t have as easy a job as the ‘tacit bargain’ idea suggests. I don’t think they can rely on any bargain. In fact, in recent years, we can already see clear signs that the Chinese public have become more rights conscious, and protests over specific economic issues have gradually evolved into demands for more political rights.

The National People’s Congress agreed an amendment to the Electoral Law granting equal representation in legislative bodies to rural and urban people, a move that the People’s Daily newspaper described as a step that will advance socialist democracy. How serious is the government about reform?

I think everybody would agree that this is progress. There’s this cliché that the Communist Party is happy to just promote economic reform and doesn’t want any political reform. But I think this is wrong because there have always been some incremental political changes. It obviously hasn’t been an overnight transformation that has suddenly brought multiparty elections. But I don’t think that just because that doesn’t happen, you can say there haven’t been political changes in China at all. Overall, there’s more democracy, and relatively speaking, the government is more transparent and more accountable and people have more space to criticise and oversee the government’s operations. Some might think this isn’t enough and isn’t happening fast enough. But I don’t think it’s ever been static.

It’s too simplistic to just argue that the Communist Party is bad and that it wants to hold on to power at all costs; if that were the case it wouldn’t have introduced any political reform. So I think it’s not a question of whether the party is good or bad—it’s a question of whether or not it’s stupid. And I don’t think the Chinese government is particularly stupid because it’s been able to survive in spite of predictions that China and the Communist Party would collapse.

I think the Chinese leadership is extremely aware of the problems and that things need to be done to address these issues. One example of this is Premier Wen Jiabao’s traditional news conference after the National People’s Congress annual session finished earlier this month. He said he was very concerned about inflation, that given the problems with corruption and social inequality, if you added inflation on to that, there could be significant instability and the regime could fall. So I’d say the government is very serious about reform.

Of course, there hasn’t been any major reform so far because it’s very difficult to reach a consensus on how much reform is necessary and how fast to move— if things are done hastily the situation can get out of control. There’s a saying by Lao-Tze, the founder of Daoism—‘Governing a large country is like frying small fish.’ This is seen as meaning that if you are frying small fish and you turn them over too often, they fall to pieces. I think when you govern a very complex, huge country with a history of having revolutions that often resulted in large-scale destruction and major upheavals that lasted a long time, you don’t want to introduce massive changes overnight— you have to be very careful and do everything gradually.

I think many in the Chinese Communist Party recognize the need for gradual democratic reform, whether to ensure the regime’s sustainability or the country’s stability. But knowing how fast and finding consensus is difficult. And any reform will produce winners and losers, so overcoming opposition from potential losers adds to this difficulty.

Externally, China has in recent months come in for heavier international criticism, with Western critics accusing the Chinese leadership of over-confidence or even arrogance in its international dealings. How much of a shift would you say there’s really been in the approach adopted by the Chinese leadership? Has it become over-confident?

I don’t think it has become over-confident at all. At the same press conference I mentioned earlier, Wen said China still had a long way to go before it becomes a modernised country—another 100 years at least. That isn’t a leadership that is deluded about the country’s global clout and how much it can flex its muscles.

It’s very clear to me that those at the top of the Chinese government are aware that China is still a country facing massive challenges. That doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have officials at the lower levels who are arrogant—if you talk to non-Chinese who regularly come into contact with Chinese officials or Chinese business people, they’ll all have a story to tell about an arrogant Chinese official or businessperson. That can leave a deep impression on non-Chinese. But this by no means reflects the assessment of the situation at the top, and I don’t think the leadership is over-confident.

In terms of recent international criticism, I don’t think all of it’s fair. If you look at US newspapers, for example, they accused China of being arrogant when President Obama announced the weapons sale to Taiwan. For the first time, China suggested that it might impose sanctions on US companies that were involved in producing these weapons. At the time, I read some of the articles in US newspapers on this issue and there would be headlines saying things like ‘Confident China Growing More Arrogant Every Day.’ So I thought I’d read on and see what evidence they had, and all they were doing was quoting Beijing’s reaction to the arms sale. But this is hardly a good example of China becoming more assertive, because from China’s point of view it’s simply responding to a US provocation. So I wouldn’t say the evidence supports the idea that China is becoming more confident.

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China’s efforts to cultivate a positive, non-threatening image have been well covered. So how worried do you think China’s government will be about the adverse publicity it has been receiving of late—over its role in Copenhagen and the Google censorship issues for example—and how is it likely to respond?

I think it does worry about these things. It cares a lot about image, partly because there’s a connection between image and more substantive issues. For example, if China’s image is bad, the next time a Chinese state-owned company tries to make a deal in another country, then it might face greater obstacles, or that country’s leader might meet with the Dalai Lama or the Uighur leader outside of China. So China cares about its image and you can see it making an effort to try and address these issues and try to combat that kind of negative portrayal.

In fact, I think it’s already responded to two cases of adverse publicity. At the press conference I mentioned this month, Wen tried to explain that all of the accusations about China’s role in Copenhagen were wrong and that the reason he didn’t turn up to that meeting was because he wasn’t invited.

And on the Google issue, because it has dragged on for months, the reaction has also evolved. Initially it was very mild. But more recently, and during the National People’s Congress, there seemed to be a less conciliatory approach towards Google. At first it was very careful and I don’t remember the government actually accusing or attacking Google, at least initially. But more recently we’ve started to see some articles and answers to questions that are more prepared to directly criticise Google. After Google finally announced its pullout, the attacks on Google further heated up. So I think China’s reaction and response (to adverse publicity) will evolve as situations evolve.

Yiyi Lu is an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Asia Programme, a research fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and a regular blogger for the Wall Street Journal. The interview was conducted by Amy Foulds.