Kelley Currie

This week, Project 2049 senior fellow Kelley Currie, fresh from a trip to Burma, answers readers’ questions on reforms there, China and how the U.S. should respond to Beijing’s crackdown.

Jennifer Watkins (LinkedIn) :
Did you get a chance to meet many average Burmese during your trip? What was your impression about how the public views the recent reforms?

I met with a broad cross section of people during my trip, and there definitely has been a shift toward an environment of more open support for Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD), at least in Rangoon. Her picture is everywhere in Rangoon, from bumper stickers on food carts to newspapers to t-shirts to posters hanging in the markets. I also attended a campaign rally that the NLD was holding in a small town in the countryside outside Rangoon. It was amazing to see the level of enthusiasm and support – from all walks of life and all ages – for Daw Suu and the NLD.

People at all levels seem to be taking whatever space has opened up as a result of recent reforms and running with it. Even in areas where the government hasn’t clarified or changed the laws, people are just doing what they can until they get push back. There’s a real sense of trying to make the most of this opening. At the same time, there remains a deep reservoir of mistrust of the government and antipathy toward them over the policies and abuses of the past twenty years. Burmese know that their country is far behind their neighbors, and the ones I spoke with see the military regime as bearing responsibility for this, so they remain somewhat skeptical about the ability of that regime to deeply change its nature. They also regard the government as very isolated from them, ensconced in the remote capital of Naypyidaw, far from the everyday concerns of the people.

The change that probably means the most to the average person at this point, however, is the liberalization of the mobile phone market. As recently as a year ago, it cost thousands of dollars to get a mobile
phone in Burma, whereas today one can be had for as little as $100. Service remains limited, but as it continues to expand, this will potentially have a big material impact on the quality of life for millions of Burmese. If the government were to similarly liberalize other sectors, it would be a boon to the average Burmese.

Jeff Chang (Facebook) :
Do you think Burma’s government is genuine in its apparent shift toward more open democracy?

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Following the events of 2007 and 2008, the Burmese junta was really at a low point in terms of both domestic and international legitimacy, even as they were advancing through their self-described “road map to discipline-flourishing democracy.” I think that there are certainly some people in the government leadership now who recognize how bad things are in Burma and that the policies of the military government were putting the country on a road that would ultimately lead to a loss of sovereignty and a kind of permanent economic dependency. At the core of the latest turns by the government is a deep seated Burma nationalism, and a continued sense of the need to hold the country together that has long animated the military government’s policies.

What’s different now is at least a partial recognition that greater openness – both economically and politically – presents a better path toward these goals than continued political isolation and economic backwardness. It is both a strategic and a tactical shift by the government, and I think they will continue with it as long as they see it as the least costly, most effective way of advancing their policy goals of more rapid and diversified economic growth, and broader engagement on the geopolitical level.

At the same time, there’s a darker side to this nationalism that presents itself in terms of the center’s relationships with the ethnic nationalities on Burma’s periphery. The government’s approach to the
ethnic groups has shown some improvements recently, but remains deeply problematic. There’s still an overriding chauvinism toward the ethnic groups that often manifests as a kind of “economic determinism” in approaching the resolution of political problems. The belief that the center can solve its political problems with marginalized ethnic groups by throwing some economic development their way hasn’t been effective in other contexts, and won’t work in Burma either. Moreover, as foreign investment and development assistance begin to flood into Burma, there’s a danger of these ostensibly positive developments having some negative impacts. If the regulatory and legal environment isn’t addressed, foreign investment is likely to only exacerbate many existing problems such as extreme economic inequity, corruption, land grabs and environmental despoliation. Given that the ethnic areas are home to both substantial resources as well as some of the most deprived and severely impoverished communities in Burma, the potential for development to cause more problems than it solves can’t be understated in this context.

It will be interesting to see how the government responds as the need for transformation to a culture of transparency and accountability continues to build, as demanded by both the Burmese people and the international community. These haven’t historically been qualities in large supply with Burmese authorities, and Burma remains a very low-trust society.

Steve Whyley (LinkedIn) :
Will China have its own “spring?”

In a sense, China has been having its own “spring” for some time now and will continue to do so. Change in China does and will continue to look very different from the Middle Eastern context, but the Chinese party-state is visibly struggling to manage the challenge of governing a society that is becoming more plural and opinionated by the day. The generation of Chinese that is coming up now has never known anything but expanding prosperity and a substantial degree of personal freedom. Their frame of reference isn’t “this is so much better than the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution” – they hardly know anything about those tragic periods of Chinese Communist rule, largely because the state has intentionally kept them ignorant about such events.

The one-party state is reaching the effective limits of its capacity to manage this increasingly sophisticated and demanding Chinese public, and many of the advantages that led to China’s astounding decades of economic growth are starting to fade or disappear altogether. As China seeks to move its economy up the value chain, the government will increasingly face difficult trade-offs as it grapples not only with a rapidly aging and gender-imbalanced population, but also with issues such as further integration into the world, permitting a level of personal freedom that promotes innovation, and the desire of a proud people to contribute something to the world other than inexpensive consumer products. Rights consciousness is rising and interconnectivity means that the government cannot control the narrative as it has done in the past. While the Communist Party has shown tremendous capacity to adapt throughout its history, it will be profoundly challenged by the changes that are rocking China today and those to come. While the events in the Middle East are certainly of great interest to China’s leaders, the “spring” they are likely watching most closely is the one happening on their backdoor in Burma.

Norman Emerson (LinkedIn) :
What do you think about the U.S. and Western countries’ response to the crackdown in China? What should they be doing?

The international response to the Chinese government’s crackdown on dissent since 2007 has been woefully inadequate. Over the past five years, the Chinese government has detained, harassed, kidnapped and tortured scores of non-violent dissidents and activists, whose only crime is disagreeing with the Communist Party’s views. From lawyers to artists to writers, these individuals are some of the most thoughtful and heroic people in China today, but their government sees them only as a threat. In Tibet and Xinjiang, the authorities’ crackdown has been especially severe, and resulted in massive imprisonment and even loss of life.

Western countries, whose success and identity is fundamentally tied to their democratic values, should be doing more to speak out against the Chinese state’s repression and violence directed against peaceful political activists and ethnic minorities. The “business as usual” attitude that most countries have taken has only served to encourage the worst excesses of Beijing’s behavior toward dissidents and the disaffected, and reinforce Beijing’s cynical view that the democratic West uses human rights as a political tool to beat China up, but is willing to abandon principled concerns in favor of economic interests.

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The false choice between engagement and criticizing Chinese abuses needs to be confronted. By standing up for democratic values and human rights, the U.S. and other democratic countries will be serving their own long-term interests as well as those of the Chinese people. There needs to be a clearly communicated message to the leadership of the Chinese Communist regime that they have an unbridgeable legitimacy gap due to the manner in which they retain political power. This message can be expressed in subtle ways – such as through the use of protocol measures during reciprocal visits – as well as more overtly through directly talking to the Chinese people about universal values and inalienable rights that are denied to them by their government.

The U.S. and other countries need not accept at face value the infantilization of the Chinese people by their government, and they should certainly not allow Western companies to participate in censorship regimes and policing policies that deny basic human rights to Chinese citizens. Western governments should stand with people like Chen Guangcheng, Liu Xiaobo, Gao Zhisheng, the Dalai Lama and Rebiya Kadeer, and shouldn’t be afraid to talk about the dark side of Communist Party rule, including in multilateral forums. They should fund websites that expose elite corruption and otherwise challenge the Communist Party narrative; expand independent vernacular media reporting via institutions such as the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and the BBC; fully implement and expand visa prohibitions on individuals involved in human rights abuses; and increase direct contact with those who are bravely standing up to the repression. By signaling that China won’t be fully accepted as a member of the international community as long as it rejects universal values, the West can reclaim and reenergize those values to the benefit of the Chinese people.