Why China is on our side

February 25, 2008

I went to a talk the other day about China…the Olympics…human rights…Darfur recently. Here’s what struck me:

Some people see the world divided up into two teams. On one side, there’s the dictatorships and their tyrannical leaders (sturdy Kim Jong Il in goal); on the other there’s the democracies (George Bush marooned on the right flank).

Internally, the division makes sense. So calling China a dictatorship gets at the brutal way the Chinese regime treats its own people. When it comes to foreign policy, however, the black-and-white view can only be misleading.

Democracies make cruel and nasty foreign policy just as effectively as dictatorships. The history of American colonialism in Latin America show this all too clearly. So does the behaviour of Britain and France after WWI, as Pankaj Mishra said recently in the LRB: “in Paris, Lloyd George and Clemenceau demonstrated that leaders of democracies could be just as brazenly imperialistic as military dictators”.

China’s human rights record is related to its foreign policy – but the link is not nearly as important as some people (alright, Nick Cohen) would have you think.

In this case, as so often, black-and-white thinking is simply muddle-headed. For all the wrong reasons, China is already on our team.


West Wing reference: Series 7, “Internal Displacement”; after a dinner date with Danny, C. J. decides to sort out Darfur.


China, Europe and the US dollar

December 20, 2007

Following a recent post here on the use of the dollar weapon against the euro, it was pointed out to me that if the US was in the process of using the dollar weapon, the real target was not Europe but China. That the US is trying to force a revaluation of the yuan is almost certainly true; but I believe that both currencies are, in fact, in America’s sights.

In defence of my earlier post, it is easy to exaggerate the importance of the US trade deficit with China. In 2006, the total US deficit stood at $759 billion. Of that, $177 billion was with China. Whilst clearly a huge sum, it is not large enough to support claims that changing the terms of trade with China would solve America’s deficit problems. Moreover, it is not clear that a revaluation of the yuan would make a huge difference to America’s overall deficit. A stronger yuan would not make the US import less, merely source its imports from somewhere else.

Nor would it make America export more. US exports are largely capital-intensive (and so expensive) and consumed primarily by rich countries. Given China is not yet part of this group, a revalued yuan would make little difference to demand for US-made products in that country. A stronger euro, on the other hand, would increase demand for US exports amongst wealthy Europeans. For this reason, reversing the $116 billion deficit with the EU is the priority for the US in its attempts to improve its balance of payments position. 

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Nuclear vanities

November 13, 2007

The death of Paul Tibbets earlier this month has reignited the debate on nuclear weapons. The familiar debates are rehearsed by the usual participants.

But we are still no clearer, it seems, to fathoming the rationale behind these bombs. What sinister magnetism makes nations – and their leaders – prize them so dearly?

Oliver Kamm tries to solve this conundrum in The Times today. His final answer runs along strategic lines: “it is the uncertainty of an anarchic international order that has persuaded British governments to maintain the deterrent”.


This solution is easy enough to arrive at. Political commanders, we reasonably assume, make their decisions based on considerations of defence and (most terrifyingly) attack.

In this game of high stakes, however, strategy is only ever a secondary consideration. Like every lonely gambler betting on instinct, these men are putting the house down on nothing more than vanity.

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China: not so different after all?

November 4, 2007

The internet is changing society. Will it do the same to politics? The case of China suggests it will not.

In 2004, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political scientist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times under the headline Death by a Thousand Blogs. “The collision between the internet and Chinese authorities is one of the grand wrestling matches of history”, Kristof wrote. “The Chinese leadership itself is digging the Communist Party’s grave, by giving the Chinese people broadband”.

Kristof is hardly the first person to credit the internet with the power to transform political life, nor will he be the last. The idea that freedom of expression will lead to political freedom is an immensely attractive one, and it has exercised considerable influence ever since its canonical statement, in German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment” (1784).

The argument, however, is fundamentally flawed. It is as naive, in its way, as the assertion that capitalism inevitably brings democracy in its wake. That may have been the case in Taiwan and South Korea, but they developed under the umbrella of US patronage and ideology. China will prove the exception to all these rules.

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