Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The China That Can Say "Feh"

Anyone remember those heady days of late-1980s Japaranoia, when high-tech execs in the U.S. read The Japan That Can Say 'No', fully anticipating a semiconductor economy run from Tokyo? What a farce. Two lost decades have left the island nation more insular and less influential than ever, and no one really cares if Japan says "no," or much of anything else, these days.

Would that this were true of China, but there is little on the horizon suggesting that China's current trajectory as emerging power will change. Google took the brave and very overdue step Jan. 12 of threatening to pull out of China completely. When human rights violations and net access issues were not enough to "put the skeer" in Google, cyberassaults on its sites made the company recognize the downsides of continuing to work with China.

Consider this event together with the Dec. 25 conviction in Beijing of Liu Xiaobo, a leading Chinese dissident, and we see the fruition of what Korean analyst Sung Won Kim calls "Eastphalia Rising." Last summer, Kim argued in World Policy Journal that China and India would form a new Asian bloc that would reject the Western world's 20th-century decision to abandon sovereignty terms of the Treaty of Westphalia. In the post-Bosnia, post-Kosovo world, the U.S. and European Union, speaking through the UN Security Council, decided that the notion of "national sovereignty above all" must be abandoned for what the French government called the "responsibility to protect."

Only one problem, said Kim and co-authors David Fidler and Sumit Ganguly: China and other Asian nations, as well as Russia to some extent, did not give a shit about the "responsibility to protect," and insisted on the notion that some subjects regarding human rights and computer use were simply internal affairs, and were not subject to critiques from the West. We see an extreme example of this in Sri Lanka, where the government has turned from defensiveness to pride regarding the way it has repressed the Tamils after the war with the Tamil Tigers ended. This is the new reality - the state that shows hubris about being dictatorial and authoritarian.

Not only did these states represent the new centers of economic power in the 21st century, but the attitudes did not reflect merely the thought of the Chinese Communist Party or Indian Congress and BJP parties. Indeed, they reflected a populist belief among common Chinese and Indian citizens that, "whatever my country does is right, and screw the world's interpretation." Thus, China and Russia find it easy to assemble legions of hackers to attack Western sites while preserving plausible deniability.

What Kim predicted would happen is already taking place. The US and Europe shuns Guinea and Myanmar, so China waltzes in and makes deals galore, because China doesn't care about a government that kills its own people. Google leaves China and China says "feh," because it's sure its own search engines will leave Google in the dust.

Now obviously, the Western industrialized nations have been pretty hypocritical about their use of power in the past century, so there is little reason to listen to US or EU clucking about treatment of dissidents. But the "Eastphalia" bloc does represent a scary new reality of nations that have increasing economic clout, but do not care about universal notions of good behavior. Nevertheless, I remain somewhat optimistic about limits to Eastphalia, for the same reason I don't see Wahhabist influence growing in the Islamic world beyond a certain point:

The U.S. and the English-speaking world remain the primary cultural referent for all nations. Everyone wants to emulate the U.S., and even as our towering deficits make us an economic flunkie, our cultural values will continue to make Google and Apple and U.S. celebrities and concepts of human rights and civil liberties the new golden mean. China, Russia, and South Asia
will no doubt say "feh" more often, and will gain some temporary accolades from the small states who have always felt overwhelmed by US and European dominance. But concepts of civil rights and cultural plurality have lives of their own, and China and Russia will begin to take more and more abuse from the world community at large as they stick noses in the air and snub the rest of the world. I'm not worried about how to cope with government leaders in the new Eastphalia. I'm worried about how to deal with populist, conservative jerks that are emergent in all nations right now, convinced that their particular nation is Number One, and that any other nation or corporate source of power deserves a cyber-attack.

7 comments:

Lou Covey said...

It's going to be difficult, but I think a "cultural isolationism" is the only weapon at our disposal. The West needs to find a way to disentangle itself from Eastern government that refuse to participate in a global ethical construct. We need to use our society's ability to innovate to restore value of our collective economies to force recalcitrant nations to the table.
There are those that fear economic retribution (a very real issue considering how much China owns this country's debt) but I remember how debtor nations to the US simply defaulted on US loans and world opinion force US bankers to forgive billions. We may have to take the same position.

Loring Wirbel said...

Yeah, and there may end up being just a mutual isolationism and resultant talking-past-each-other for decades to come. Because once a nation like China says it doesn't care what happens in Burma or Guinea, and doesn't want to hear from the West about how it treats Uighurs or Tibetans, what else is there left to say? And you're right, Lou, neither camp will end up being able to economically influence each other, so forget sanctions...

Vince said...

As Murray Rothbard used to say "Freedom Erupts". Though the current Chinese government seems pretty repressive to us, their present operating mode, if Mao were still yet living, would have been a heretical deviation from party orthodoxy, and they would all have been executed. And the Party still seems to realize that more wealth equals more power and influence for China in the world, which equals more money for the Party. Not making excuses for the current state of affairs, but the trend toward free enterprise and individual freedom in China is still weakly positive. The trend in the West, on the other hand....

Loring Wirbel said...

I can only hope those trends stay front and center, Vini!

Ruth said...

Did you happen to hear John and Doris Naisbitt on Diane Rehm last week? Their new book is China's Megatrends, which they tried to write from an insider perspective - the point of view of the Chinese people. They live there now. It was quite interesting to hear John say the people respect and support the government's blocks of much Internet freedom, which is mainly about porn, according to him. So yes, our daddy is protecting us, is what they seem to say. He said there are around 400,000 Internet users, and they have freedom to criticize China, but not the government. So they can complain about this and that, but not about the government's policies.

This book might be a good read. Through the hour's interview it seemed clear that they were trying to balance the West's media picture of China as completely backward and restrictive with a picture of China as the "new America" - meaning the land of opportunity. What struck me most? That medical students who graduate medical school are returning to China to be doctors, because the opportunities are so much greater there.

After listening to that, I might agree with Vince and with you hoping the weakly positive trend continues.

Loring Wirbel said...

Ruth, not only does the book sound good, but I wonder if Diane's show was archived. I'm going to go hunt for it - thanks for the tip!

Ruth said...

It was archived, and you can listen. To read the text I think you have to order it.