4 June 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the quelling of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. The event was a near-death experience for the Chinese Communist Party, which turned its tanks on the workers and students in the centre of Beijing. Even today, the subject is taboo in China itself; the subject is never discussed, and when mentioned (rarely), it is captured in the vague term “turmoil.” Yet the event still haunts China today. It haunts China’s reputation. Because the subject has never been discussed, debated, or mourned, it still stands as a central point in the critique of China’s government around the world. However much China’s economy grows, its education system changes, its international standing increases, the “memory hole” in the centre of its contemporary history remains and can always be brought up as a criticism – as long as China refuses to deal with this most traumatic event in its recent past, it cannot fully engage with a world where openness, transparency, and connection is so much more important than it was even in 1989.
“Without branding all generals and statesmen as murderers or thieves … a portrait of war makers and state makers as coercive and self-seeking entrepreneurs bears a far greater resemblance to the facts than do its chief alternatives: the idea of a social contract, the idea of an open market … the idea of a society whose shared norms and expectations call forth a certain kind of government.” Charles Tilly, 1985 As Afghanistan’s election season marches on, Charles Tilly’s unsavory portrait of statesmen as “coercive and self-seeking entrepreneurs” seems eerily resonant. Observers worry that despite record turnout by voters, the campaigns featured opportunistic deals between power brokers with checkered backgrounds and that those bargains will determine the election’s ultimate outcome. Indeed, over the past decade foreigners and Afghans alike have bemoaned the slippery and self-interested machinations of Afghanistan’s ruling class. The international community has invested a great deal to help the Afghan state move toward the ideals of good governance we associate with liberal democracy in the West. Why has progress been so halting?
The leadership turnover in China last year took place in a shifting political situation. Namely, there have been increased calls for more political accountability and multi-candidate elections, broader media freedom and financial reform. We need to watch this closely. How China’s leadership reacts to these calls for change will determine whether it will continue its phenomenal ‘rise’ or be hampered by intransigence. Let’s take a closer look at the context. The uprisings in the Arab world have prompted many to ask whether China will be the next to be swept along in a wave of popular unrest that has toppled rulers in several countries. Indeed, the Chinese leadership, both in power and previously in power, has been watching the situation carefully. This attention has been particularly justified considering that the current Chinese president assumed power at a time when social media became a real force. These new forms of communication played an undisputable role in the Arab and Maghreb uprisings. Now, half a billion Chinese are registered on Sina Weibo, a website much like Twitter. This online platform has served “netizens” to voice many complaints ranging from governance malfunctions and corruption to food and environmental issues. This raises inevitable questions. Is the bid for democratic reform a matter of time? Might the prediction of an “end of history” and of a uniform move in the direction of liberal democracy make a comeback? Or, might there be other sustainable alternatives?
Pakistan has always been a divided nation—divided between the forces of progression and regression, between secularists and the rest, between those who believe in social equality and those who don’t. Three days before Pakistan gained independence in 1947, Jinnah, the founding father, made clear that religion would have “nothing to do with the business of the state.” Yet, within a year after his death, the Mullahs prevailed. TheObjectives Resolution, passed by the Constituent Assembly in 1949, laid the basis of an Islamic Republic where religiosity has progressed with every passing decade, culminating in its current violent form. Resistance to religiosity in the country has also been constant. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first elected prime minister, attempted liberal socialism in the 70s, but had to succumb to the religious right and was finally hanged by an Islamist general. His daughter, Benazir, struggled for progressive politics since the 80s, until her fateful assassination in 2007. The alternatives are well known. In their attempt to impose Sharia in the past decade, Taliban extremists have silenced thousands of lives. Yet saner voices continue to emerge to champion national struggle against religious bigotry. Malala Yousafzai, the survivor of Taliban assassination bid last year, is the latest exponent of this just cause. With the late Benazir as her role model, the 16-year-old girl from a rural town says she wants to become the prime minister of Pakistan.
In April 2013, Joseph Yun, then the US Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, addressed a Senate Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the US policy of “rebalance” towards Asia. He argued that this rebalancing, originally introduced by the Obama administration in 2011 as the “pivot”, reflected the “profound recognition that the future prosperity and security of our nation will be defined by events and developments in the region”. Yun went on to explain how the US commitment towards the Asia-Pacific can best be demonstrated, noting that while security and defence-related cooperation is important, US “allies and partners… also tell us that, as we deepen our military engagement, we should continue also to emphasize the diplomatic, development, economic, and people-to-people engagement in order to demonstrate our longer-term commitment to our rebalance strategy.” (Yun Testimony, Washington DC, 25 April 2013). President Obama’s intended visit to the region in early October 2013 was supposed to be a key plank in demonstrating that commitment. Obama was to have attended the East Asia Summit in Brunei, and the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference held in host-country Indonesia – a country that because of its influence in ASEAN, the G20 and the Organization of Islamic Conference, deserves sustained attention. In Kuala Lumpur, Obama would have attended the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. More importantly still, it would have been the first time that a sitting US president has visited Malaysia since 1966. Obama was also due to be in the Philippines in order both to demonstrate that the US remains a loyal ally when there is a perceived increased threat from China, but probably also to give the message that Manila needs to stay in step with its ASEAN neighbours on the South China Sea dispute and not surprise them with diplomatic positions that leave them nonplussed and that would likely exacerbate the issue.
I recently interviewed Professor Rosemary Foot about her new book, China Across the Divide: the domestic and global in politics and society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), as part of Politics and Spires’s OxOn China series. NH: What is the book about? RF: The book’s main argument is that, as students of international relations, we need to do more to collapse the divide between the domestic and global spheres of analysis. I make this argument with special reference to China, but I think it can be applied to other countries. I have chosen three main approaches to illustrate this phenomenon of the interconnectedness between the global and domestic levels of analysis. The first section of the book looks at ideas emerging from within China itself, at both mass and elite levels, about the country’s place in the world and how it should conduct its external relations. The argument is not that these ideas determine policy decisions, but help to shape, or set the broad contours of, the decisions that are arrived at. The second section looks at involvement in inter-societal enmeshments between China and other countries, and both the intended and unintended consequences of these linkages. This part of the book looks at the ways in which these non-state relations are transforming not only China itself but also the world of which it is a part. The third section focuses on three major global issues that are salient or intrusive at the domestic level and which require either some alterations in domestic ways of life or generate resistance at the domestic level to that intrusiveness. NH: What inspired you to write/edit it?
When it comes to human rights, India is a paradoxical case. On the one hand she is praised as a regional standard-bearer, too-often celebrated as ‘the world’s largest democracy’ and applauded for protecting rights when her neighbours do not. On the other hand, the rights community is unanimous in its condemnation of India’s human rights record. Brutal oppression in Kashmir, state mandated ‘encounters’ (unlawful killings) and the violations of tribal land rights are but three of the recurring complaints made of India’s human rights protection record. The picture is more complicated when it comes to international relations. For many, including Salil Shetty, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, India’s rising power status brings with it a greater responsibility to promote rights internationally. Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia Director of Human Right Watch, said something similar in in a recent high-profile piece: urging India to do more to secure rights globally. Of course India should do as much as it can to encourage rights protection beyond its borders. But such conclusions fail to explain why India is a reluctant partner in the international effort to protect rights. Perhaps the most instructive question is ‘is it in India’s interests to promote rights globally?’.
Dramatic changes do not appear to be on the agenda in China, at least at the surface level. The new political regime, under the stewardship of Xi Jinping, inherited an economy with widening socio-economic disparities and accompanying social welfare concerns. Farmers, migrant workers and lower/middle-class urbanities grumble about rising living costs, and a perceived lower quality of life. Their concerns are further cemented by greater public awareness of corruption in both the state and non-state sectors. This may be the cause of lower levels of trust and confidence in public and private institutions by the general public. But in spite of the discontent, changes are happening. Administrative in nature, perhaps, these changes will have strong implications for state-society relations going forward. What can we expect?