With its huge cheap labor supply and large potential market, China has attracted tremendous foreign investment and created speedy economic development. However, its poor record on human rights and good governance has always resulted in international criticism as well. The question today is whether this criticism will continue as China’s economic power grows. Will other countries hold China to international standards, or tone down their criticism in the interest of economic cooperation?
Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights lawyer who successfully escaped to the US Embassy in Beijing, touched the nerves of both the US and China. Although the US finally granted an entry visa to Chen, it did so only after much hesitation due to the many other issues on the table for dialogue in the US-China relationship.
The rapid economic growth has brought dramatic changes in Chinese society, like the increasing frequency of petitions and demonstrations. But, according to the Financial Times, China’s budget for maintaining domestic stability reached 55 billion RMBs last year. In other words: China spends more money to ensure internal security than it spends on defense and military expenses. China is truly a police state, where people who speak out against abuses by the authorities risk arrest.
With China’s increasing power in the global arena, Western democracies seem to hesitate to protest Beijing’s violation of human rights – a fact that is demonstrated by the Chen Guangchen case, and by the suggestion from some European politicians that the EU arms embargo against China, which was imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen incident, should be lifted even though China’s human rights record hasn’t improved.
Taiwan is a case in point for many of these issues. Although Taiwan has the 5th largest direct foreign investment in China, China has political ambitions in Taiwan despite the island’s long and sovereign history. When Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996, China conducted missile tests on the eve of the election, trying to threaten the people of Taiwan away from a democratic transition.
Today, China is more innovative in dealing with Taiwan. In July 2010, an article in “The Economist” argued that China was essentially trying to bribe Taiwanese politicians by signing a special economic agreement (Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, or ECFA) that favored Taiwan. Many worried that the negotiations with China were threatening to undermine the young Taiwanese democracy.
The “Freedom of the Press” report 2011, published by Freedom House, pointed out that China’s influence isn’t restricted to the political domain, but touches on media and journalism as well. As the report concluded,
Media owners can exercise considerable sway over the editorial content of their outlets. As commercial ties between Taiwan and mainland China deepened in 2010 with the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, press freedom advocates raised concerns that media owners and some journalists were whitewashing news about China to protect their financial interests.
During Taiwan’s recent presidential election campaign, the Chinese, a foreign authoritarian regime, straightforwardly supported the incumbent Kuomintang (KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party), for its accepting Beijing’s one-China policy. Today, the KMT remains in power.
Historically, China’s engagement with others has often strengthened its authoritarian regime. Yet even advanced democracies tend to be silent on Chinese violations of human and civil rights. The world, while welcoming China to become a responsible stake holder, should also ensure that the new Asian giant adheres to the universal value of democracy and respects human rights. Whether the rise of China will be an opportunity or a threat depends on all the players in the world.