Saturday, May 17, 2008

Any room for dissent?

I was listening to BBC Radio 4's "Any Questions?". The first audience question was on China's "media-savvy" handling of the Szechuan earthquake.

And with a disgraceful click, the supposedly diverse panel closed ranks behind China, despite some attempt by the chairman to generate at least a little debate. We heard that we have been indulging in "China-bashing" lately, and now that this earthquake has happened, we should stop all this nonsense about China's human rights and/or ecological violations.

I began to wonder whether there might be some business and party-political interests to declare, for I've rarely heard such a combination of unanimity and superficial reasoning. The message seemed to be, "Stop talking about Tibet, look at this crisis instead."

That's imposing a false perspective. China's own news media currently reckon the death toll from this terrible quake to be under 29,000; but "According to various estimates, up to 1.2 million Tibetans have died due to the Chinese occupation and various political campaigns since the Dalai Lama fled his homeland in March 1959." So in cold mathematical terms, Tibet has suffered a death toll 40 times as great - and far more avoidable. Why should a recent misfortune be the pretext for ignoring a long-standing injustice?

And as for rubbishing ecological concerns, there will come a time (and quite soon) when we have forgotten in which year this quake happened, but we will be dealing with the multifarious fallout of China's economic, demographic and ecological problems. For China is a distressed giant thrashing about in the small house of this world.

China's population last year was estimated at about 1.3 billion, and in the next ten years or so is expected to increase by maybe another 100 million. Over the last 60 years, life expectancy has more than doubled and infant mortality has reduced. So despite the one-child-per-family policy (not universally applied in China), the population continues to grow.

And, as time goes by, it is becoming a demographically unbalanced population. Thanks to the preference for sons, there is a disparity between male and female. Should China decide to become warlike in the conventional manner, she will have an almost limitless supply of expendable single men. (Meanwhile, Russia's population threatens to decline to such a degree that reversing the trend was "a key subject of Vladimir Putin's 2006 state of the nation address".)

Less frightening for us, but surely very worrying for the Chinese, must be the growing imbalance of numbers between young and old. Imagine a young Chinese couple who have their one child, but face supporting four elderly parents. And when that child grows up, perhaps up to 6 parents-cum-grandparents (up to 12, after marriage). And the healthcare costs!

And with a smaller proportion of girls surviving to breeding age, the demographic waist will be pinched further. Perhaps the one-child policy will eventually be abandoned.

Meanwhile, China's burgeoning populace must be fed, but how? Changes in diet and the progressive loss of arable land, and reducing yields from such land as is still fertile, have been a serious concern for a long time (see e.g. here).

Then there's the demand for water, and energy, and how to have breathable air while exploiting China's giant coal reserves and rapidly expanding heavy industry.

It's far too simple to make China into a villainess, but she faces enormous difficulties on the road away from her past abject poverty and suffering. These translate into mighty pressures that the rest of the world will feel. We must find a way to assist China in the solution of her problems - but self-censoring discussion of her external relations will not help us find realistic answers.


Anonymous said...

It sounds that you care more about the history than the current tragedy in the earthquake.

dearieme said...

I suspect you've identified the solution for China: "Meanwhile, Russia's population threatens to decline to such a degree ....". Go west young man.


Anon: not at all. But "history?". The oppression in Tibet continues, and could stop. Forced sterilisation and the takeover by the Communist Party of Tibet's cultural roots, especially the (drastically-reduced) monasteries, are not necessary unless the plan is indeed what the Dalai Lama has called it, "cultural genocide".

And you will see that the bulk of my post addresses larger issues of China's own structural crises. I am trying to see why they're doing what they're doing.

The panellists on AQ used a couple of emo techniques - a dramatic present concern cancels all consideration of eveything else, and gosh isn't China better than wicked old Burma. These people are supposed to offer some wisdom and perspective. History is memory, and without memory there is no learning.

DM: West, South-west and North, possibly. Perhaps we'll simply watch as they claim their Sudetenlands. A worry is that as China's problems grow, the ruling junta will try to ease the pressure on themselves by diverting aggression to other targets. After all, Mao set the Red Guard on the Party and then the peasants on the Red Guard.

Ryan said...

"The oppression in Tibet continues"

Not just Tibet. The horrific socialist junta in Burma also relies on China for its continued existence.


Hi, Ryan. At least it's not so aggressive as under Mao. But we're going to need a lot of skilled diplomacy to defuse awkward situations as China thrashes about against her constraints.

I understand that the Dalai Lama is not asking for Tibetan independence - who would enforce that? - but for more humane treatment of his countrymen and more religious and social liberty.

Many in the USA will have their own views about China, Burma, North Korea etc, but it's going to be a question of agreeing the best realistic compromise, and taking care to save face. I think Burma's reluctance to let in outsiders may be an indication that our opinion matters to some extent, and this is something that good diplomats could build on. That's why, on the whole, I think we shouldn't boycott the Olympics but use them as an opportunity for the sensitive application of pressure.

I think we'll all be treading on eggshells for the next 50 years.

CityUnslicker said...

points well made sackers. China has many problems all hidden from us now; but not for long.