The Uighur protests could strengthen the hand of China's hardliners—at a cost to us allby Charles Grant / July 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
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After playing a constructive role at the London G20 summit in April, China gave $50bn to the IMF and dispatched ships to catch pirates off the Somali coast. Optimists will say that such good behaviour is a further sign of the long-term integration of China into the global economy and political system. They can point to 30 years of economic reform, the steady growth of personal freedom within China and even modest moves towards democracy, such as village elections in many provinces.
But recent events must give optimists pause for thought. On a visit to China in late June I was reminded that within the Chinese system there is a constant battle between liberals and authoritarians, and the hardliners have started to win more of the arguments. The violence in Xinjiang will only strengthen their hand. Most Chinese think that the government has been too soft on the Uighur rioters—and although China is not a democracy, public opinion (as revealed by comments on websites, at least) does influence policy. Even before the Uighur riots, last year’s protests in Tibet and the recent 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square had made China’s leaders wary of relaxing their authority. So had fears that the current economic crisis would lead to social instability.
The new strength of China’s authoritarians has longer-term causes too. The Olympic Games boosted China’s self-confidence, as did the successful way the state dealt with the Sichuan earthquake. More importantly, 30 years of economic success have led the Chinese to believe in their own model, while the financial crisis has exposed serious flaws in the west’s system. Worried that excessive US borrowing will damage the value of their dollar holdings, the Chinese are already thinking seriously about alternatives as a reserve currency. They are increasingly unwilling to bow to western pressures to change their internal or external policies.
This has all meant that China’s internal political system is becoming more authoritarian. Judges have been told they should work to strengthen the Communist party, and only then seek to apply the law. The party has promulgated a new doctrine known as the “six whys,” stressing Marxist thought, the state’s role in the economy, party leadership, and the need to avoid both multiparty democracy and the separation of powers. Liu Xiaobo, who led the Charter 08 pro-democracy petition in 2008, has been detained for over…