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China’s responsibility

Patrice de Beer
6 March 2006

The international standing of a country doesn't depend exclusively on its size and strength, nor merely on its major political, diplomatic or trade influence. It also depends on its image in the rest of the world. A national reputation can also be defined by the combined impact of secondary elements that together reveal a consistent behavioural pattern.

This is the case with the People's Republic of China, whose global image has until now more often been that of a dedicated money-maker than a friend, and which needs to address a series of issues of responsibility if it wants to convince the world that its "peaceful rise" is truly so.

Beijing was recently fingered three times within a week for its international behaviour; and for once, the criticism was not related to human rights or to strategic highhandedness in east Asia:

  • on 21 February, Germany's foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier declared that the country was no longer automatically in favour of lifting the European Union's arms embargo to China – leaving France alone on this front.
  • on 22 February, German junior minister for agriculture Gerd Műller, complained that China – having itself failed to take sufficient measures to prevent the spread of the avian-flu virus at home – was now banning imports of German poultry as coming from a contaminated area.
  • on 23 February, EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson imposed mild penalties on China's (and Vietnam's) leather-shoe imports, for dumping; since 2001, Chinese footwear exports to Europe have increased 1,000%, wiping out 40,000 jobs.

China in the world

It should not be considered anti-Chinese to remind the world that avian flu originated from southern China (mostly in Guangdong province, next to Hong Kong), where the disease killed for the first time in 1997. The global death toll now stands at ninety-five (from a total of 175 people infected in seven countries; birds in thirty countries in Asia, Europe and Africa have been killed).

The economic effects are already devastating. The lethal H5N1 virus's spread from wild fowl to farm poultry in France was announced on 25 February, and within a week more than forty non-European Union countries had imposed full or partial bans on French poultry products; on 3 March, French officials said that the country was set to lose €40 million ($48 million) each month.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde.

Also by Patrice de Beer in openDemocracy:

"France's incendiary crisis"
(September 2005)

"The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine" (October 2005)

"France's political sclerosis"
(October 2005)

"Paris in flames: the limits of repression" (November 2005)

"France's enarchy" (November 2005)

"Child's play at the CIA" (January 2006)

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The "severe acute respiratory syndrome" (Sars) which scared Asia in 2003, killing more than 800 people, also started in Guangdong. Just like, in 1918-19, the murderous Spanish flu which caused the deaths of up to 50 million people.

Geographic and demographic factors (humid weather, and overcrowded rural areas where small farmers live next to massive flocks of poultry and pigs) are mainly to blame. But so is the Chinese government when, in crisis after crisis, it overlooks or minimises the threat; its attempts to hide the danger from both the public and from scientists (local and World Health Organisation) – through outright censorship or by administrative measures restricting the flow of information or scientific work – have become routine.

It seems that, in the nine years since the first outbreak of avian flu affecting humans, the Chinese authorities have not taken seriously enough the permanent threat of pandemic – for their own people as well as for the rest of the world – as any responsible country facing a threat of such magnitude should have done. According to scientific projections, a worldwide pandemic could potentially kill some 50 million people globally.

But China has become the "factory of the world", supplying more developed countries with cheap clothes, toys and electronics, and is a haven for foreign investment. This explains why most governments are reluctant to criticise its policies. At the same time, investors, importers and distributors have no interest at rocking such a profitable boat, even if this means massive outsourcing and losses of jobs in their own countries. This explains why China was admitted to the World Trade Organisation and is considered to be a market economy while its communist-led dictatorial regime remains unable or unwilling to implement the rule of law, whether at home or in its dealings with the outside world.

To gain access to China's markets, governments have kept silent, sometimes pretending that "quiet diplomacy" was more efficient – without being able to prove it. Dissidents have been arrested and sentenced (most recently thanks to cooperation from Yahoo!), investors flouted and export regulations circumvented, as we saw last year with the flooding of European and United States markets with Chinese textiles once the quota system had been repealed. At the same time, Turkey – which is knocking at the door of Europe – has been criticised much more for its failure in handling the H5N1 avian flu strain than China has for having let it develop and spread.

Now that the virus has spread far beyond China's borders, it is time to confront China with its responsibilities. Two potential pandemics in less than a decade are plenty. We know that the avian-flu virus remains endemic in parts of China, where dozens of outbreaks were reported in 2005. Even if it is not something Beijing's leaders are keen on, what is needed now is real openness about what is happening, what is being done to cope with the virus and what the consequences are for us all.

Thus, the countries hit by H5N1 should resist any temptation to put trade interests before health issues, and instead press China on the need to take drastic measures to cope with the virus. Beijing should stop playing a hypocritical game of banning chicken imports to punish countries it has helped to infect with the deadly virus when it is obvious that the strain has been spread through the export – sometimes illegal – of infected material from poultry farms as well as by migratory birds (a fact shown in a recent study from the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" cited by the Economist; see "The aves, and ave nots", 23 February 2006).

China is a proud country, one of the most ancient and powerful. All should rejoice that, after centuries of decline, the Middle Kingdom has finally entered the modern world by the front door, spreading wealth to hundreds of millions of its long-impoverished subjects, even if it is still too unevenly distributed and not followed by a reasonable degree of democratisation. It is just and fair that China's voice is heard in the international arena and that its concerns are addressed. But, at the same time, because of its very size – 1.3 billion inhabitants – what happens in China carries much more weight, and can be of much greater concern to others, than events elsewhere, the United States excepted.

This is why, even if too many governments are ready to shut their eyes for short-term interests, the Chinese leadership should become an example of responsibility – or, at least, as responsible, on the whole, as others in the world. China's foreign partners should also have the courage to apply pressure, if only to protect their own citizens' health. It is, unfortunately, not what we are seeing now.

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