Changing China is a pipe dream

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將  / 

Thu, May 12, 2011 - Page 8

It’s hard to tell whether President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration is being naive, cynical or deceitful when it rationalizes ever-increasing engagement with China as part of a strategy to “change” its giant neighbor’s behavior.

Ever since it launched its policy of loosening up restrictions on all things Chinese nearly three years ago, the Ma administration has argued that closer ties between democratic Taiwan and authoritarian China could help foster reform in the latter.

From utterances of “Taiwan’s experience can serve as a reference for the future development of mainland China” during his New Year address on Jan. 1 to “We must continue to carry out exchanges with mainland China in order to have any influence over them ... otherwise, we will not be able to convey to them the meaning behind the values ... of freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law that we have in Taiwan” during an interview with Der Spiegel published on Thursday last week, Ma has sold a policy that from the time China first “opened” to the West has failed miserably.

There is no reason to believe that Ma will succeed where countless others have floundered.

In addition to this ill-defined “dialogue” with China and the supposed value of increasing Chinese tourism and investment, Ma has emphasized that allowing Chinese students on Taiwanese campuses — a policy that is expected to begin this fall — will have a similar desired effect on political development in China.

However, this merely repeats the by now discredited idea that engaging China, from allowing it to link to the global free-market economy in joining the WTO in 2001 to encouraging the spread of the Internet there, will inevitably lead to democratization. What most proponents of such engagement have failed (or refused) to realize is that China, while willing to extract the benefits of such engagement, has no intention to liberalize politically, let alone allow the emergence of multiparty democracy.

It hasn’t even tried to make that a secret and over the years several top Chinese Communist Party officials have gone on the record stating that Western-style democracy was incompatible with Chinese society. Still, proponents of engagement conveniently stuck to their song, claiming China was “in transition” and needed more time.

While proponents of an engagement policy counsel patience, Beijing has had no compunction in changing its interlocutors in a matter aptly described by former Forbes and Financial Times editor Eamonn Fingleton as the “Confucianization” of the West. In what has oftentimes been a one-way relationship, the engagers have willingly bent the rules and warped their ethical principles in the name of the relationship, while Beijing has stubbornly stuck to its authoritarian script.

The best example of this is the countless violations of WTO rules by China in the years since it joined the organization. China today is no more capitalist or free-market based than it was prior to joining the WTO; it remains one of the most restrictive markets and is overtly mercantile in its approach to the rest of the world.

If China can resist US, and even global, pressure on matters ranging from trade to human rights to intellectual property rights, how can Taiwan under Ma’s leadership have presumptions of greater chances of success? Has Ma identified foibles in Beijing’s defenses that somehow have eluded the international community for decades? This is highly unlikely, and rather than being naive, Ma is either being cynical or deceitful.

Tellingly, speaking of the positive effects of academic exchanges with Der Spiegel, Ma said they would be of “tremendous significance for bilateral exchanges and mutual influence between the sides in the future.” The policy will indeed be of tremendous significance, but the influence will hardly be mutual; in fact, as with everything else, it will most assuredly be one-way.

This week, National Taiwan University announced it had signed three memorandums on academic exchanges with Peking University, allowing for guest and adjunct professor exchanges and bringing the number of exchange students from two to 10 per year. More agreements between universities on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are likely to follow, as doing so dovetails with Ma’s policy of closer academic cooperation.

However, as we discussed above, it is highly improbable that China will act any differently on educational matters than it did with trade, freedom of expression or human rights. In fact, we can be assured that whoever is allowed to leave China to come study or teach in Taiwan will have been vetted by the Chinese authorities, meaning that they will not depart from Beijing’s script.

As with WTO rules, goodwill will be observed in the breach, and their counterparts will counsel patience, but the fact of the matter is, they won’t change, and will not pick up notions of freedom and democracy by virtue of being in Taiwan.

This is not to mention the growing body of evidence that many Chinese students and professors worldwide are beholden to the Chinese intelligence apparatus. (The problem of Chinese espionage has become so serious in the US that, as reported by Forbes on Saturday, a clause added to the US spending bill approved by US Congress a few weeks ago prohibits the Office of Science and Technology Policy and NASA from coordinating any joint scientific activity with China.)

However, the situation will be markedly different for Taiwanese students and professors going to China. For one, we can expect that any academic who has publicly criticized China on human rights or advocated Taiwanese independence, for example, will not be extended an invitation to teach in China. In other words, China will likely be vetting Taiwanese professors and ensuring that only those who toe the Beijing line are allowed in.

This already holds true to visiting professors from the West and there is no reason to think that China will behave any differently when it comes to Taiwan. As for Taiwanese students, they will have every incentive to lie low and self-censor lest they get into trouble, meaning they will remain silent in the face of intellectual injustice and learn to live with the cost of “doing business” with China.

Do that often enough and it becomes acceptable practice — again, ask just about any Western firm or government that has chosen to do business with China in the past two decades, allowing themselves to be transformed to such an extent as to become complicit (as did firms like Nortel, Yahoo or American Motors Corp, to name a few) in China’s system of repression.

Given its political situation and China’s claims over its sovereignty, Taiwan, more than any nation on earth, has every incentive to be aware of the dynamics of engaging China.

This isn’t to say that the elephant in the room should be ignored — it can’t be. However, to presume to be in a position to change Chinese behavior against a current of evidence proving that such an endeavor is quixotic, is not only foolish, it is dangerous.

Embracing China has a huge cost and Taiwan cannot afford to do so with its eyes closed, or under the guidance of a leadership that either does not comprehend the implications or has more cynical motives in mind.

J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.