It’s the bad news, of course, that makes the headlines. No news editor would splash with a story headlined ‘Quality of Chinese Goods Steadily Improves’. Stories like that belong to the public relations industry and its evil twin, the political spin machine.
For the government of the People’s Republic of China, though, which once controlled everything that was published or broadcast within the country and shrugged off external criticism as black capitalist propaganda, this year’s painful reckoning with international headlines has been more than difficult. The ruling Communist Party is no more eager than any other political organisation to admit mistakes: historically, its own propaganda held that the Party, as the most advanced political organisation in history, was all-but infallible. Few people inside or outside the Party believe that today, but given that public criticism still involves loss of face, and that international complaints are wounding to national pride, China has had some painful lessons this year. From lethal petfood and dodgy medicines to substandard tyres and lead paint on children’s toys, China’s brand image has been tarnished.
It’s humiliating for any country to be associated with substandard goods; for China, it’s more than that. Its rise over the past three decades has been important to national self-esteem not only because a country as large as China feels that big power status is its right, but also because it is seen to exorcise more than a century of weakness and of humiliation at the hands of the West, still felt by many Chinese to be a period of national shame. Next year’s Olympic Games are not simply two weeks of high sporting drama: they are Beijing’s coming-out party as the next world power and a return to China’s rightful place in the world. Anything that damages that trajectory is keenly felt.
China is particularly sensitive to criticism because of the narrative that accompanies its rising economic clout.
The Communist Party has abandoned class struggle in favour of the neo-Confucian theory of ‘harmonious society’ and its international corollary, ‘peaceful rise’. In contrast to the big powers of the West, this theory goes, China is not an imperialist power and its rise threatens nobody. In fact, the rise of China will be a positive contribution to world peace.
The branding of the new China depends on a positive image, not only in the capitals of the West, but also in the global south, where it is now the most voracious buyer of raw materials, where China’s cheap goods threaten local manufacture and its companies practise their multinational skills. To support the narrative of universal harmony, Beijing has spent millions in recent years on an unprecedented soft power effort, spreading its cultural exports around the world, handing out aid and investment, offering scholarships to Chinese universities and generally playing favourite uncle to regimes that welcome the unusual combination of largesse with no human rights or good governance strings.
But in the past few months that narrative, always greeted with scepticism in Washington, has proved insufficient to the task. China’s lack of governance and rule of law at home, coupled with unrestrained corruption and lax standards of public health, has begun to harm its international reputation. If Chinese citizens die, as many have, from counterfeit goods, they have little redress – and the scandals are so many they have lost their impact.
China has been inundated with fake drugs and poisoned food products in recent years. Last year, six people died and scores of others became ill after taking a contaminated antibiotic; in previous years, in one of the most shocking cases, 300 babies fell seriously ill and more than a dozen died after being fed fake milk powder. The Chinese are suffering a major health crisis caused by water contamination, air pollution and adulterated food, but there is little they can do about it. Citizens elsewhere are another matter.
As climate change impacts begin to affect the global south, China’s recently acquired status as the world’s largest emitter by volume of greenhouse gases and Beijing’s reluctance to discuss emissions limits, coupled with a breakneck programme of coal-fired power stations, begins to look less benign even to China’s traditional constituencies in Africa.
And as the world watched with sympathy as Burma’s monks led peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations against a brutal regime, China’s policy of business with no strings did little to enhance Beijing’s reputation as a responsible player on the global scene. Even the Olympic Games, with its potential for high-profile blackmail by every discontented group inside and outside China, is beginning to seem more like a nightmare than a dream.
How has Beijing reacted? Ten years ago, criticism of Chinese goods would reliably have been seen in Beijing as unwarranted sabotage by powers that are determined to keep China poor and subjugated. But, though government spokesmen have pointed out, rightly, that China exports no greater proportion of substandard goods than other countries, there was a relative lack of paranoia in Beijing’s reaction to scandals of 2007. They did, in fact, prompt Beijing to act. The government closed down the enterprises churning out illegal or substandard goods and, to demonstrate its seriousness, sentenced the vice minister of the State Food and Drugs Administration – arrested the previous December for bribe-taking – to death.
Politically, too, Beijing has demonstrated a new flexibility, from North Korea to Darfur, and recently, even in Burma. China is unlikely to join the grandstanding of the Bush administration in denouncing the Burmese regime, but Chinese pressure, discretely applied, may have kept the bloodshed to a minimum and secured access for the UN’s envoy. Even on climate change, there are signs of action: though the government may not label them as such, many of China’s energy policies are climate-friendly, as is a new emphasis on sustainable development. Beijing knows that China is perilously close to an environmental meltdown and, if Beijing follows to the letter the Western model of industrialisation – develop first and clean up last – the country will run out of everything from water to usable agricultural land long before clean-up time comes round, when climate change will be a lost cause.
What can be done to encourage China to be more environmentally responsible? The door is opening to constructive engagement on both environmental and climate change issues, but Beijing is unlikely to rein back on coal-fired power stations, for instance, as long as the United States continues to build them – and there are plans for more than 150 in the US in the next few years.
Nor is it likely to accept the emissions limits that Washington refuses. Below the level of hostile headlines and government diplomacy, there is scope for technical co-operation and sectoral agreements that combine the attractions of China’s mass market and cheap manufacturing with everyone’s need for cleaner technologies.
China is ambitious to move up the manufacturing value chain. To do so effectively, Beijing will have to put serious efforts into making government officials at every level obey the increasingly progressive legislation that the central government has enacted on public participation, the right to know, freedom of the press and the rule of law – legislation that is presently flouted at every level. If the Chinese government is serious in its efforts to root out corruption and institute good governance, it should start from the understanding that bad headlines might be wounding, but they are also a useful pointer to abuse and a tool for improvement. If that lesson were to be learned in Beijing, last year would turn out to be a real turning point.
Isabel Hilton is the editor of www.chinadialogue.net
This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2008