Sunday, March 22, 2009

Reading China's Rise: The Promise of the 'Unknown Rebel' and the Coming Pacific Century

By: John A. McCurdy

November 2005

Tiananmen Square 1989 – one of those truncated media-inspired phrases that set loose journalistic images lodged in the minds of Westerners; image-memories of Chinese soldiers, held back by pro-democracy demonstrators, numbering one million strong for a time, crowded into the precincts of Beijing’s historically-charged central public square. Out from the photos and film footage emerges a single, simple, unforgettable image – Associated Press journalist Jeff Widener’s early June 1989 ‘Unknown Rebel’ photo.

Significant not just for seeming to evoke the mood and meaning of ‘Tiananmen Square 1989,’ the ‘Unknown Rebel’ records as well the final moment of the weeks-long Chinese citizens’ occupation of the square. Soon after the photo is taken Chinese government crackdowns commencing, fanning out across the Beijing night. Thousands of dissidents are rounded up. Many are charged with political crimes and imprisoned. Some are tortured and executed.

Sixteen years old at the time and increasingly interested in the burgeoning global human rights movement, I found myself deeply moved by this ‘Unknown Rebel.’ I cut his picture out of a popular news weekly and taped it in a prominent position on my bedroom wall. Whether it marked a beginning or an end was unclear at the time, but five months later the Berlin Wall fell. Viewed by many as a document of hope the ‘Unknown Rebel’ came to encapsulate the post-Soviet promise of democracy and human rights for all.

The “Unknown Rebel” remained on my bedroom wall for several years, his back to the camera, a constant reminder of the rights and freedoms I often took for granted in the consumer-comfort West. I slung my backpack full of textbooks and subversive novels over my shoulder behind him each morning, as I got ready for school. I completed my homework and hung with my girlfriend most evenings behind his back. In either instance he didn’t seem to notice – he just continued standing down that line of jerking, halting tanks.

I moved my bedroom to my parent’s basement in early 1995. Along the way the ‘Unknown Rebel’ was either lost or damaged and discarded. Whatever the cause of his absence my new bedroom walls didn’t seem to register any loss. I venture a hypothesis: his absence as the apotheosis of the peculiar sense of loss experienced by so many in the mid-1990s. Images culled from Rwandan and Balkan genocides cut down simple illusions about a global liberalism bringing about an end to history, as Francis Fukayama would have had it. World leaders spoke increasingly of economics and less of politics when mentioning China. If not global democracy, they asked, why not global free trade? After all, they assured us, trade and commerce go before democratic reform. U.S. President Bill Clinton called this policy ‘constructive engagement.’

It is now 2005, ten years since the ‘Unknown Rebel’ came down from my bedroom wall and I am waiting still for democracy in China. Perhaps, as Bruce Cockburn once put it, I’ve been “waiting for a miracle.” Well, actually, according to pundits, the miracle arrived in economic garb some time between 1989 and 2005 – first in the form of the mid-1990s ‘Asian Tiger’ economies, followed closely by the phenomenon of ‘China Rising,’ with its red-hot economic growth and trade statistics. In the year 2004, for instance, China alone accounted for one third of the total increase in the volume of world trade (Arrighi 78).

There is even a sizeable elite consensus today that China, or East Asia, is set to dominate the future global economy, along the United States. We are promised not a ‘New American Century,’ but rather a ‘Pacific Century.’ In one recent version of the ‘Pacific Century’ Business Week imagines a ‘global triumvirate’ consisting of China, India and the United States. “China and India will be both allies and counterweights to America, at the expense of Japan and Europe,” managing editor Robert J. Dowling writes (16).

Meanwhile voices in the U.S. Congress, while continuing to harp on the so-called ‘War on Terror’ mutter privately about China’s seeming threat to global U.S. hegemony. In the past this scenario might have been expected to provoke a new ‘Cold War.’ Yet, as world historian Robert B. Marks has written, “[c]ommon economic interests … vastly complicate relations between the United States and China” (160). Indeed, it often seems that many of these Congressional voices belong to conservatives who fear China less for its military potential than because they are cognizant that the U.S. is in a position neither to bully nor to disengage from China.

Some elite American media commentators have tried instead to strike a balanced view, calling on U.S. political leaders to drop ‘constructive engagement’ in favour of ‘constructive management’ (Schwarz 27-28). As Wang Jisi writes in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the West’s future with China need not be viewed in ‘zero-sum terms.’ In fact, he notes, “such a simplistic view may threaten both country’s national interests. Black-and-white analyses inevitably fail to capture the nuances of the situation” (Jisi 47).

Thus the question of China-U.S. relations and of the future of global leadership (should such leadership prove necessary) will not one of lightness versus darkness – of St. George slaying the Dragon – but of grey ambiguities and deepening interdependence. Think Gandalf the Grey rather than Gandalf the White.

Will economic liberalization lead to political liberalization in China? As Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs write in Foreign Affairs, any answer comes down to the deeply uncertain equation between ‘development and ‘democracy.’ Pointing to the fact that the growing distribution of wealth in China and Russia has not produced clear signs of democratic reform, they note that:

“the link between economic development and what is generally called liberal democracy is actually quite weak and may even be getting weaker … authoritarian regimes around the world are showing that they can reap the benefits of economic development while evading any pressure to relax their political control” (77-78). The Chinese Community Party (CPP), for example, regularly co-opts China’s rising entrepreneurial class, thirty per cent of whom are card-carrying party members (Kennedy 80).

Still, there are at least two important quasi-democratic movements active in China today. Significantly their existence is not directly related to China’s expansive economic growth over the past twenty-five years. The first and earliest of the two is the Anti-Dam Movement, which gained impetus in 1992 when the CCP flooded millions of acres of agricultural and other land in rural China to construct the infamous Three Gorges Dam. The project led to the often-forced relocation of 1.3 million people, most of whom are traditional peasantry (Forney 34-36).

Today grassroots resistance to other dame ‘mega-projects’ continues in hundreds of locations throughout China’s many provinces, though, thanks to active government media censorship, few of these groups are aware of each other’s activities. Slowly, though, connections are being made between different activist groups through circulation of indigenous underground documentaries (36). For many in the so-called Third World development claims raise both environment and human rights concerns. At the time of ‘Tiananmen Square 1989,’ who thought the leading form of dissent in China would one day grapple with issues of both human rights and environmental protection in the same breath?

China’s growth since the early 1980s has lifted twenty five per cent of the population out of ‘extreme poverty’ (Keller D3). Yet this growth has come at great expense to workers who often are exploited in sweatshop conditions, and to Chinese citizens more generally, many of who have developed serious illnesses from industrial air pollution (Beecher 26). Land, air and water have been poisoned and many backs broken to achieve international development acclaim. Chinese activist and pro-democracy groups will undoubtedly engage human rights and ecological issues together for the long-term.

The other major dissident movement in post-Tiananmen Square China is the Falun Dafa (Falun Gong), an ostensible health and spirituality movement overtly opposed to the new materialism of Chinese society. In its struggle to operate free of government interference the movement directly confronts CPP authorities concerning rights to free expression, free assembly, and freedom of belief. By the late 1990s Falun Dafa had attracted more card-carrying members than the CPP itself, marking it as the most significant potential rival to old party rule in China since the days of the ‘Unknown Rebel.’ Accordingly the old guard has long since initiated a political crackdown on Falun Dafa that continues today.

We return, in the end, to Business Week and its future projection of a global economy led by a Chinese, Indian and American ‘triumvirate.’ We return, that is, to the probable projection of a ‘Pacific Century.’ Which values, political practices and economic policies are likely to guide or govern such an entity? For starters it’s doubtful that the material standard of living enjoyed by most Europeans and North Americans can be extended to the third of humanity living in China and India today. Additionally, if the Chinese ‘economic miracle’ is a product of globalization, as most claim it is, the world may ultimately be in deep trouble. James Howard Kunstler is the author of the recently published study The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. As Kunstler writes in the Guardian newspaper this past summer:

“Today’s transient global economic relations are a produce of very special transient circumstances, namely relative peace and absolutely reliable supplies of cheap energy. Subtract either of these elements from the equation and you will see globalization evaporate.”

Thus, talk of a Chinese ‘economic miracle’ – of more or less conventional modernization in East Asia – sounds both unsustainable and highly contingent. In a world ripe with potential sources of conflict, potential is certainly there for the promise of the ‘Unknown Rebel’ to be lost or discarded in favour of continued authoritarian rule in China. After all, as many commentators note Chinese leaders still value stability above all other values.

What of the potential influence of the United States, Europe, or Canada, on China? All three entities suffer from their own democratic deficits and internal political weaknesses. The United States specifically, once viewed by many as a ‘benevolent hegemon’ or indispensable power of last resort against tyranny, has not only spent its international legitimacy (Arrighi 50) in a false ‘War on Terror,’ but daily slouches closer to a uniquely American brand of political authoritarianism. In short, there is a distinct danger that a mix of authoritarian states will dominate a ‘Pacific Century.’ Some may be more dictatorial than others, yet most, if not all, will profess little more than the superficial outward trappings of democracy.

If the Twenty-First Century is to be a ‘Pacific Century’ than Canadians must begin to grapple with the significance of the China-U.S. dynamic in international relations. Canada will belong to any ‘Pacific Century’ if by virtue of nothing else that its geography, abundant resources, and heavy reliance on Central and East Asian immigration. What should its role be? Prime Minister Paul Martin hinted at an answer recently when he told Chinese President Hu Jintao, “We believe that both economic development and better governance requires not only openness and transparency but an understanding of the importance of human rights” (Laghi and Curry A4).

Beyond our role as Canadians, we are global citizens and many of us would seek to contemplate the China question (and that of global world order) from a post-national perspective – perhaps via a cosmopolitan or socialist framework. If so, is the vision of a ‘Pacific Century’ one we too can work with? If not: why not?


-Arrighi, Giovanni, “Hegemony Unravelling – I,” New Left Review 32, Mar/Apr 2005, pp. 23-80.
-Beech, Hannah, “They Export Pollution Too,” Time, 27 June 2005, p. 26.
-Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce and George W. Downs, “Development and Democracy,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 5 (Sept/Oct 2005), pp. 77-86.
-Dowling, Robert J., “The Rise of Chindia,” Business Week, 22-29 August 2005, p. 16.
-Forney, Matthew, “Power to the People,” Time, 27 June 2005, pp. 34-36.
-Jisi, Wang, “China’s Search for Stability With America,” Foreign Affairs, 84, No. 5 (Sept/Oct 2005), pp. 39-48.
-Keller, Tony, “What to do about Africa – and the U.S.,” Globe and Mail, 14 May 2005, D3.
-Kennedy, Scott, “Diving China’s Future,” World Policy Journal, Winter 2004/2005, pp. 77-87.
-Kunstler, James Howard, “Globalisation is an anomaly and its time is running out,” Guardian, 4 August 2005.
-Laghi, Brian and Bill Curry, “Chinese leader talks talk with PM,” Globe and Mail, 10 September 2005, A4.
-Marks, Robert B., The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2002).
-Schwarz, Benjamin, “Managing China’s Rise,” Atlantic Monthly, June 2005, pp. 27-28.

“Reading China’s Rise: The Promise of the ‘Unknown Rebel’ and the Coming Pacific Century,” was originally published in Say3 Magazine, November 2005, pp. 15-18, 51.

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