Dr. Franko Algieri: "Why should the Chinese government change his style ?"

Posted in China , Democracy , Human Rights | 30-Jul-08 | Author: Carsten Michels

Franco Algieri

- Exclusive WSN Interview with Dr. Franco Algieri, Director of Research, Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES), Maria Enzersdorf, conducted by WSN Editor Germany Carsten Michels -

Carsten Michels: The upcoming Olympic Games put China in the focus of world-wide attention. Do you see any evidence for a change in the government’s attitude towards its authoritarian style of rule?

Dr. Franco Algieri: Since the late 1970s, when the economic reform process and the policy of opening the country started, the question whether such a development should be accompanied by broader political reforms comes up frequently. Today, the ambiguity of being the host of the Olympic Games (and Olympic Spirit) on the one hand, and on the other hand the government’s reaction to the protest in Tibet earlier this year are used by many observers to criticise once again the lack of political reforms in China. Parts of the Western public and governments seem to be surprised by the Chinese government’s style of ruling the country. But such a China debate appears to be rather naïve. Why should the Chinese government change its style? Several facts can be used to understand that the China we see today is in certain respects not different from the China in the past. First, the reform policy initiated by Deng Xiaoping was never conceptualized with an automatism, i.e. the opening of the country and economic reforms do not consequently imply corresponding political reforms. Second, the Chinese government behaves like a rational actor, following its own agenda of interests. As concerns the inner dimension, the interest to guarantee the continuity of the economic development and the management of a wide range of respective consequences, be they e.g. of societal or environmental nature, can be mentioned. Concerning the external dimension, it is China’s interest to strengthen the position on the regional as well as on the global level, always against the background of the internal development process. Third, governmental decisions and the interest to guarantee the leading role of the Communist Party are closely interconnected.

Carsten Michels: Is it possible in the long run to allow the Chinese people more economic freedom, but at the same time to deny them fundamental human rights?

Dr.Franco Algieri: More economic freedom creates a stronger demand for more freedom in other areas of the political life. But as already mentioned before, conceptually there is no implicit step from economic to political freedom. Of course, there are demands within China for respective rights, but the process of change will remain a controlled top down approach.

Carsten Michels: Assuming that the European Union, the United States and other countries from the state community have an interest in supporting democratic movements in China, what would be the most effective way to do it? Intensifying pressure publicly, quiet diplomacy or just let the rise of prosperity do the work and hope for the best?

Dr.Franco Algieri: There is sufficient empirical evidence that external pressure and blaming China publicly and loudly has proven to fail. Even though Western countries are at times rhetorically strong in criticising China, the economic interdependence with China as well as China’s political weight e.g. as a permanent member of the UN Security Council are for Western countries of more interest than the human rights situation. Furthermore, because neither amongst EU member states nor between the EU and the US a coherent position on China exists, the Chinese government gets a chance to play these actors off against each other. From a comparative perspective, quiet diplomacy proves to be more effective. The EU and several member states have established dialogues with China, e.g. on human rights or the rule of law, although they are often cumbersome and slow moving. Trying to dialogue with China and engaging the country in bilateral and multilateral fora is more promising than fake public rhetoric.

Carsten Michels : Where do you see the limits of growth of the Chinese economy?

Dr.Franko Algieri: Looking at different scenarios and projections concerning the economic development of China, a main trend can be observed, i.e. it is likely that the growth of the Chinese economy will continue for the next five to ten years. From such a perspective, China will be one of the economic power centres of the world, but linked herewith is a set of problems: First, social system reforms are urgent in China. One of the most pressing needs is an adequate pension system since China is, like many Western nations, facing a demographic situation with an ageing population. Second, China’s economic miracle has not just produced winners but also a high number of losers. One of the main tasks for the government will be to reduce the gap between poor and rich. Third, the environmental consequences of the rapid industrialization of China are well known. One consequence for the Chinese government will be to intensify efforts for a sustainable ecological development.

Carsten Michels: What is China’s role in Africa? Supporting development or just exploiting natural resources?

Dr.Frank Algieri: The Africa-China Summit in Beijing, in November 2006, was a clear signal that relations with African states have a high position on China’s foreign policy agenda. An evaluation of China’s role in Africa depends on where one stands. For some Western observers it seems like China is following its economic interests towards African states at any expense disregarding the political situation in some of these countries. For some African governments, the cooperation with China is more welcomed than European assistance, since China is not linking the cooperation to demands for political or societal reforms. At the same time a certain concern can be found in Africa, recognizing a new form of imperialism by China. From a Chinese perspective, Beijing’s Africa policy serves at least two purpose: First, China is guided by the need for natural resources and raw materials to keep the domestic economy growing. Second, China is building up the image as a strong supporter of the developing world.

Carsten Michels: Is the EU willing or prepared to enter the geopolitical competition with Bejing in Africa?

Dr.Franko Algieri: The EU is getting more and more engaged as a comprehensive security actor in different regions of the world. Since a couple of years, the Africa policy of the EU is gaining profile. Apart from development aid and cooperation policy the EU is now also engaged as a military actor in Africa (mission EUFOR Tchad/RC) in the framework of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). Of course, Chinese and European forms of cooperation with African states differ. While the EU has linked the cooperation with the goals of strengthening the respect of democracy, rule of law and human rights, China is not applying respective conditions in relations with African states. Furthermore, China and the EU are to a certain extent competitors as concerns the offering of loans for development projects in Africa. But to talk of a geopolitical competition between China and the EU in Africa seems to be a rather artificial debate. The interesting question is, whether the EU and China will find areas of common interest in Africa and whether they will find a common ground on which their Africa policies could be coordinated – at least in parts.

Carsten Michels: Who will be the dominant power in Asia in the forthcoming decades and why?

Dr.Franko Algieri: To speak of one dominating power in Asia would be wrong. There are and will be several major powers which will influence developments in Asia, be it in economic or in security political terms. Looking first at Asian countries, China continuously expands its regional weight in many directions, from Central Asia to South East Asia and from the Korean Peninsula to South Asia. India is often mentioned as the upcoming Asian power. However, compared to China the role of India in Asia can, in this phase, be described as a less powerful one. Japan should not be neglected and it will be interesting to observe Japan’s new role and future development as an Asian power. As concerns non-Asian actors, developments in Asia are still and certainly will be strongly influenced by the USA. Russia is present in Asia and it has to be seen whether Russian engagement in the region will increase. The EU, due to its economic power and its role as the strongest actor concerning cooperation and development policy, should not be neglected. However, comparing the USA and the EU as shaping security political actors in Asia, the European role is still of marginal importance.