The Good the Bad and the Ugly in Modern China!

Jonathan Power
Jonathan Power, Journalist and Writer on International Affairs



China today is a sitting duck. But not so long ago China was a closed door and for most of the world; mysterious, unknown and unknowable. Now the massive and most populous country on the planet and the world’s second largest economy is wide open. The bad and the ugly are there for all to see. Last year the New York Times published a detailed investigative series of articles on the secret wealth of the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. Now it is possible to peel off the layers and look beneath the surface.

China's new found relative openness has allowed an open season on the shooting range of the international media. The targets are legion: corruption, nepotism, nationalism, maladministration, escalating inequality, environmental degradation, over reaching foreign policy and the military buildup. Western critics delight at popping off at them.

Much of what the critics say is true. Much is exaggerated. And much is ignored, in particular the not so ugly and the good.

China's attitude to global governance: the collective management of common problems at the international level is as good a place as any to start. In the time of Mao Tse-tung, excluded from the UN by the US veto, it had nothing to lose by playing the wild card and it did so with abandon.

After the admission of China to the UN in 1971 and President Richard Nixon's opening to China in 1972, China moved from opponent of global governance to playing a passive position while it learnt the rules of the road. By the turn of the century China had absorbed enough of world diplomacy and accordingly grew more activist, confident and outspoken.

In matters concerning Global finance we can observe this new and confident China. In 2009 China began to push for a major reform of the international monetary system and suggested that the US dollar be phased out as the world's principal reserve currency in favor of a basket of currencies including its own; perhaps a sensible idea. Meanwhile, it won approval for an increase in its voting rights in the International Monetary Fund. In this role as a responsible influence on international financial affairs it won the appointment of a Chinese as the World Bank's chief economist and another as deputy head of the IMF.

Over the last thirty years China has signed up as a member of most inter-governmental organizations as well as over a thousand big NGOs.

China has become in every sense a member of the international community. It is now a signatory of over 300 multilateral treaties. Its diplomats have won for themselves a reputation for being knowledgeable, sophisticated, and always well prepared.

These days China is one of the world's strongest advocates for the UN. Among the Big Five on the Security Council China has invoked the use of the power the least number of times. It makes an effort not to appear out of step, and would rather abstain than vote against a resolution.

In 2011 China joined the rest of the Security Council in imposing arms embargo on Libya. However afterwards China felt letdown when the West interpreted the Security Council vote on Libya, as authorization for the use of force. This explains why China has been reluctant to vote on arms embargo against Syria. However on Iran China has been quite unambiguous, voting to restrict the international activities of Iranian banks. Of late it has increasingly condemned the confrontational behavior of its own ally, the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un.

China has affixed its signature to all the international treaties concerned with nuclear non-proliferation and arms control, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which the US, once its great proponent, has not ratified. Breaking ranks with both the US and Russia, China has proclaimed a No First Use pledge on nuclear weapons. It is committed to opposing the enlargement of the nuclear weapons' club and has demanded that North Korea give up its nuclear weapons. It is also, along with the Europeans, a proponent of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty which, if it came into being, would make a big mark in reducing the growth of nuclear weapons.

In his new book, China goes Global; David Shambaugh has reported that China has voted 93% of the time with the US in the Security Council.

Shambaugh notes that China has become a significant contributor to UN peacekeeping. Over the last 20 years has contributed 20,000 soldiers, which makes it the largest contributor of troops among the Big Five to UN operations. At present China is the largest contributor among the Big Five.

Despite all these good deeds of modern China, the country still has a propensity on occasions to behave in the old way. China flagrantly continues to carry on with business as usual with some of the world's most unsavory regimes. Worse, China has at times been caught violating the UN sanctions it has itself voted for. On the home front China's human rights record is still poor although nothing compared to the Tiananmen Square days. But overall China is moving forward in a positive manner. The good is slowly gaining grounds over the bad and the ugly.