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China’s Fabulous Deals: Curb Your Enthusiasm

I wish I was talking about Larry David’s TV show, but I am not. A few days ago, China’s President Hu Jintao arrived in Paris for a three-day state visit with billions of dollars in deals thrown in. When it comes to make deals during those difficult economic times, France like many other countries, is ready to look away to ‘peacefully‘ work on a ‘strategic cooperation without limits‘. How much China had to pay for this masquerade (if the contracts are honored, eventually)? $20 billion. Three years ago, I posted about Gaddafi’s visit to France: When Gaddafi met Sarkozy: faked orgasm? and it is like history is repeating again, associated with the same feeling: ‘Colonel Gaddafi must understand that our country is not a doormat on which a leader, terrorist or not, can come and wipe the blood of his crimes off his feet. France should not receive this kiss of death,’ said Rama Yade (currently the Junior Minister for European Affairs and Human Rights in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in France as of 2007) about the Libyan leader’s visit. I wish François Zimeray, French ambassador for Human Rights and one of the signers of the 60 Signers for the 60th Anniversary Initiative, spoke out about both of these visits but I guess he wasn’t allowed to. Concerning human rights and notably the fate of jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, Nicolas Sarkozy even tried to put on a brave face saying: ‘We will speak about all the subjects […] There is no taboo, notably on the issue of human rights‘ but China’s deputy foreign minister Fu Ying made it clear, telling reporters: ‘It’s not a subject for discussion between China and France. Liu broke the law and was convicted‘. Is the power of money so strong democracies have to kowtow and act like everything was all right? Why do we ‘baissons notre culotte‘ (back down), as the familiar (and in this case kind of humiliating) French expression describes it in a very pictorial way?

A recent study by the University of Gottingen in Germany found the negative impact on exports to China began when President Hu Jintao took office in 2002, it is called the Dalai Lama Effect and CNN published an article about it. ‘The study is the first empirical analysis demonstrating the economic consequence of such meetings. Machinery and transportation equipment exports suffered the most consistent negative impact, following meetings with the 14th Dalai Lama, according to study authors Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann […] Using data from the United Nations, Fuchs and Klann tracked exports from 159 countries doing trade with China from 1991 to 2008. They discovered that exports to China decreased only after the Dalai Lama met with heads of state, such as presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens and the Pope.’ The authors also say: ‘Chinese trade relations are not free of political biases … the country seems to exploit trade ties as a foreign policy tool. [However] such an economic punishment mechanism will only prevail as long as the expected political gains from stabilizing the regime outweigh the losses from trade diversion.’ A very interesting point of view and it may be something countries supporting human rights should study more. But are our economies strong enough to support this kind of leverage? I doubt it as the Chinese own most of our debt, we have little room for manoeuvre if none.

China says it opposes ‘politicizing trade and economic ties‘, and they stick with this motto. China blocks sanctions on Iran, Sudan and Burma for years and they don’t want us to tell them nor hear what we think about it. Economic interests are at stake and China wants to do business with whoever they want and sell whatever they want. And we are not talking about flowers here. Last October, China sought to block UN report on the use of Chinese arms in Darfur although China has maintained that it abides by the terms of the embargo. What about Burma? China has remained Myanmar’s closest ally since the military coup 20 years ago, it is Myanmar’s second largest trading partner and the Burmese military government’s main supplier of weapons and communications equipment. Last April, China inaugurated a missile plan in Iran, a military relationship that goes back two decades. Told you, politicizing trade and economic ties is not good for business, everyone should always look away and make deals whatever can be the consequences. I mentioned this awkward situation in several of my posts: Darfur: a World Wide Role Playing Game, Burma: Aung San Suu Kyi and a thousand monks. Again. and Darfur: when History is a never ending story… Sadly, it appears our so-called democracies look away when it comes to make money, just like France did it a few days ago. An example to illustrate this point? The following ‘Dirty list‘ of companies supporting the regime in Burma includes companies from France, United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Switzerland… We are in no position to patronize or to give lessons and it makes this whole situation even more frustrating as we are unable to clean up our own back yard first. Read my point of view about our illusory leverage on The power of carrot and stick: reductio ad absurdum?

But I used to be more optimistic concerning the evolution of democracy, human rights and freedom of speech in China. In the late Eighties I used to write articles for a high school newspaper on various subjects, from geopolitics to poetry, martial arts to movies and music. In 1989, the Tiananmen Square protests which led to the Tiananmen Square massacre, really shocked me. I studied China and the continent’s 4000 years of history fascinated me. At this time, I thought the strong mobilization of students and protesters would change China’s history and open the way to a real democratic state. The photo taken by Jeff Widener of Tank Man, the anonymous man who stood in front of a column of Chinese tanks, is forever engraved in my memory. Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo was among the Tiananmen Square protesters in 1989 and he dedicated his award to victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. More than 20 years have passed and in fact, nothing really changed on a political point of view. However, on the economic side, China is doing great as the country knows no boundaries when it comes to sign deals with dictators or totalitarian regimes. The country has become the ‘sweatshop of the world‘ (it might steal India‘s outsourcing crown…) as more and more companies are producing in China to cut costs. And the more we outsource, the more prone we are to China’s pressure on our economies. Outsourcing manufacturing jobs goes together with cutting jobs; there will always be (well, maybe not) a country where you can pay less for the same job. But it won’t last as purchasing power is slowly but surely increasing in almost every country; a few months ago, China’s factories were hit by a wave of strikes as a result of this slow awakening among Chinese workers (and I am not talking about the growing upper class here but the ones working in deplorable conditions in most of Chinese factories).

So should we choose to support China little to no efforts for an hypothetical more productive result? Many people seem to think so since we can’t really raise the question on human rights without economic retaliation. First on the list, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations. As reported by Colum Lynch on Foreign Policy website: ‘Earlier this week, Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky, told reporters that Ban had not raised the issue of human rights in a one-on-one meeting with Chinese leader Hu Jintao that focused on climate change, the global economic crisis, and China’s role in U.N. peacekeeping. Nesirky subsequently said Ban had raised human rights “with other senior leaders.” But he refused to name them or characterize the nature of those discussions‘. This reminds me of President Sarkozy saying he spoke about all the subjects with Hu Jintao, which was afterwards contradicted by China’s deputy foreign minister himself… The only true optimism comes from activists. In Open Memorandum: Elements of a Possible Peace Deal in Sudan posted on Sudan Action Now, we can read: ‘China, the biggest foreign investor in Sudan, can play a very positive or negative role. If it supports the NCP without reservation, it could encourage the NCP to move down the path of war to secure the oilfields by force. If it plays a constructive role, it could provide additional leverage influencing the calculations of the NCP to pursue a peaceful outcome. China’s assets are certainly at risk in an extended war scenario. The southern army has no doubt increased its ability to disrupt the oil infrastructure during the eight years since it last attempted to attack the pipeline. China has a huge interest in peace and stability, and could increase its economic stake even more in the region if it bids on future oil projects in the South, including a possible second pipeline system to Kenya...’. I like this turn of phrase: in its own interest, China ‘the biggest foreign investor in Sudan‘ should make the right move because their assets are ‘at risk in an extended war scenario‘. China (as well as any other country investing in Sudan right now) will surely do the right move for its own interest but it won’t necessarily be for the best interest (is it ever?) of Sudanese and/or South Sudanese people. China is playing its own side, whether they work with Karthoum or Juba in South Sudan, it is all about business opportunities.

Back to France. There was no enthusiasm about China’s President Hu Jintao visit. Police tried to keep rights protesters away from the Chinese leader during his stay in Paris but they couldn’t stop Reporters Without Borders to open their big white umbrellas with ‘Free Liu Xiaobo‘ written on them as Hu’s motorcade headed to the Arc de Triomphe. Six people were then arrested and Reporters Without Borders head Jean Francois Julliard (who is also among the signers of the 60 Signers for the 60th Anniversary Initiative) said: ‘It is unthinkable that France, the country of human rights, is saying nothing about the situation of China’s dissidents‘. The coverage of the visit by French media was not enthusiastic either as we are well aware of the other side of the coin; communication surrounding the billion dollars deals is a fool’s bargain. And so life goes on. Last week, Peter Foster for The Telegraph wrote about the controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose ‘Sunflower Seeds’ is currently exhibiting at the Tate Modern, and who has been put under house arrest after trying to hold a party to protest at the demolition of his new art studio. Sunday on The Guardian, Ai Wei Wei has urged David Cameron to press Beijing on human rights issues this week, as the prime minister leads the largest-ever British delegation to the country. We will see then, without much expectations to say the least since News cycle turnover, our today’s worst enemy?

Meanwhile let’s don’t ask the vexing question(s) and just look away. Fortunately, activists, watchdogs and committed people never lose sight on China, Sudan, Burma, Congo or anywhere else even in our own countries. Although if we can ask ourselves if Darfur, Congo, Burma: is ‘good will’ enough? and if sometimes if it is not People of goodwill against the rest of the world? there is one sure thing: Tall oaks from little acorns grow

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