[Viewpoint]China’s year of challenge

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[Viewpoint]China’s year of challenge

With the Beijing Olympics approaching this summer, China has stirred great controversy by using its military forces to suppress Tibetan protesters calling for independence. The action has already marred the second term of President Hu Jintao that was recently launched at the 11th National People’s Congress.
Despite Hu’s signature slogan, “harmonious society, harmonious world,” China has done serious damage to its image as a contributor to international peace. There is now even a movement by some to boycott the Beijing Olympics over the human rights issue.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of China’s reform and opening policy, and certainly the country has become the growth engine of the world. But this year has also presented China with a crisis just ahead of the Olympics, a festival that should be the perfect opportunity to enhance the status of the nation as a budding superpower.
Even without the current troubles in Tibet, China has been plagued by a variety of problems this year. Concerns have been raised in Japan, the United States and Korea over a range of product safety issues, from lead paint on toys to the pesticide found in Chinese-made dumplings exported to Japan. Movie director Steven Spielberg condemned China’s attitude toward the genocide in Darfur, Sudan and resigned from the position of artistic advisor for the Beijing Olympic opening ceremony.
Pollution is another concern. Beijing’s terrible air pollution levels, which are five times higher than World Health Organization standards, have led skeptics to raise questions over the safety and health of the athletes who will compete at the Games.
Of course, its economy is the basis for China’s emergence as a global power, but the days of boundless growth and problem-free expansion may be over. Inflationary pressures are rising and China is not immune to the worries prompted by the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States. Consumer prices are rising at the highest rate in eleven years, colliding with the government’s macroeconomic policies. The international community obviously acknowledges the tremendous vitality of the Chinese economy, but there is anger over Beijing’s unwillingness to revalue the yuan and concern that China’s exports are therefore undervalued and unfair.
There is a reason why the current perspective on China has become so negative. The signs of fatigue from rapid economic growth are appearing earlier than expected, and the Chinese government’s crisis management skills are doubtful.
Although China claims that the international community is being excessive in poking into its internal affairs, China has frequently demonstrated unreliability in response to a crisis. The great floods along the Yangtze River in 1998, the SARS outbreak in 2003 and even the severe winter storms this year have all undermined confidence in China’s capacity to cope.
Even after becoming a global giant, when Chinese leaders are harried by disasters, they appeal to the people to remain calm instead of investigating the underlying causes or establishing a good disaster preparedness system. The lack of planning was exposed during the massive snowfalls in January, for example. People inside China and other countries were disappointed to see China follow its old system once again.
In Tibet, China went too far by using force to put down the protests. It was an imprudent response even considering the unique Chinese situation that gives priority to stability and integrating minority groups.
China could enhance its government system and win the trust of the international community if it undergoes reforms. Given its socialist system and absolute rule by the Communist Party, it is hard to create a middle class that can play the needed role of social buffer.
Nevertheless, the Communist Party created today’s China through a unique approach to socialism. Many people agree that the strict command of the Chinese Communist Party led China’s growth. However, others are concerned that the continued central role of the Communist Party could become an obstacle to continued growth.
There is no guarantee that the reform and openness of the last three decades will continue. China needs a to look for a different approach to maintaining its growth engine. But the Chinese Communist Party seems certain to try and strengthen its hold on the socialist system by refusing to allow real dissent.
China needs to establish a new system to satisfy the improved living standards of its people, including minority groups. This does not apply to China alone. The need to embrace change with an open mind, even in times of trouble, is a virtue that Korea also needs.
By creatively changing and adapting, countries can reinforce real domestic harmony and also enhance their international stature and competitiveness. These are urgent tasks.

*The writer is a professor of modern Chinese political economy at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

by Kang Jun-Young
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