By Guy de Jonquières, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Guy de Jonquières is a senior fellow at the European Centre for International Political Economy. The views expressed are his own.
You do not need to be a panda-hugger or a Beijing apologist – and I am neither – to think that Western critics sometimes give China a bum rap. Not because China is innocent of the charges they make against it; but because when accusers point fingers or raise suspicions about its conduct, they tend to forget that many of the malpractices they condemn were common – indeed, even encouraged – in the West not long ago.
Take the recent two-week “disappearance” from public view of Vice Premier Xi Jinping, China’s presumed next president. Many commentators seized on Beijing’s stonewalling about his absence and its failure to respond to the ensuing frenzy of rumors that he had fallen ill as a glaring example of the unhealthy secrecy that cloaks activities at the top of the Communist party.
True, decision-making in Beijing remains frustratingly impenetrable – to the Chinese people, as well as to foreigners. However, China is not the first country to hush up sensitive or embarrassing information about one of its leaders. The U.S. did so in the case of several presidents, concealing from the public Grover Cleveland’s operation for jaw cancer, Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack and John F. Kennedy’s excruciating back problems.
Equally, it took years for the truth to leak out about the ill-health of several British prime ministers while they were in office: Clement Attlee’s duodenal ulcers, Winston Churchill’s series of incapacitating strokes and Anthony Eden’s botched gallbladder operation at the height of the Suez crisis were all kept secret at the time. Eden actually “vanished” for three weeks to Jamaica to recuperate at the house of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, which had no direct telephone link to London.
Another frequent target of Western wrath is China’s poor record on intellectual property rights. But in making free with other people’s inventions and ideas, China is only following a path not only long trodden, but fiercely defended, by the United States.
The U.S. recognized foreign patents only well into the 19th century, until when American IPR pirates were free to steal and copy foreign inventions and technology with impunity. Washington took even longer – until 1891 –to legally recognize and protect foreign copyright, and delayed until 1988 signing up fully to the century-old Berne international copyright convention, to which most other industrialized countries had long subscribed.
Impassioned pleas by Charles Dickens failed to persuade Congress or the Supreme Court to halt the pirating of his novels by hordes of 19th Century American copyright thieves. That does not, of course, excuse Beijing’s weak IPR enforcement. But when America’s IPR lobbyists indignantly condemn Chinese piracy today, perhaps they should pause to ask themselves why what Washington strenuously asserted was good then is bad when China does it today.
There is a sniff of double standards, too, about Western criticisms of China’s “indigenous innovation” policy, which is intended to build up the country’s industrial base in advanced technologies at the expense of foreign competitors.
The latter have cried foul at the combination of large subsidies, discriminatory procurement and standards-rigging that China has employed. Yet these are much the same methods as were widely used by governments in Britain, France, Germany and other European countries from the 1960s until the mid-1980s, in an effort to breed “national champions” in computing, chip-making, telecommunications and other high-tech industries.
Arguably, none of China’s non-military activities excites more suspicion abroad than overseas expansion by its state-owned energy companies, as they snap up oil reserves around the world. To some foreign commentators, the companies making this “land grab” look like stalking horses for a stealthy international extension of power by the Chinese state itself.
Perhaps the reason they are suspicious is that in the West, the global interests of Big Oil have long been so tightly intertwined with those of political power. Often, those interests have been identical, such as when a U.S.- and British-backed coup deposed the democratically-elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, after it nationalized the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (known nowadays as BP).
Yet the evidence suggests that, in practice, the interests of China’s oil companies are aligned much less closely with those of its state. For one thing, little of the oil they raise abroad gets shipped back to China: most of it is sold or swapped on international markets. For another, Beijing has clearly been embarrassed more than once by the oil companies’ ruthless tactics abroad, such as Petrochina’s alleged human rights abuses in Darfur.
Furthermore, China has been conspicuously reluctant to involve itself in protecting the companies’ overseas operations against threats. When the Libyan uprising broke out in 2010, Beijing responded by hastily evacuating Chinese citizens working there – risking $20 billion of contracts in the process – despite popular pressure at home to adopt more muscular action in defense of its national interests.
True, China’s oil companies effectively control its energy ministry, out of which they were carved. However, they appear largely to set their own rules, separate from the country’s overall foreign policy agenda. Indeed, a report last year by the International Energy Agency, to which China does not belong, concluded that its oil companies generally operate independently of Beijing.
What most of these examples tell us is the exact opposite of what China’s critics often contend. Far from being a self-confident emerging global superpower, poised to sweep all before it, it is actually a rather large developing country that confronts the rest of the world from a position of relative weakness and often seems strangely behind the times.
Western governments may have gotten away 50 years ago with news blackouts about their leaders’ whereabouts and health. It is far harder for Beijing to do so today, when new media, instantaneous communications and a less deferential and more questioning public expose it to searching scrutiny at home and abroad. We may not know the truth about Xi’s “disappearance,” but official silence has only added to the Chinese public’s rising skepticism and mistrust of the ruling Communist Party.
China’s IPR piracy, infuriating as it is to companies operating there, is actually another sign of backwardness. Economies with strong knowledge and technology bases act to protect them: those without steal. As and when Chinese innovators start to produce real commercial breakthroughs, their incentive to embrace strong IPR rules will increase in tandem – just as it did in the United States.
As for China’s “indigenous innovation” policy, it seems destined to repeat the mistakes that made Europe’s state-backed “national champion” policies expensive failures. Europe’s experience showed that hefty subsidies, government-ordained standards and protection against global competition are not enough to leap to the forefront of commercial technologies, especially when the beneficiaries are the large and often inefficient established companies that are best placed to petition for government favors. Rather than turning China’s market into a springboard for international success, ringing it with artificial barriers could end up isolating it from advances made elsewhere.
Finally, overseas expansion by China’s oil companies does not threaten supplies to the rest of the world. It actually makes no difference, because oil is a fungible commodity and one extra barrel pumped by China means one more barrel available for everyone else. That would be true even if all the oil lifted by Chinese companies abroad were shipped home.
Concern about the companies acting as advance guards for the onward march of the Chinese state is equally misplaced. Indeed, the exact reverse is true. As China’s dependence on foreign sources of energy and raw materials grows, so will the need to protect those supplies and thus the likelihood of being drawn inexorably, just as western governments have been, into the political complexities of the countries that produce them.
That will test to the limit China’s adherence to “non-intervention” in other countries’ affairs as a central pillar of its foreign policy. Lacking the West’s diplomatic experience and intelligence networks and boasting few close international allies, it appears at present ill-equipped for the challenges ahead. If it is to meet those challenges – and a host of others – successfully, China still has a lot of catching up to do.