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The new China can also be an improved China

As China prepares to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic on October 1, many people the world over have already become accustomed to thinking of China as the new global superpower.

Some can't help but wonder, however, if China is ready to wow and inspire the world beyond its phenomenal economic growth rate, beyond the lavish hosting of international events such as last year's Olympics, and beyond its impressive skyscrapers in megacities like Shanghai.

This is because there are other Chinas: China as a big environmental polluter; China as a repressive and anti-democratic regime that severely curbs freedom of expression both online and off-line; China accused of cultural genocide in Tibet and Xinjiang; China which literally buys influence by offering big loans and aid, in dubious ways, to countries with dubious regimes.

The last point is highlighted with increasing alarm not just in third- and fourth-world countries in Africa, but beyond. The New York Times published an investigative report on a recent front page detailing how the Chinese government has offered big low-interest loans to African countries like Namibia in exchange for having Namibia in return buy $US55.3 million worth of Chinese-made cargo scanners to deter smugglers. Chinese President Hu Jintao's son was until recently allegedly running the state-controlled company selected by China to provide the scanners.

"Now the scanners seem to illustrate something else: The aura of "boosterism", secrecy and back-room deals that has clouded China's use of tens of billions of dollars in foreign aid to court the developing world," the New York Times article of September 22 stated.

Huge amounts of natural resources in developing countries are being tapped by China in environmentally damaging and unsustainable ways, to fuel China's insatiable energy demands for economic growth.

Closer to home, let us not harbour any illusions as to how Burma's brutal and repressive military regime could have survived economically if it were not for China's massive trade and aid.

So is the face and behaviour of the new global superpower acceptable? Does the world really need yet another evil empire?

After 60 years, people may still wonder if and when will the world will see a new and inspiring China - a China that is not just economically big and bad abroad while politically brutal at home, but one that is more altruistic both at home and beyond.

This is not just for the good of the rest of the world but for China as well. The way China engages with much of the developing world will likely backfire and create a feeling of animosity towards the new middle kingdom. China need not compete with America in a downward spiral that will leave the rest of the world to choose between the lesser of two evils.

China can try to grow less spectacularly while building a more solid and altruistic partnership with the developing world. It must not succumb to merely being an agent of more political repression, abuse, corruption and environmental exploitation in other countries - intentionally or not.

Soft diplomacy and soft power can be about a greener China promoting alternative energy sources such as solar energy, something the Chinese government is already on the right path with. China can also exercise its wealth and power responsibly, constructively and in a sustainable fashion.

On the cultural level, this must include a more sensitive Chinese tourist abroad who does not eat wild animals that are in danger of extinction, and who is more sensitive to and appreciative of local cultures in host societies.

China can also be a superpower that promotes healthy alternative medicine and a healthy way of life.

Eventually, China will have to become more democratic and respectful of human rights and liberty, even if not on the Westminster or Washington model.

Without all these improvements China cannot hope to become an inspiring superpower that the world respects. Instead it will risk plotting its own demise as it accumulates resentment and more enemies.

No amount of spectacular and lavish events such as the Olympics, or the sending of cute pandas or big loans will help otherwise. The world indeed has a high stake in wanting to see a more benevolent and responsible China, and it's time that Chinese and non-Chinese alike thought about the matter in earnest.

As China celebrates the sixtieth anniversary of the republic, it can be proud of many undoubtedly well-deserved achievements. On its sixtieth birthday, I wish for a better China.


The Nation's Pravit Rojanaphruk is a Katherine Fanning fellow at the Kettering Foundation in Dayton, Ohio.