The heroism of the Burmese, the shame of China

By Rosemary Rigther (THE TIMES, 01/10/07):

When China joined Russia last January to veto a fairly mild United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Burma to free political prisoners and improve its abominable human rights record, Beijing’s Ambassador at the UN helpfully explained that “no country is perfect” and that “similar problems exist in other countries”. Including, as he of course did not say, China.

The parallels may not seem all that obvious this week. Leaving aside the contrast between China’s boom economy and the misery inflicted on all Burmese by the military regime’s cruelty and incompetence, political repression in China these days stops short of organised mass rape and (outside China’s vast lao gai “reform by labour” camps) systemic forced labour. Yet the “problem” on the Chinese leadership’s mind, then and more acutely now that the desperate courage of Burma’s defenceless citizens has been on international display, is the containment of popular discontent in the age of the internet and, beyond that, the question of political legitimacy.

Burma’s monks are its people’s truest representatives, symbols of all they hold in reverence. By corralling them in their monasteries and brutally clearing their supporters off the streets, General Than Shwe’s junta has handed China a terrible foreign policy dilemma, even harder to handle than the nuclear roguery of North Korea.

Neighbouring Burma puts to the test, far more sharply than China’s cosseting of more distant Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, Sudan and Iran, the pledge, implicit in Hu Jintao’s “peaceful rise”, that China will use its power responsibly. In Burma, China has influence that it is under intense international pressure to use. Yet Burma’s popular uprising is a strong reminder of its own “crowd control” problems; for Beijing is annually confronted by tens of thousands of local protests, some violent.

China’s discomfort and irritation with the Burmese regime concern methods, not objectives. The Burmese junta’s settled conviction that only the military can run the country has its mirror image in the Chinese Communist Party’s obsession with preserving its monopoly on power. To grasp how Beijing would react to long columns of cinnamon-robed monks on its own streets, calling for change to the political order, think only of its iron repression of the equally peaceable, quasi-religious Falun Gong movement.

China may genuinely wish, as it finally said yesterday, for “domestic reconciliation” and “development” in Burma; it is acutely worried that the regime’s stubborn refusal of all dialogue will lead to its downfall. But for all their lip-service to “democracy” as a desirable Burmese development, China’s leaders have not the remotest interest in an outcome that might encourage China’s own democracy activists, above all in the run-up to the Olympics. If democracy is good for Burma, after all, why not for China?

Hence China’s continued insistence that it does not intervene in Burma’s “internal affairs”. This is hogwash. Burma is not just China’s neighbour; it is a heavily dependent client state that is close to becoming a virtual Chinese province, so heavily are large swaths of the country and the economy becoming sinicised. Burma’s problems are, increasingly, a Chinese “internal affair”.

China’s hegemonic thrust into Burma is not merely, or even primarily, driven by its worldwide quest for minerals, oil and other resources. The two regimes have been partners in crime since the late 1980s, when both were in the international doghouse for massacring thousands of people demanding democracy, Burma in 1988 and China in 1989. At friendship prices, China has sold Burma rocket launchers, guns and other military hardware; Burma has reciprocated by providing China with listening posts and, soon, a naval base on the Indian Ocean.

This does not mean that Beijing is not interested in Burma’s natural wealth, far from it. It is actively exploiting Burma’s timber, bamboo and furniture, rubber, tea, mining and fisheries and China’s actual or planned investments include 40 hydroelectric projects, 17 oil and gas concessions, major upgrading of its roads and a £1 billion, 1,000-mile oil and gas pipeline from the Bay of Bengal to China’s Yunnan province. An estimated million Chinese farmers, construction workers and businessmen work and live in Burma and, particularly in the north, many towns and cities are more Chinese than Burmese in character, using Chinese currency and dominated by billboards in Chinese characters. China reportedly agreed recently to rebuild the old British road connecting southern China with northeast India, bringing in 40,000 Chinese construction workers.

What all this amounts to is a merging of the two economies, a takeover that serves two Chinese goals. The first is to develop its own southwestern regions by making Burma to all intents and purposes an extension of China. The second is to thread Burma securely into China’s “string of pearls”, the network of alliances, westward into Central Asia and south into the Indian Ocean, through which it aims to extend its strategic reach.

China has bones to pick with Than Shwe, over heroin trafficking, his dalliance with North Korea, and above all his deal with Russia to build a light-water nuclear reactor; but he is a willing salesman of Burma’s birthright. If the junta fell, or even if Than Shwe were ousted by younger officers, Burmese nationalism could reassert itself and the southern strand of China’s string of pearls might snap.

With an eye on the Olympics, China is reluctantly talking the talk about reform in Burma. It is sufficiently alive to the disgust the regime inspires that it has hedged its bets, meeting repeatedly with members of exile opposition groups and even half-heartedly supporting the release of Burma’s great figurehead of freedom, Aung San Suu Kyi. But so long as India and Burma’s South-East Asian neighbours play softball with the junta – in large part, ironically, because of their worries about China’s slow-motion takeover of Burma – Beijing has no need to walk the reform walk.

These countries must stop covering China’s back. If the unbelievable bravery of the Burmese gets them nowhere yet again, China will take the blame. It will underscore China’s denial of freedoms to its own people. But the shame will be “civilised” Asia’s to share.