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«The World is Adapting to China and Not the Other Way Around»
June 30, 2014
The Spanish writer and journalist spent the past decade passing between China and Hong Kong. Beginning 4 years ago, he has carried out research on the internationalization of China in 40 countries across the world. China, the same country that is currently the largest investor and lender in the world, and is also the country with the largest number of people incapable of exercising their basic democratic freedoms.

Juan Pablo Cardenal - Crédito James G. Y

Juan Pablo Cardenal is a Spanish writer and reporter, correspondent to various Spanish media in China and Hong Kong since 2003.  He’s also a collaborator for international media, including the the South China Morning Post of Hong Kong, the New York Times, the Aftenposten of Norway and the The Times of London.  In 2011 he published with Heriberto Araújo the book China's Silent Army (Penguin Books), a rigorous investigation of 25 countries in Africa, Latin America, and Asia following the footprints of China in their hunt for natural resources; it’s already been published in nine languages.  At the beginning of 2015 he will publish a second part: the arrival of China in the Western world and the impact they’re having on their governments, economies and societies.  After spending 10 years back and forth between China and Hong Kong, he now finds himself temporarily in Spain, from where he conducted this interview.  He has a blog in the Spanish newspaper El País about the international expansion of China: an indispensable source for following the steps of the Asian giant, which he considers to be the largest dictatorship in the world.

By Gabriel C. Salvia

The advancement of international law in human rights finds in China its greatest threat: “We’ve witnessed in the last three years a clear regression in regards to how Western countries tackle the subject of China and human rights”.  Even if they exist merely as an ideal, human rights as the axis of foreign policy hit a barrier in the world’s largest dictatorship: “Since 1989 the party line has been the iron fist, believing that either you plug the leak right away, or it keeps flowing like in Tiananmen and soon enough there’s no one that can stop it”.  When one speaks of human rights, China goes unmentioned: “there’s nothing left to be said about how they handle dissidents, the conflicts in Tibet or the adherents of Falun Gong”.

When one talks about China, one discusses the opportunities for investment and international trade: “Between money and values, money talks; between human rights and economics, money talks”.  Labor rights, the preservation of the atmosphere, and corporate social responsibility have gone out of style when confronted with the practices that China uses abroad: “China invests in foreign nations with their own model and mentality”. 

-What kind of political, institutional and social impact could Chinese investments have on Latin America?

-There’s a good side and a bad side. If China invests in Latin America, it brings with it commercial activity, it generates employment, it exports capital, it creates infrastructure, etc, all of which is undeniable and has a positive effect.  The problem is when we add on to these investments poor business practices and low standards in regards to labor and the environment.  Let’s not forget that China invests abroad with their own model and mentality: poor labor conditions, environmental damage, zero transparency, corruption, social impact, agreements only with the elites, etc. Therefore, it truly depends on each country that receives them (on their governments, media, institutions, NGOs and the like) to demand that China complies with the law and that they make business agreements according to globally accepted standards.  If they don’t do it, then who will?  Of course, no one in China, that goes without saying.  Another question, and here is part of the problem, is what ability do the governments and companies have to negotiate and influence decisions when they sit down to talk with China.  China comes with money in their back pocket, has the need for natural resources, has the largest future market in the world, links the extraction of resources with the construction of infrastructure and gives out loans.  With that in mind, what government wants to put that at risk just because a mine, to give an example, doesn’t have the best labor conditions?  And even worse, what China offers is a short-term slice of the pie, and therefore no one is demanding that China helps build the receptive economies, by for example investing in the processing plants of these resources.  Latin America is committing a strategic error with this short-term thinking.

-What will be China’s next steps in Latin America?

-It’s assumed that China will remain linked to Latin America in two ways:  one, by continuing to invest in projects linked to the supply of raw materials; and two, they will try to transform Latin America into one of their leading markets for exports, not just for products of low value, but also for common technological products that enter into the markets by means of competitive pricing.  Examples include automobiles, machinery, satellites, electrical appliances, computer equipment, telecommunications lines, and others.  China will also remain linked to Latin America through the loans that they award to predetermined countries.

-What are the main threats to the Chinese economy?

The shockwaves from social turbulence are at the core, and these come from several different factors.  On the one hand from social inequality, which has to do with the growth model in place, since the train of progress is only allowing a precious few to climb the economic ladder.  This is a huge risk for the Chinese economy and for the survival of the CPC.  Secondly, the precarious labor conditions.  The conditions have improved in recent years precisely because they were a social threat, and as a result they increased the minimum wage and other variables to placate the millions of migrant workers that could set off a popular revolution at any time. Finally, the environment: China runs the risk of getting sick before getting rich, and if they want to avoid that they will have to think about adopting a more sustainable model.  But then, how does one incorporate the millions of workers each year?  And how will China remain competitive if the country becomes more and more expensive, something that’s occurring for various reasons, among them wage increases and the adoption of cleaner environmental policies?

-Why do you think that the economic liberalization in China won’t lead to demands for political openness?

-I arrived in China in 2003, and what you always heard was that China was going to become more democratic as it continued developing, that economic liberalization would undoubtedly lead to a political opening.  As such, you had to give it time.  A little after that, it was said that the Olympic Games in Beijing would be a force of inevitable change, and we were on the precipice of an opening across the board.  Now you hear that Xi Jinping will surely bring change, as he’s a reformer with the required ability to drag the CPC in that direction.  More than 10 years later I’m convinced that this axiom is false; it’s a sales pitch that the Chinese have skillfully delivered and many foreigners have naïvely bought into it.  I don’t see China changing in the near future: the elites have no incentive to, as they all benefit from the status quo; Xi Jinping also doesn’t have the strength nor the charisma of Deng Xiaoping to put the party on his back.  I mean to say, even if it’s what I want, I doubt it will; it can’t happen, because there are too many factions within the party that will prevent it.  For me, the CPC has two primary objectives: 1) monopolize power sine die, and 2) if they can make themselves richer, all the better.  In this context, I can’t be very optimistic, even with the assumption that the population will call for democracy and personal freedoms, which remains to be seen.

-25 years after the events in Tiananmen, what was the real impact of the protests, the number of victims of repression, and what consequences did it have on the continuation of demands for personal and civil freedoms? 

-The number of people that died is still unknown, but one would suspect more than a 1000, perhaps more.  The most important thing that I took from this is that the CPC learned an important lesson, and everything that has occurred after has been linked in some way.  What I mean to say is that the hardline factions of the CPC have had control ever since, and there’s nothing left to be said about how they handle dissidents, the conflicts in Tibet or the adherents of Falun Gong to prove it.  Since 1989 the party line has been the iron fist, believing that either you plug the leak right away, or it keeps flowing like in Tiananmen and soon enough there’s no one that can stop it.  The dawn of June 3rd going into June 4th 25 years ago was a very sad event, but the worst was the repression that followed it and still continues today, because there are still students locked up 25 years after.  Nothing remains of those students:  they’re dead, exiled or in prison.  My feeling is that the message permeated deeply into the generations that followed.  It’s true that many don’t know anything about what happened, due to the official cover-up, but I suppose that those that do know about it are fully aware that the CCP’s monopoly of power is not up for discussion.  Those that do discuss it, such as Liu Xiaobo and the other signers of the Charter 08, ended up in prison simply by promoting democracy in China.  All of this is happening in silence, once and again with the complicity of the West and the rest of the world. 

-What challenge does the CPC regime represent to the globalization of democracy and human rights?

-The CPC seems very organized to me, but if there were going to be profound changes, they’re not going to come from foreign meddling.  The Chinese leaders have made it clear that the objective is to move away from Western culture, from democracy, from free press, from everything that a country with political balance or checks and balances is supposed to be.  See for yourself in the so-called Document Number Nine.  I believe, on the contrary, that if there’s going to be a change, it will come from within and probably with blood, as has historically occurred in China.  This is the reason that the Chinese government gives so much importance to the economy; as long as it keeps going, the people prosper the social pact between the CPC and its citizens remains in effect (I give you economic prosperity, you don’t call into question my monopoly of power).  The day that the economy stops and the people have the impression that the pact has been broken, all while they see that a special few have acquired an obscene amount of wealth while the majority suffers, then the possibilities of there being a big problem deriving from the unknown increase considerably. 

-What impact does China have on the most developed democracies? 

-Western countries, who for decades dedicated their time to giving lessons about democracy and personal freedoms to the rest of the world, are now, insofar as they perceive China as playing a decisive role in the global economic recovery into the future, placing the subject of human rights on the backburner.  It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it is: between money and values, money talks; between human rights and economics, money talks.  We’ve witnessed in the last three years a clear regression in regards to how Western countries tackle the subject of China and human rights.  Canada, who has always been critical, is now silent due to its strategic turn toward Asia and China; we’ve already seen the spectacle carried out by the British Prime Minister David Cameron on his visit to China this past year, which caused quite a stir in the United Kingdom; the same is happening with France, after Sarkozy criticized the repression in Tibet just before the Olympic Games in Beijing; and in Brussels, what can we say, the matter of human rights is off the table.  Thus, once more, we see how the world is adapting to China and not the other way around, which would be the norm.

-What are the global repercussions of an alliance between China and Russia?

-The energy treaty that China and Russia just signed is very important and comes backed by a dizzying statistic: 400,000 million dollars.  This is a logical cooperation in the sense that a voracious China for crude oil and natural resources has, on the other side of their northern border, all of the supply that it needs without having to transport it from distant lands or across the strait of Malacca.  Russia, in turn, wants to sell its gas and oil, and to who better than the country with the biggest demand and the most money?  With that said, thinking that this will lead to a future strategic alliance is premature.  Moscow and Beijing may align themselves at the UN on the issues of North Korea, Iran, Syria or Ukraine, but they also have substantial differences.  From our investigation in Siberia, there was a palpable distrust from the Russians toward the Chinese.  And the proof of that is, in spite of their complementary needs, they’ve barely been capable of closing any agreement on a relevant investment in the natural resources sector, with the exception of the announcement a few days ago.

Translated by Thomas Beard.