China’s new Transparency International?
Since the beginning of the 1990s, China’s government started to publish white papers at an increasing rate. (for a list of what has hitherto been published see: http://www.gov.cn/english/links/whitepapers.htm). It all started with the first “defensive” white paper on human rights, in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and ensuing chill that was directed toward China from the outside, meaning mainly, the Western world. After that first white paper, there followed a sequence of papers that covered the issue of Tibet and a host of other topics that has previously been off-limit or too sensitive for open discussion. In all, 51 white papers have been published so far. Although somewhat puzzling, since 2006, this list has not been updated.
Anyhow, in the name of openness, some very interesting white papers have been issued in the last couple of weeks, using what seems to be the new Chinese policy buzzword — transparency. The policy areas these papers cover are:
* National Defense * Sino-African trade relations * China’s foreign aid
Of course, the topics are not chosen haphazardly. China’s rising defense expenditure is a cause of concern and anxiously viewed by the ASEAN-countries, India, Japan, Australia, and the USA. Likewise, China’s hunt for national resources in Latin America, Africa, and Central Asia and the deals made with other developing nations have been attacked for non being transparent and corrupting. These latest publications testify to the Chinese government’s acknowledgement that overseas perceptions of Chinese secrecy must be dealt with – by laying some cards on the table.
Transparency in the foreign policy arena
The transparency drive within Chinese officialdom merits our attention. It may seem a novel thing, but as the list above shows it isn’t really altogether new. The steady stream of white papers and the short intervals between their publication indicates an institutionalization of transparency and openness within parts of Chinese officialdom.
Is this institutionalization due to outside pressure, indirect or more direct, and calls for more openness in China’s handling of international affairs, motives, and the furthering of its national interests? Or is it rather, an impetus coming from different actors inside China: private businesses, state-owned companies, NGOs, and competing interests within the still unwieldy state and provincial bureaucracy? Or, is it a combination of both external and internal factors? It is a fact that, on the one hand, China’s leaders and politics have been drawn into international discourses due to increasing participation by Chinese policymakers and analysts in multilateral forums and debates – and the need to respond to outside criticism, regardless of how it is judged. Inside China, on the other hand, many interest groups saw the need for compromise, cooperation, dialogue, and engagement with outside norms to make China accepted and viewed as a “peaceful rising” power and, in the pursuit of business interest, a reliable business partner.
Overseas, a younger cohort of skilled Chinese diplomats have been lauded for their willingness to engage in dialogue with the press in the countries where they are posted. This paradigmatic shift from opaque behavior and secrecy is the result of a successful training program started by China’s foreign ministry in the beginning of the 1980s. Most of these younger secretaries and ambassadors speak one foreign language more or less fluently, and many have been educated abroad.
Most (but not all) Chinese white papers are now available on the websites of the State Council Information Office (www.china.org.cn), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs(www.fmprc.gov.cn), and the Ministry of Commerce. They all offer loads of data on their websites, outlining and explaining positions on regional and global issues, uploading transcripts of meetings with the press (depending on the sensitivity of the questions asked, some Q & As are not included in the transcript). By and large, however, these ministries have gone a long way, from Deng Xiaoping’s time (not to mention Mao era inscrutability and opacity) to facilitate the needs of foreign journalists and businessmen. It’s all part and parcel of boosting that other goal (and buzzword) — soft power — getting the “true” message of China and its achievements out to the wider world.
The recent crackdown on Chinese activists and especially defense lawyers, belonging to the loose network of the “rights advocacy movement” – 维权运动 – has revealed to what extent and weight “rule of law” carries when the Communist Party senses the least inkling soft power. Not very much.
As law scholars Jerome Cohen and Stanley Lubman have argued in recent months, the rights enshrined in the Chinese constitution to protect individuals from incommunicado detention has not been adhered to in the high-profile arrests of, for example, artist Ai Weiwei and defense lawyer Teng Biao. Teng was finally released on April 29 after 70 days in detention. Ai Weiwei’s family has yet to hear from him or the police, which according to law must let relatives know the whereabouts and location of detained people within 24 hours after being arrested.
The implications of dissonance
One doesn’t have to be a political Einstein to understand there is a dissonance between the drive for more openness in China’s public diplomacy and the domestic policy cover-ups. China’s diplomats continue to advance openness regarding foreign policy issues, but remain silent on the reasons for incommunicado detention. What is more difficult to fathom and prognosticate are the implications for China’s international relations if this dissonance increases. Or, just as bad, remains the same after Xi Jinping has risen to the apex of China’s collective leadership.
At a conference in Beijing last September, one of China’s most renowned political scientists, and international relations experts, Yan Xuetong, argued that one of China’s biggest problems in the realm of foreign policy was that the capacity and capabilities of its diplomatic corps did not keep up with the needs of China’s economic actors now present overseas in faraway places such as sub-Saharan Africa. (1)
Whereas I hold Yan’s argument about “overstretch” or “underreach” to be quite right, I also wonder if not the problem should rather be viewed more from the angle of the Chinese diplomat. Putting the question differently: is not the core problematique for PRC diplomats trying to explain Chinese policies, that domestic Chinese elites, especially the entrenched hardliners, center pragmatists, and even marginalized “reformers” in the Chinese Communist Party are not catching up with the diplomats increasing level of sophistication? Or even the level of perception – if we don’t assume diplomats to be nothing but empty messengers for their governments. The non-transparency of China’s judicial system and continued lack of rule of law are destroying years of effective diplomatic work to enhance a more positive image of China abroad. Therefore, the outcome of this gap and dissonance can only be negative for the perceptions of China abroad, something that neon billboards, charming ambassadors, and white papers cannot make up for. Therefore, China’s efforts at “transparency international” need to be met with efforts at transparency nationally. (2)
(1) Li Wentao, (2010). “A summary of an International Academic Symposium on China and the Changing World Order,” Contemporary International Relations, No. 10, p.62.
(2) By the way: in the index of the organization Transparency International, China has risen in TI’s country index over corruption perception. Out of 178 countries, having climbed the ladder toward cleanliness, China is now at rank 78, ahead of, for example, democratic India at number 87.