China seems to have an urgent need for some forthright advice on its public relations and international image. It appears to be under the impression that, irrespective of what authoritarian policies it follows internally, it can buy off international criticism by using its ability as a booming economy – at a time when the world is in the midst of a depression– to provide assistance to various countries in need, whether it be Greece with its sovereign debt crisis or African countries seeking markets for their resources.
China has, admittedly, proved that liberal democracy is not a vital key to a successful capitalist economy. But that very success brings its own problems for an authoritarian government that believes it can control all aspects of society, including religion, and make its vast population conform to a narrow ideological world view.
China’s laudable achievement in raising the living standards of more and more of its vast population is having what is a perverse consequence from its own point of view: the newly affluent middle class members of its citizenry are able to travel abroad. Once back home, they are less tolerant of the authoritarian ways the ruling party runs the country. A rapidly escalating number of protests are being reported in local communities, especially in the relatively wealthy and economically developed east of the country, but also among dispossessed farmers and in religious communities beyond Tibet.
Eerily, some of its official rhetoric and strategic international policies have echoes of times gone by in South Africa. The word “terrorists” was bandied about to dismiss people who resist, largesse was dispensed to some African and Latin America countries in the vain hope of buying their support at the UN – vast amounts have been spent overtly and covertly on a propaganda campaign to sell the unsellable, and attempts are made to restrict the ability of its citizens to travel.
This “be our friend but keep your nose out of what we do at home” strategy has consequences, however. And the demands China is implicitly or explicitly making in return for gifts and assistance is placing the increasing number of democratic countries in Africa into situations of difficult choice.
A good example played itself out in the past week when Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe was given the full treatment on his visit to China. He met with the whole range of the top Chinese leadership in Shanghai and Beijing, addressed China’s Executive Leadership Academy and met with business people. While there, he was able to expound on South Africa’s wish list for advantages to be derived from its warm relationship with China.
South Africa is still glowing from its acceptance as a member of the Brics, the big league of the emerging dynamic economies of the South. According to Motlanthe’s office, the two governments agreed to facilitate investment by both public and private sectors from their respective countries in the areas of infrastructure development, mining, energy, transport and information and communications technology.
The two sides also agreed to explore trilateral cooperation on strategic economic infrastructure projects in the transport and energy sectors on the African continent.
China would increase investment on vocational training centres in SA and increase scholarship allocation for students to study in China.
At a time when unemployment, especially youth unemployment, is becoming a critical issue locally, the undertakings given by China must have been music to Motlanthe’s ears.
Motlanthe’s visit was not only concerned with economic development and investment, however. Chinese President Hu Jintao called for both sides to strengthen strategic communication, deepen political mutual trust and bolster cooperation in order to advance stronger bilateral ties.
The two countries thus also undertook to exchange more frequent visits and share views on issues concerning the UN, WTO, G20 and Brics.
Yet, in the background another issue was playing itself out and placing South Africa on the horns of a dilemma.
We were assured in an article on September12, by Peter Fabricius, that according to Jerry Matjili, the new director-general of the department of International Relations and cooperation, South Africa would revert to a human rights-based foreign policy. This would be in line with the principles enshrined in the bill of rights in the South African Constitution, he said.
Yet, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu invited his fellow cleric, the Dalai Lama, to attend his 80th birthday celebrations later this week, the South African government went into obfuscation mode. Suddenly, there was no clarity on which government department, Home Affairs or Dirco, had to make the decision on whether or not to issue the visa.
By chance, the timing of the application was unfortunate, coinciding as it did with the Motlanthe visit. Unofficial information is that “there will be consequences” if the visa is granted. If this is true, considering the list of commitments Motlanthe brought home with him, those “consequences” could damage South Africa’s hopes of material support from China.
But if China cares and wants to improve its international image, it would do well not to bear down on its partners with threats of that nature. Does anyone remember how Tutu shot to international prominence after the erstwhile South African government tried to restrict his activities and the perceived damage he was able to do abroad by denying him a passport?
And will the promised principled South African foreign policy b