The Uighur protests could strengthen the hand of China’s hardliners—at a cost to us all

After playing a constructive role at the London G20 summit in April, China gave $50bn to the IMF and dispatched ships to catch pirates off the Somali coast. Optimists will say that such good behaviour is a further sign of the long-term integration of China into the global economy and political system. They can point to 30 years of economic reform, the steady growth of personal freedom within China and even modest moves towards democracy, such as village elections in many provinces.

But recent events must give optimists pause for thought. On a visit to China in late June I was reminded that within the Chinese system there is a constant battle between liberals and authoritarians, and the hardliners have started to win more of the arguments. The violence in Xinjiang will only strengthen their hand. Most Chinese think that the government has been too soft on the Uighur rioters—and although China is not a democracy, public opinion (as revealed by comments on websites, at least) does influence policy. Even before the Uighur riots, last year’s protests in Tibet and the recent 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square had made China’s leaders wary of relaxing their authority. So had fears that the current economic crisis would lead to social instability.

The new strength of China’s authoritarians has longer-term causes too. TheOlympic Games boosted China’s self-confidence,as did the successful way the statedealt with the Sichuan earthquake. Moreimportantly, 30 years of economic success have led the Chinese to believe in their own model, while the financial crisis has exposed serious flaws in the west’s system.Worried that excessive US borrowing will damage the value of their dollar holdings,the Chinese are already thinking seriously about alternatives as a reserve currency.They are increasingly unwilling to bow to western pressures to change their internalor external policies.

This has all meant that China’s internal political system is becoming more authoritarian. Judges have been told they should work to strengthen the Communist party, and only then seek to apply the law. The party has promulgated a new doctrine known as the “six whys,” stressing Marxist thought, the state’s role in the economy party leadership, and the need to avoid both multiparty democracy and the separation of powers. Liu Xiaobo, who led the Charter 08 pro-democracy petition in 2008, has been detained for over six months. Families of earthquake victims who complain about the schools that collapsed are harassed.Overall, the party is calling the shots and the authority of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao—who is associated with economic and political reform—may be waning.The state’s role in the economy, meanwhile,is growing. New “buy China” rules mean that most of the recent $586bn stimulus package must be spent on Chinese companies. And foreign companies are finding it harder to operate in other ways.This year a new anti-monopoly law stopped Coca-Cola buying a local softdrinks firm—but the same law is not being used against Chinese companies. Meanwhile,shortly after mining giant Rio Tinto pulled out of a deal with a state-owned aluminium company one of its top executives was arrested.

China is taking a tougher line abroad,too. Following the cancellation of the EU -China summit in November 2008 to punish President Sarkozy for meeting the Dalai Lama, it has also upset India by repeating its claim to the province of Arunachal Pradesh. Cyber warriors based in China are constantly trying to disrupt the computer systems of western governments. And China is the only country expanding its strategic nuclear forces, on the back of a soaring defence budget.

There are reasons to hope that China’s authoritarian turn may not endure. The Communist party has a track record of selecting intelligent, pragmatic leaders whose thinking evolves as the facts change.Take North Korea. Top officials are angry that Kim Jong-il exploded a nuclear device in May, and admit that treating him with kid gloves has achieved nothing. One official broke a taboo by telling me when I wasin Beijing that a united Korea might not be such a bad thing.

Furthermore, China’s continued economic success needs good relations with the other big economies, and a certain amount of freedom at home. Economicself-interest may persuade it to use multilateral institutions to advance its interests, for example by getting the WTO to tackle barriers against Chinese exports, or the Copenhagen climate change process to drive an internal push on energy efficiency. And the desires of China’s 298m internet users may constrain authoritarian instincts: recent plans to install censorship software on every computer were halted in the face of furious protests.But there are reasons to be gloomy as well. One is nationalism, which the government often encourages. Bloggers in Beijingtold me they can be as nationalist as they like, but liberal postings are soon deleted. As Martin Jacques points out in his recentbook When China Rules the World, most Chinese people are fervently attached to state unity. Chinese media reports citing negative coverage of the Uighur protests in thewest have only fed anti-western sentiment: reporting is portrayed as one-sided and anti-Chinese. In fact China’s media was more one-sided, showing nothing of the Han mobs seeking revenge on the Uighurs.The government’s hardline approach toXinjiang and Tibet has smothered the unrest for now, but may well lead to more problems in the future. Little is being done to tackle its roots: many Uighurs and Tibetans feel that they are treated as second-class citizens and worry about Hanimmigration wiping out their culture. Persistent and festering conflicts in these provinces will fuel concerns about humanrights in China and thus strain relations with the US and Europe.

The other worry is that the state’s enlarged economic role will do long-term damage. China’s leaders say that they want a rebalanced economy, with stronger consumer demand and service industries, and less dependence on exports and big investment projects. Yet the stimulus package works through state banks extending credits so that big state-owned companies can invest. Whatever the central governmentmay say, regional chiefs are using the stimulus to boost investment in heavy industry and infrastructure. That creates jobs in the short term—but provides more opportunities for corruption and will do nothing to rebalance the economy.

We should all worry about who wins these internal arguments. Many problems—from illegal migration and climate change to Iran’s nuclear programme and world trade—cannot be solved without China’s cooperation. If the authoritarian nationalists triumph, the new world order will be neither liberal nor multilateral.

– Charles Grant