Wednesday, December 12, 2007

On paying respect to China's leaders

Okumura Jun over at GlobalTalk 21 has already offered a formal defense of Ozawa Ichirō's massive ambassadorial progress to Beijing. I would merely like to add an impressionistic coda to his work.

The Chinese government's authority is fragile. None of the current crop of leaders participated in the liberation struggle. None of them can tell a particularly harrowing story of personal suffering during in the intra-party madness of the Cultural Revolution. None can weave an inspiring tale of resistance to the crackdown that followed the events of June 1989 (then again, none of them has any deep black marks either). The earning of legitimacy through the ballot box has not been expanded upward from the village elections level. Instead, the central government's right to lead the nationa is being bought through a racing of economic engines, impressed upon the public' s mind through a capricious system of law enforcement and surveillance and insinuated through performances of benevolent empathy and personal simplicity.

[As though working from a script, Wen Jiabao softly plays the traditional pragmatic, sympathetic, always-on-the-edge-of-tears #2 in the party hierarchy whilst above him Hu Jintao leads his cult of no personality toward its apotheosis. ]

Hu, Wen and the other members of the Party Central Committee know that as the Party's commitment to its own ideology falters, their actual writ grows smaller. Far more powerful and terrifying than any of central government pronouncements are the business development plans of provincial officials and the common thuggery of the local cadres. The PLA's loyalty to the center and its trustworthiness are also suspect.

The core leadership also must know that the mighty China they are steering is not just a world-shaking juggernaut but a crack-riven disaster-in-waiting too. The staggering social inequality, the environmental destruction wreaked and the gargantuan trade and financial imbalances generated over the last decade of "crossing the river by feeling for the stones"--a non-confrontational, non-aspirational form of non-leadership--has woven webs of interconnected incipient catastrophes. Pull on one loose thread and everything everywhere bends from the strain.

When the authority of the government is so low and the stakes for the entire planet are so high, it behooves Japanese politicians to show extraordinary deference to the core leadership of China. Though Tokugawa Japan refused to be party of the Qing Dynasty tribute system, it hardly seems possible that modern Japan can avoid joining the rest of China's neighbors in bolstering Beijing's authority over its own land and people through ostentatious displays of respect.

The radical right in Japan of course would love nothing more than deny the Chinese leadership anything but the minimal decencies under the rules of the Westphalian state system. From their point of view, Ozawa's huge entourage and almost obsequious lauding of the Japan-China relationship must be disparaged and criticized--with nary a thought as to the possible consequences .

However, Japanese have an overwhelming interest in a peaceful, prosperous and stable China. Symbolic overkill--traveling with hundreds of retainers in tow, enduring interminable photo ops, spouting the effusive speeches--is a means of reinforcing the facade of Chinese central government control.

Had Ozawa tried reduced the scale of the visit to a more reasonable size--or attempted to reschedule the visit--Japan as whole would have lost out. By keeping his side of the bargain, leaving little unchanged, he boosted the authority of the Chinese Central government. While many see such deference as degrading or destructive, my sense is that it earned Japan a little more very necessary breathing space in its dealings with its immense and fast-changing (nuclear-armed) neighbor.

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