| We shall meet again
It will be Hu and Hu in Beijing on Sunday as China tries to ingratiate itself (without giving away anything of substance) with George W. Bush who is seen as the major impediment to the global superpower status the Chinese consider their due. The need to conciliate the United States of America was underlined again during Hu Jintao's recent triumphal tour of Europe. Conveniently for him, Sunday, when Bush will still be in China, will mark the 90th birth anniversary of the other Hu, Hu Yaobang, the Communist Party's disgraced 12th general secretary who was regarded as the beacon of liberalism.
Britain rolled out the red carpet for a Chinese president for the second time in six years, honours that do not come the way of India's heads of state. There was a dazzling procession with the Queen down the Mall, a ceremonial guard of honour, and a state banquet at Buckingham Palace when some royals were apparently downgraded to exalt the visitors. An exhibition titled The Three Emperors reminded everyone of China's four major inventions ' paper, printing, the compass and gunpowder. True, Prince Charles, who dubbed the handing over of Hongkong 'The Great Chinese Takeaway' boycotted the ceremonies, reviving memories of his father warning British students in China that they would become 'slitty-eyed' if they stayed there much longer. But Tony Blair made up for the king-in-waiting's indiscretion. The unique decorative touch of bathing prominent London sights like Somerset House, the Royal Academy and the London Eye in a deep crimson light was the government's tribute to Asia's rising hegemon.
Ian Pearson, Blair's trade minister, photographed with Mao Zedong's latest biography in front of him, gushed about the Chinese miracle. 'Over the last 20 years, China has taken one-third of a billion people out of extreme poverty. This is staggering,' he warbled. 'It has done that through trade.' And, indeed, Chinese imports rose by 23.4 per cent in October. But trade is not all that Britain wants. It also seeks investment. Unlike the US or our Left Front, the modern British aren't squeamish about national institutions passing into foreign hands. China's Nanjing Automotives acquired the MG Rover plant in July and has promised to produce 100,000 cars by 2007.
Hu and Blair oversaw deals worth $1.3 billion, the biggest (a cool $ 800 million) going to Rolls-Royce which will supply Air China with 700 Trent engines. Lloyd's of London, the underwriters, will make a debut in China; the City of London is to open offices in Beijing and Shanghai; and a British firm will develop plans for three new Chinese cities. Essex County Council's reciprocal relationship with the Chinese province of Jiangsu might be replicated.
However, cooperation can't go much further unless the European Union lifts the arms embargo imposed on China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Britain, France and Spain are keen on seeing it go. So was Germany but Angela Merkel, the chancellor-designate, is thought to be more pro-American than her predecessor. This is where the rub lies. Europe cannot act without US permission. And while the US wants China on its side ' 'responsible stakeholder' is the approved term ' its agenda holds terms and conditions that are rooted in a mix of economic, political and chauvinistic factors. The quite arbitrary steps taken to prevent the Chinese acquiring the oil giant UNOCAL revealed the strength of American feeling.
That the US trade gap leapt to a record $66.1 billion in September while China's trade surplus soared to a monthly high of $12 billion as its exports grew at a breakneck annual rate of nearly 30 per cent was obviously a disturbing factor. Increasing purchases of cheap Chinese goods is blamed for the US trade deficit spiraling to 8.9 per cent, and raising the spectre of an awesome annual deficit of about $ 200 billion. But as Pearson points out, no one is forced to buy a cheap Chinese football that might be made by sweated labour or by underage children. Nor can China be blamed if the nascent textile industry in developing countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam is hit because Americans prefer to buy more cheap Chinese readymades. No doubt all this will be discussed at next month's Doha Round of world trade talks, but however unethical the deal, both China and the US profit from it and neither will surrender the advantage.
Not that American complaints of poor working conditions in China and the exploitation of children are unjustified. There is merit, too, in accusations about abysmal human rights, the suppression of minority cults like the Falun Gong, China's threatening attitude to Taiwan and repressive rule in Tibet and Xinjiang. But it may seem significant in India that the US says nothing about China's 'string of pearls' ' military bases ' in the Indian Ocean, base in Myanmar, military links with Pakistan, support for Nepal's royal absolutism or persistent manoeuvres to get a foot in the door of south Asian affairs. Instead, the Americans are concerned that Beijing's proposal for the Olympic torch for the 2008 games to pass through Taiwan implies that the island is a province of the mainland, and about the raft of Sino-Iranian energy agreements. As against this criticism, the US praises China's stand on the other great American bugbear of North Korea.
It's nation before the world. When the US does speak of global moral issues ' and Bush has again stressed the lack of democracy in China and held up Taiwan as a role model ' it is as a bargaining counter. Understanding this only too well, the Chinese are prepared to negotiate token concessions from which they, too, will benefit. Hence plans for Sunday's ceremony to bestow posthumous approval on the dead Hu who initiated the late Seventies campaign to rehabilitate victims of Mao's purges in the Fifties and of the Cultural Revolution a decade earlier. He was denounced in life for 'bourgeois tendencies' and 'spreading Western values' and sacked from his party post in 1987. But he became the idol of Chinese youth, and his death and funeral two years later sparked off demonstrations in Shanghai and Beijing.
The living Hu has cannily let it be known that he had to override hardliners in the nine-member politburo standing committee to take the crucial step to honour Hu Yaobang's memory. His friends report that tears were streaming down his eyes on an earlier occasion to mark the anniversary. But Hu Jintao is still not taking any chances. A smaller earlier ceremony where Wen Jiabao, the prime minister, will pay tribute to Hu's memory will test the waters of political opinion. The calculation seems to be that not only will the event help to burnish Hu Jintao's reformist credentials but will endear him to the Communist Youth League's 72 million members.
Hu Jintao's reputation in the West is that of a charming enigma who loves pomp and ceremony as much as Jiang Zemin did. He is known as the author of the concept of the 'Harmonious Society', but few are clear about what exactly this denotes in the context of other formulations like the 'Three Represents' and 'Four Modernisations'. At one time he was regarded as a closet reformer who dared not attempt too much since he was not as firmly entrenched as Deng Xiaoping. Later, he was thought to be the first real communist to head the Chinese party in 20 years. He himself says little, but it is noteworthy that the reforms he has initiated in the economic field are not extended to the media. His liberalism is marked by Chinese characteristics. But he is obviously an astute diplomat. Strategic silence on key issues coupled by the very fact of the visit ' remember that Bush has spent only 13 days in Asia since 2000 ' indicate that both sides are working their way to a rapprochement.