Venezuela’s economically illiterate President Hugo Chavez grieves for his fellow buffoon-despot, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi/Gadhafi/Kaddafi. We never did agree on a transliteration of the name of the ‘martyr’, so he will be forever diced and scattered under different headings among encyclopedias and indexes. He joins Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki in Hell’s Arab Quarter, where there is presumably still room for Syria’s tyrannical daddy’s boy Bashar al-Assad.
China, after instinctively opposing regime change when the Libyan uprising began earlier this year, has had to accept the will of Gaddafi’s rebellious citizens. An amusing twist came when the Libyan revolutionary leaders hinted that when the time came to sign oil contracts, they might not forget China’s preference to keep the dictator in power and the masses oppressed. From Sudan to Zambia to Zimbabwe to Equatorial Guinea, there is the potential for similar squirming if and when Beijing-friendly rulers give way to leaders less broadminded about China’s determined approach to obtaining natural resources.
Today’s China Daily asserts that Syria is not another Libya. The West, the commentator says, should stop trying to turn the Mediterranean into a NATO lake and pushing its ‘values’ on others, and follow the noble and responsible example of China, which doesn’t intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. Except it presumes the right to tell Indian companies who they can or can’t sign deals with, and it feels free to rearrange ex-Bishop Desmond Tutu’s birthday party invitation list. After upsetting South Korea and Japan in the last couple of years, and restating breathtaking claims to ownership of the whole South China Sea, China’s newfound assertiveness is getting clumsier. Beijing’s stridency in ensuring that it will not be hemmed in make it more likely that informal Indian-Vietnamese-US and other alliances will form to do just that.
China’s external stance is at least partly intended for domestic consumption. Ridiculously lavish Olympic Games ceremonies, the launch of a man into space and the renovation of a clunky ex-Soviet aircraft carrier look self-indulgent and delusional to outsiders, but are presented to the Chinese as proof of the Communist Party’s unique ability to lead the country to glory. The territorial claims and outbursts of ‘hurt feelings’ look arrogant or childish from overseas, but are designed to go down well among the local audience.
I am currently reading Henry Kissinger’s On China (obtained free of charge courtesy of JP Morgan’s 2011 Summer Reading List). It is no doubt self-serving, but his accounts of the early meetings with Zhou Enlai and Mao include vivid reminders of just how out of touch China was with the rest of the world, and how ultimately self-centred the country is, right down of course to its very name. Today’s Chinese leadership is just as self-absorbed. What foreigners think of China’s behaviour overseas doesn’t really register. Assad looks relatively safe for someone who has slaughtered thousands of his own people, but Gaddafi will not be the last wrong horse China backs, and Libyans will not be the last people to realize that Beijing couldn’t care less whether as fellow humans they live or die. All that concerns Beijing is that foreign rulers sell raw materials, and the Chinese people remain loyal and placid. That’s all of the world that matters.