What China Should Learn from Libya

Posted: April 14, 2011 in Oriental Morning Post
Tags: , , , ,

Another foreign language piece I’m afraid, this time for one of the more liberal Chinese newspapers, the Oriental Morning Post. Sketches out what China should hopefully learn from Libya, though I know friends in China tell me I am being optimistic. The actual text can be found here, and below is what I initially submitted in English. The version published is slightly abbreviated.

What China Should be Learning from Libya

There is a sense of confusion in the Chinese press and decision-making community about what exactly is driving British and French actions in Libya. The cynics say that this is a show of force by weak governments embarrassed by their histories with Colonel Gadaffi, others say it is part of shoring up weakening domestic support for Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron, while yet others say it is a traditional war for oil. But all of these miss the key lesson that should be drawn from the crisis: bad governance is something that cannot be simply allowed to fester.

Whatever the reasons for the west now deciding to get involved, they are having to do this because they allowed Colonel Gadaffi to mismanage his country for too long. Ever since he admitted to developing a nuclear program and handing over the material to American and British secret services, Colonel Gadaffi has been readmitted into the international community. Contracts and contacts were developed as Libya opened its doors to foreign investment, including a substantial volume of Chinese businesses and citizens.

But at no point was any consideration given to the fact that Colonel Gadaffi was continuing to run his country as though it was a bank account accessible only to himself and his direct family and tribe. His dreaded secret police enforced a brutal security regime that allowed no discussion of the justness of the Colonel’s regime. Islamists both dangerous and not were incarcerated en masse, while torture was periodically practiced in prisons. And at the same time, while the Colonel and his family did well from the inflows of foreign investment, the Libyan people failed to profit much from this boom.

The result was a tinderbox of angry and disenfranchised population with a detached and kleptocratic regime surrounded by a police state willing to practice any action to maintain power. It was only a matter of time before it descended into the chaos that we are now seeing nightly on our television screens. And as a result it was only a matter of time before China would be obliged to shut down its vast investments in the country and evacuate its more than 30,000 citizens working in the country.

This mass evacuation both shows China’s growing capacity as a global power, but also highlights its growing presence in the world. On the one hand the nation needs to be applauded for its ability to get so many citizens to safety in such rapidity, but at the same time, it should consider that larger lesson that needs to be drawn from this and that is that bad governance is something that needs to be addressed.

This does not mean that China should be expected to copy Britain and France’s actions and support rebels in every country that is governed badly. But it should give some more serious consideration to the fact that the current policy of rigid non-interference is something that is clearly leaving large Chinese investments and growing numbers of Chinese citizens in unstable nations with governments that are susceptible to collapses like Libya. The result is an expensive evacuation, loss of material, and the need for China to once again have to choose sides in the United Nations Security Council. Far better to try to catch such situations before they descend into civil war and to try to stimulate the leadership to improve their domestic situation using the carrot of investment as a motivator.

China is already a major investor in many parts of the world where such similar future situations can be envisioned. The role it plays is a positive one in helping underdeveloped nations, but at the moment it lacks any directive to try to improve the internal situation in the country. By using this power to try to influence nations to improve their domestic situations, China can help both guarantee her investments but also improve the national situation. In this way China can use its growing global economic presence to make the world a more stable place and take its role as a responsible stakeholder in the global community.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS).

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