Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 03:34 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 03:34 | SYDNEY

That perennial China question


Sam Roggeveen


8 April 2008 14:55

Over at Blogocracy, Tim Dunlop is using the Olympic torch imbroglio to start a discussion about where Australia ought to stand on the perennial China dilemma:

As I say, Rudd isn’t the only political leader with this problem and like most of them, he needs to find a much better way of dealing with China-the-market and China-the-rights-abuser.  But so do we-the-people. We can’t just pretend that the economics doesn’t matter, but nor should we ignore the abuses China is responsible for. I’m open to suggestions. What do we want our government to do?

My initial thought is that it isn't particularly helpful to divide economic and human rights questions so starkly, because trade is a moral as well as economic issue. Trading with China materially improves the welfare of its people, and is therefore a moral good. So when we set the debate in terms of 'balancing' our trade and human rights objectives, we are actually biasing that debate against trade by treating trade as 'merely' an economic question. One thing Kevin Rudd could do more often is to point out that trading with China has already markedly improved human rights there, by helping make millions of Chinese people richer, healthier and better educated.

It's also worth noting that the Asian experience seems to be that political liberalisation follows economic development: South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia are the outstanding examples, though you could also cite Malaysia and Thailand, with India the exception. If this pattern holds, we ought to be encouraging China's growth and keeping relatively quiet on human rights in the expectation that economic development will evetually take care of the political problem for us. There is some evidence this is already occurring, with the Chinese Communist Party allowing grass roots democratic experiments.

But again, we should consider the economic welfare of China as a moral question. Even if that political liberalisation never comes, the Chinese people are becoming more free through economic development alone: they're living longer, have more leisure time, are better educated and travel further. That in itself is a huge moral advance.