China and the World

Avoid plane talking

China is in an ideological bind over Libyan crisis

Avoid plane talking

He’s caused Beijing a big dilemma

Jackie Chan rarely has much trouble getting his films shown on Chinese screens. However, his next movie release may face some trickier issues with Beijing’s censors.

Chan’s next film is due out in October this year, to coincide with the centenary of the event it portrays. Xin Hai Ge Ming (in English, The 1911 Revolution) will tell the story of the revolution that saw the end of feudal China, and the toppling of the last emperor.

The problem? The word ‘revolution’ is proving even more distasteful than normal for the Chinese leadership at the moment, given events in North Africa and the Middle East.

The Party leaders in Beijing tend to pay more attention to their history lessons than most of their Western counterparts. And it goes without saying that any movie dramatising the overthrow of a longstanding government (the Chinese emperors ruled for a lot longer than Mubarak, of course) is going to become more political in the current context.

Beijing’s own policy line on events in Libya seem too to have become complex – to the point of contortion. As readers will recall from our Talking Point in WiC97, China broke with its foreign policy traditions recently when it voted with the rest of the United Nation’s Security Council to impose sanctions on Gaddafi’s Libyan government. Since Deng Xiaoping became paramount leader three decades ago, the country had espoused the principle of non-interference in another state’s internal affairs. By voting for action against Gaddafi, that principle was breached.

No doubt there were opponents of the move in Beijing. But with extensive commercial interests in Libya, as well as tens of thousands of its own citizens, the Chinese leadership seemed readier to abandon its traditionally passive stance. In late February, with the opposition forces taking city after city, pragmatists may also have calculated that a vote for action would likely curry favour with any ‘new’ government.

Fast forward three weeks to a reversal of fortune, with Gaddafi’s military marching on the rebel stronghold in Benghazi. When the Security Council this time voted for a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians, China chose to abstain, rather than vote in favour (although not to veto it, either – Chinese diplomats said they didn’t block the move in accordance with the wishes of the Arab League and the African Union).

That was evidently more of a hedge, albeit one that didn’t see Beijing actually prevent the allied air attacks. But after the results of Western firepower became evident earlier this week – including images of Gaddafi’s bombed compound – Beijing further modified its stance.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson was soon expressing regret over the “multinational strike against Libya” and adding that China “did not agree with resorting to force in international relations”. The domestic press dutifully weighed in too: the China Daily ran the headline “Attacks may drive Libya to anarchy” and other newspapers suggested that Western governments were using humanitarianism as an excuse to get rid of Gaddafi and grab Libya’s oil.

“Coming after the Afghanistan war and the Iraqi war, the military attack on Libya is the third time this century that certain countries have used force against a sovereign nation,” thundered the People’s Daily.

Beijing’s clearly in a quandary over Gaddafi, especially after years of maintaining a non-intervention stance. For example, were it to face a similar uprising, it would rage against any discussion at the UN of action to protect the ‘human rights’ of Chinese ‘rebels’. The Libyan crisis also throws the spotlight once again on what makes a government ‘legitimate’ and when exactly it ceases to be so in the eyes of the international community (Gaddafi has been in power for almost 42 years – just 20 years less than Communist Party rule in China).

Caught in the middle, Beijing’s latest position is to call for an immediate ceasefire. But its strategy may backfire. BBC correspondent Ian Pannell reports that at a rally in Benghazi this week, thousands turned out to thank Britain, France and the US for their action – but condemned China for its abstention.

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