BEIJING — A hadith (saying) attributed to Mohammed encourages Muslims to seek knowledge “even if it is in China.” Fourteen centuries later, China has become a favorite destination for Muslim political leaders and businessmen. Over the past five years or so Beijing has been the only major capital to be visited by leaders from almost all Muslim countries.
These Muslim visitors, however, are not coming to China in search of knowledge. They know that China — for all its recent technological achievements, including an impending launching of a manned spaceship — is far behind the United States, the European Union, and Japan where science is concerned.
The chief goal of these visitors is finding out whether China could be used as a political and economic counterweight to the United States — a power with which most Muslim states maintain at best ambiguous, and at worst tense, relations.
To the Muslim world, the U.S. appears too powerful, and at times too arrogant, to want or even need allies. The idea, in seeking out China, is that it’s better to make an ally of someone at more or less your own level in terms of economic and military power.
China is also regarded as a more-attractive partner than other potential candidates such as Japan, India, and Brazil. Japan seems stuck in an endless economic freeze and is, in any case, reluctant to develop a political profile. India continues to be plagued by its dispute with Muslim Pakistan over Kashmir, and by the constant threat of sectarian riots involving Hindus and Muslims. Brazil, which enjoyed special attention from the Muslim world in the 1980s, is now regarded as a sick giant unlikely to become a major industrial power anytime soon.
What about Russia? Well, the days of the Soviet Union, when Moscow was the automatic and obvious alternative to Washington, have long passed. Seen from the Muslim world, Russia looks like a rudderless ship caught in an endless storm — with no destination in sight. The only thing that’s certain is that Chechens continue to be killed aboard that ship. And Chechens are, of course, Muslims.
Which leaves China, with its claim of having had the world’s highest rates of economic growth for the past decade.
Some Muslim rulers are also impressed by the Chinese political system. They, too, run regimes that are — in effect — one-party systems. The Chinese model, in which unbridled capitalism exists side by side with an iron grip on the political process, is considered particularly attractive by many Muslim regimes.
Muslim leaders also appreciate the fact that in China they can deal with the ruling elite without having to bother about the media, human-rights groups, political parties, trade unions, or other “troublemakers.” The fact that private lawsuits could be filed against them in the U.S. — that their assets could be frozen; that they could be denied visas, or searched when arriving at an American airport, or get a visit from the FBI in their hotel rooms — has persuaded some Muslim political leaders that the American system is simply too complicated, and subject to too many pressures.
China is of special interest to oil-exporting Arab states, which are anxious to reduce dependence on both the American and the European Union markets.
On paper, at least, the Arab attention seems justified. With a population expected to hit a staggering 1.3 billion by the end of the decade, China has market potential that cannot be overestimated.
Visitors to China’s eastern and southern provinces, where the economic boom is concentrated, are bound to be impressed. Shanghai is the largest building site the world has seen. Canton and Beijing have been transformed into almost prosperous cities, at least by Asian standards.
So there’s no doubt China has a good story to tell. But how much of it is true? No one has the full answer.
Some businessmen and economic experts in Beijing dismiss official claims about high growth rates as “fanciful.” But even if such claims were justified, China would still have a long way to go before it achieved the status of a major economic power. Assuming it maintains annual growth rates of 10 percent or higher, it could come to account for some 3 percent of the global GDP within the next decade or so. But even then, it would still have to wait until 2020 before the size of its economy equaled that of Japan today.
China’s thirst for oil is real. But Arab exporters still must guard against exaggerated hopes.
Beijing is looking to Kazakhstan and the Caspian Basin as its prime sources of imported crude over the next three decades. (An 8,000-mile pipeline is currently under construction linking Kazakh fields to China.) China also hopes to tap its own domestic resources — the size of which remains a state secret.
And there are other factors to be taken into account by Muslim leaders looking for a strategic alliance with China. For instance, despite its apparent solidity, the Chinese political system remains fragile. The new middle class now spearheading the economic “miracle” is unlikely to remain as docile as it is today. And the supposedly “new leadership” — really not new at all — doesn’t seem to have any strategy, apart from the forlorn hope of maintaining a monopoly of power for a Communist party already beginning to splinter.
The need to create modern jobs for over 700 million peasants, likely to be uprooted within the next three decades, also casts a certain amount of gloom over China’s prospects.
And then there are the ethnic tensions seething beneath the surface. Uighur Muslims, who once formed a majority in Xinjiang (East Turkestan), remain restive, and the problem of Tibet will not simply go away. There are tensions in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia as well, and the Taiwan issue could still lead to military conflict with incalculable consequences.
Many Muslim societies today are more open, freer, and culturally more dynamic than China. For them, adopting the so-called “Chinese model,” even if it were possible, would amount to taking a step backward.
Muslim societies should learn to compete with more open societies, rather than looking for models in which authoritarianism might produce transient successes but would ultimately lead to disaster. From the 1950s to the 1970s, many Muslim intellectuals, obsessed with that illusory “historic shortcut,” looked to the Soviet Union as a model. History has not treated that “model” kindly. The notion of a Chinese “shortcut” could prove just as disastrous.
— Amir Taheri is author of The Cauldron: The Middle East Behind the Headlines. Taheri is reachable through benadorassociates.com.