For too long, "Chinese exceptionalism" has characterized the West's relations with the Middle Kingdom.Western governments and corporations eager to gain access to the world's fastest-growing major economy have long given China a pass on its abysmal human-rights record. On its dealings with rogue nations in scouring the world for natural resources to feed its industrial revolution. On its stubborn refusal to acknowledge the impact of its status as the world's largest contributor to global warming. And on its artificially suppressed currency, which steals manufacturing jobs in the Pacific Rim, Europe, the U.S. Midwest and Southern Ontario.
The West has allowed China to position itself as the leading voice of developing-world nations in demanding on their behalf that they all be granted dispensation from confronting the climate-change threat with rigour, and adopting Western standards of transparency and the rule of law.
Yet, like all nations, China acts in its self interest. Its championship of Bolivia and Chad as fellow hard-done-by nations is a pose.
China is nuclear power, one of the five veto-holding UN Security Council members, occupies the globe's fourth-largest land mass, and is home to one-sixth of the world's population.
China is not a developing-world country like the others, though it again demanded to be regarded as one in the recent, failed Copenhagen climate-change talks, balking at substantive environmental reforms.
But in recent weeks, finally, there has been a discernible shift in the West away from its benign regard for China's totalitarian regime.
Barack Obama chose last October not to meet with the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet whom Beijing regards as a separatist. But early this month, Obama said he soon will meet with the Dalai Lama. The U.S. also signed off on arms sales to Taiwan, whose independence China does not recognize – another provocative move.
Beijing's traditional Western ally, a business community keen to exploit an economy expected to equal in size that of the U.S. by mid-century, has begun to turn against the Chinese regime.
The Chinese leadership has lately reversed many of its liberalization measures, abruptly blocking access to its market even to Western businesses that manufacture products in China in state-arranged marriages with local partners. Conditions for foreign businesses in China have so worsened that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a staunch proponent of caving to the whims of China's communist leadership, is now spearheading a campaign among multinationals to demand that Beijing revert to the liberalization policies that attracted their investment dollars.
All this preceded Google's remarkable candour this week in tying the cyber attacks on Google.cn and 20 other unnamed firms it cited to China's routine invasions of its citizens' privacy.
Washington has made it clear that Google acted in coordination with the U.S. government. For good measure, Hillary Clinton has met with Cisco Systems Inc., the U.S. firm that provides much of China's Internet infrastructure, to examine means of stopping nations from "stifling" access to information.
This, finally, is a substantive shot across the bow. The fact is, the West could shut down China's industrial revolution on short notice simply by closing its markets to the low-cost Chinese goods by which China's export-driven economy lives and dies. Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and other low-cost producers wwould happily take up the slack in keeping Wal-Mart's shelves amply stocked.
China's economy has been booming, to be sure. But China has only just embarked on its march to Western levels of prosperity. Its current per capita income equals that of Algeria.
It's in the world's interest that China thrive. But only as a grown-up that no longer ducks its responsibilities as a world citizen. Chinese exceptionalism is no more attractive than Western varieties.
As for Google, before Tuesday it was increasingly seen as a predatory firm. Rupert Murdoch and others media firms have accused Google of stealing their content. Google has been pilloried by book publishers for its digitized-books venture. The power and ubiquity of Google finds it now regarded as a corporate imperialist, just as Microsoft Corp. was in the mid-1990s.
In calling Beijing's bluff on Tuesday, Google rediscovered its founding, 1998, motto: "Don't be evil." China accounted last year for just under 1 per cent of Google's $21.8 billion (U.S.) in revenues – a small price to pay for Google to reclaim its preferred reputation as a key enabler of a better-informed world.