Chasing the Dragon: In Burma, All Conversations Seem to Lead to China

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Damir Sagolj / Reuters

People crowd around a train track at a station in a Rangoon suburb, Burma, December 2, 2011.

I went to Burma to see whether the reforms I’d heard about were truly transforming one of the most isolated nations on earth. Yet what many of my Burmese friends wanted to talk instead about was my place of residence: China.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton completed her historic visit to Burma, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, amid a glow of good-news headlines about the country’s nascent reforms. Nevertheless, some Burmese warned me that far from true changes, what their government really wanted was to follow a path of development perfected by the country’s northern neighbor. The China model, at first glance, is an attractive one for repressive, autocratic leaders: by applying one foot on an economic accelerator and another on a political brake, a regime can bring a better standard of living to citizens without threatening its grip on power. The story of China’s rise over the past two decades has been one of both exuberant growth rates and nonexistent political change. Neat trick, that is.

But if China lite is what Burma’s leaders want, they may have a tough time following Beijing’s lead. For as much as we dismiss it as a pariah state, Burma is already a far more political place than China is. Burma boasts political parties and a charismatic opposition leader in Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. China lacks any such political infrastructure. And as much as we talk about Burma’s hundreds of political prisoners, at least most people know they exist. China, by contrast, has locked up plenty of prisoners of conscience, but apart from a few high-profile inmates like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, they tend to be faceless and forgotten. Even Liu is hardly known in China.

Then there’s the issue of access to information—a key political right. Arriving in Burma, I met up with a friend who also lives in China. Even as other foreigners complained about the molasses speed of the Burmese Internet, he and I were happily checking Facebook and reading news sites blocked in China. Had we really come to Burma to experience a liberated Internet? A couple months ago, Burma’s Internet czars relaxed Web censorship; in contrast, it feels like the Great Firewall of China is blocking more information with each passing month. (Both countries, however, have problems with pliant judiciaries, restive minorities and corruption.)

Politics aside, the crucial difference between Burma and China is that the Chinese government has unleashed economic reforms that have enriched the lives of hundreds of millions of people. Around 130 million of China’s 1.3 billion citizens may live under the official poverty line (an assessment of $1 a day, which is lower than the World Bank’s $1.25 a day), but one-third of Burma’s 50 million-plus people subsist in poverty. In a single generation, the economic trajectory of many Chinese lives has gone from grim to upbeat. Elderly Burmese, however, remember how their country used to be one of Asia’s richest and wonder how the ruling generals so thoroughly wrecked the economy. The Burmese government’s spending on health care and education ranks among the world’s lowest, and there’s little indication that such paltry spending will change anytime soon. A child could design a better banking system than Burma — farmers, who make up the bulk of the population, can’t even borrow from an official financial institution. The bulk of revenues from the country’s natural resources — like hydropower, jade, timber and natural gas — end up in just a few cronies’ pockets. Yes, some economic reforms, like privatization and the legalization of labor unions, are now being instituted. But it will be years before any of this makes a difference to the average Burmese peasant.

If Burma truly wants to heed the China model, it will have to distance itself from, well, China. Burma’s hybrid military-civilian rulers are growing increasingly wary of Beijing’s geopolitical sway — not to mention China’s economic dominance over Burma’s natural resources. But sanctions precluded the U.S. and other Western powers from providing Burma’s leaders with a counterbalance to China. Hence a charm campaign — consisting of market reforms, political prisoner releases and a modicum of political liberalizations, among other measures — that culminated in Clinton’s landmark visit, which the Burmese hope will eventually lead to a lifting of Western sanctions.

Growing unease over China’s footprint in Burma also explains why President Thein Sein took the astonishing step in September of suspending a Chinese-backed dam in northern Burma, which would have sent most of the power over the border to China. Back when that hydropower deal was signed, Burma was internationally isolated, a seclusion that was only heightened by its army’s bloody crackdown on the 2007 monk-led protests. The Chinese helped ward off disapproval for Burma in the U.N., and a dam may have seemed a fair trade for that protection. But for now, at least, that’s changed. Burma’s army men, many of whom spent their early careers fighting ethnic rebels backed by China’s People’s Liberation Army, are standing up to Beijing.

Here’s another, final difference between Burma and China. In China, the superiority of democratic governance is hardly a given among smart, educated people. In fact, there’s a sense among some Chinese that a proud, 5,000-year-old civilization possesses within its own traditions a more suitable form of leadership — some version of an incorruptible, wise ruler who has been endowed with the “mandate of heaven.” By contrast, I’d wager that most intellectual Burmese are committed to the primacy of Western-style democracy. Burma’s regime, which says it wants to encourage a “discipline-flourishing democracy,” will have to address the fact that the populace yearns for democratic rule. China’s leaders may not bear quite such a burden.