In January, Wang Guangya, Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, vetoed a UN resolution calling for more freedom, democracy and human rights in Burma. He did so partly on the grounds that it was arbitrary to single out Burma when “similar problems exist in many other countries as well”.
Technically Mr Wang was right, but Burma – which is fast becoming a Chinese client-state – has taken tyranny and brutality to new depths, exceeded in east Asia only by North Korea, another Chinese ally. Now that Burma is in the grip of what looks like pre-revolutionary unrest, Chinese leaders should end their reflexive, unconditional support for the military junta and devise a new and tougher way of dealing with Burma’s generals.
Angry Burmese first took to the streets last month when the cash-strapped junta raised the prices of rationed fuels by up to 500 per cent, thereby suddenly increasing the cost of transport and other services. The regime responded, pursuing dissidents and arresting more than 150 people. But Buddhist monks, who play a central role in Burmese life, have now taken up the baton of protest, staging anti-government marches in Rangoon and elsewhere. Some have conspicuously held their begging-bowls upside down – rejecting alms from soldiers and officials and thereby announcing a symbolic excommunication of the junta.
In a normal country, it is right that price movements should reflect changing world prices of commodities such as oil. Burma, however, is no normal country. The underlying cause of the protests is that Burma’s unpopular generals have mismanaged the country for decades and have no legitimacy.
China is no democracy either, but the Communist party can at least be credited with overseeing economic growth for three decades. It is also highly sensitive to domestic public opinion and the risks of popular anger about rising inflation. Hence its decision this week to freeze all government-controlled prices in China, from electricity and water to the cost of parking.
Abroad, however, Chinese leaders can be remarkably thick-skinned. When it comes to Uzbekistan, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma, the lure of natural resources has persuaded China to side too easily with dictators and murderers.
There are faint but encouraging signs of a new attitude in Beijing towards the misdeeds of its allies. A week ago, Tang Jiaxuan, a senior Chinese diplomat, tentatively suggested to a visiting Burmese minister that Burma should promote national reconciliation and “push forward a democracy process that is appropriate for the country”.
But China is still determined to block international efforts to bring the Burmese junta to book for its crimes. If it continues to do so, and fails to press for change, Beijing will deserve to be labelled in Africa and Asia as “the tyrant’s friend”.