The country's ruling regime routinely makes Freedom House's list of nastiest governments and Parade magazine's lineup of the world's worst dictators. Its military conducts brutal campaigns against ethnic minorities in one region of the country, campaigns that reportedly have forced over 11,000 people from their homes in just the past three months alone. Ostracized by the world, it refuses to allow in U.N. monitors, who want unfettered access to document the nation's human rights situation. Since the United States has slapped sanctions on the oil-rich state, and American companies have little business there, Washington has limited leverage over this country's government. China, meanwhile, has all kinds of influence. China is the country's biggest investor, major consumer of its resources, and primary arms supplier, and thousands of Chinese laborers have flowed into the country.
Sudan? Try Burma, where the government's abuses, though probably not a genocide as in Darfur, rank among the world's worst. According to one report, "The Burmese military regime is allowing its troops systematically and on a widespread scale to commit rape with impunity in order to terrorize and subjugate the ethnic peoples" in the country's northeast. By slapping sanctions on Burma, the United States has tried to prod the Burmese government towards reform, to little avail. But while China, Burma's major patron, has hardly become an advocate for democracy in Rangoon, there are signs Beijing might cooperate to reduce the Burmese government's worst abuses--signs that could provide lessons for convincing China to act more benevolently in Sudan.
Although pro-democracy opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi won Burma's last free election, held in 1990, the Burmese military simply nullified that poll, and since then it has held Suu Kyi under house arrest for most of the time, while also jailing hundreds of members of her party. Without a doubt, Chinese officials do not care whether Suu Kyi ever comes to power. China remains an authoritarian country, a nasty, Leninist regime if not a Marxist one, a state consistently characterized by Freedom House as unfree, a government showing no signs of liberalization. Its leaders and diplomats reflect that thinking: In years of doing research in Asia, I've never met a Chinese official who expressed concern that Burma has locked Suu Kyi up for so many years.
But pragmatic China does care about several problems caused by horrendous governments, whether in Burma or Sudan or elsewhere. First, China worries about instability. Instability threatens Chinese commerce and disrupts China's worldwide hunt for energy; China takes more than 50 percent of Sudan's oil, and plans to get 6.5 trillion cubic feet of Burmese gas over the next 30 years. Growth and energy are vital to the Beijing government maintaining legitimacy, since it has basically abandoned any ideological appeal to its populace. Any slowdown in China's economic growth makes it more likely that middle-class Chinese, who've essentially kept quiet about Beijing's limits on political freedom as long as they're making money, will start to question the government.
The more China can be convinced that bad governance in places like Burma or Sudan fosters instability that is bad for Chinese investment, the more Beijing will try to rein in its nasty client states. In Burma, the junta has become increasingly unpredictable, moving its headquarters from the capital, Rangoon, to a jungle redoubt--reportedly on the advice of the Burmese leader's astrologer--and sacking a top leader, Khin Nyunt, who was close to China. A string of unexplained recent bombings across Burma has contributed to instability.
All this has led Chinese officials to reach out to human rights activists working on Burma issues and even to discuss reform with Burmese leaders. According to several Burma watchers, Chinese officials have held quiet meetings with activist organizations battling the Burmese government and based in Thailand, and during the most recent visit of Burma's prime minister to China, Chinese officials reportedly pushed Burma to improve its dialogue with opposition groups. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called for "reconciliation in [Rangoon.]" In return, several Burma human rights activists told me, human rights groups are trying to convince Chinese officials that prodding Burma's junta to engage with the pro-democracy opposition will reduce the kind of instability that fosters bombings and hurts business. Indeed, this stability would make it easier for Chinese companies to operate smoothly in Burma.
The Burma case is not unique: China is willing to talk even to its enemies if it perceives a threat of instability as the only other alternative. Since 2002, the Chinese government has launched a dialogue with the exile government of the Dalai Lama, partly to forestall tensions that might erupt in Tibet if the Tibetan leader passed away and the Chinese had refused to engage with him.
In Sudan, activists and Western countries might be able to use a similar argument. On visits to Africa and other parts of the developing world, Chinese officials constantly emphasize that peace and stability is most important to them, and several Chinese diplomats expressed worry to me about the instability in Sudan. And as violence in Darfur spirals, drawing in neighboring countries like Chad and threatening to scuttle the peace agreement inked in southern Sudan, it will foster instability throughout Sudan: Instability that will even threaten China's well-protected oil installations and other major business interests in the country--especially if instability leads to rebel groups amassing more power, as they've done in Nigeria, rebels who might tear up any oil contracts signed between the Sudanese government and Chinese firms. In fact, despite reporting of Chinese arms shipments to Sudan, Yitzhak Shichor, a professor of East Asian Studies at Haifa University, demonstrates that China actually has not sent many arms to Sudan in recent years, as compared to previous decades, perhaps because of fears of abetting greater instability. As Shichor notes, data from the Stockholm Peace Research Institute reveal most of Sudan's weapons actually come from Russia.
Beijing also cares about perceptions of Chinese business abroad. According to Alfred Oehlers, a scholar of Chinese policy in Asia, one of Beijing's major interests is appearing to be a responsible actor on the world stage. By appearing responsible, China is able to portray itself as ready to join the ranks of the world's great powers. Already, some Chinese diplomats seem to be made uncomfortable by how relations with Burma and North Korea, among other states, tarnish international perceptions of China. As a result, China has started to distance itself from some of these countries. "China is increasingly circumspect in its defense of Burma, especially at the U.N.," one diplomat told Burma analyst Larry Jagan. Beijing may therefore allow Burma's human rights crisis to be taken up by the U.N. Security Council. So, too, China recently abstained from sanctions imposed by the U.N. on four Sudanese believed responsible for some of the Darfur atrocities. Building on this, Western governments could advertise China's irresponsibility on Sudan to the world, particularly in global forums, in order to step up the pressure on Beijing to live up to its great power aspirations.
And China cares about its own citizens abroad, albeit hardly as much as Western democracies do. In Burma, some 200,000 Chinese reportedly have entered the country in recent years to do business in Mandalay and other cities in northern Burma. On a recent trip to Mandalay, I walked through fancy new shopping malls in the central business district packed with new Chinese-style coffee shops catering to recent migrants; coffee shop owners barely even spoke Burmese. As some Burmese have become angry that China takes Burmese resources--not only gas but also timber--without seeming to contribute to local socioeconomic development, they have started to target Chinese businesspeople for kidnappings, assaults, and other acts of violence--violence that has gotten Chinese diplomats' attention.
If the killing in Sudan continues, and China is perceived as doing nothing to help while taking out vast quantities of Sudanese oil, individuals might wind up directing violence at the thousands of Chinese who've come to Sudan to set up businesses or work in the oil industry. In addition, anger against China would mean that, if conflict ever ended in Sudan and Khartoum actually transitioned to better government, China might be cut out of Sudanese resources by Sudanese officials angry for China's past support for authoritarian rule.
Again, this provides a lever for Western countries to use against Beijing. Ultimately, a Sudan-China policy will require this combination of shaming China and trying to frighten the Chinese government--targeting China's growing sensitivity about its global image, worries about instability, and desire to hedge against any possibility of political change in Sudan. With so many lives at stake--more than 400,000 people have already died in Darfur--it's certainly worth a try.
Joshua Kurlantzick is the New Republic's special correspondent.
This article originally appeared in The New Republic Online, and is available here.