Chinese embassies and consulates from New York to New Zealand have had some unwelcome but familiar visitors on their doorsteps in recent weeks: human-rights protesters. Only this time around, activists have not been calling attention to authoritarian abuses in China, but in neighboring Burma (or Myanmar, as its military rulers prefer to call it). Street protests sparked by skyrocketing fuel prices in that impoverished Southeast Asian land have resulted in the reimprisonment of leading democracy activists and yet another round of military violence against peacefully protesting university students and Buddhist monks.
If it is the junta in Burma that is cracking down, why is China a target for protests? Because China has proven to be Burma's most stalwart backer since the country was placed on the United Nations Security Council's agenda 12 months ago. China wielded its veto power last January to block a draft resolution critical of the junta, and remains the most powerful opponent of any diplomatic effort pressing the military regime to negotiate a political solution with Burma's democratic opposition. In 1990, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won free and fair elections in a landslide, but has never been allowed to take office. Nor has it been allowed to play its rightful leading role in Burma's ongoing facade of a constitutional convention.
One obvious reason China is protecting Burma is its economic and geopolitical interests in the country: oil and gas reserves, mineral deposits, and arms sales. Another reason lies in the human-rights protests themselves. Ever since Burma violently suppressed a democracy movement in 1988 and China followed suit in 1989, the two Asian regimes have been similarly vilified by human-rights activists. If China cedes to demands to stop stonewalling political change in Burma, wouldn't that simply inspire its critics to step up their pressure on China itself?
As recent protests should make clear, standing shoulder to shoulder with Burma is proving to be a rather perverse way for China to protect itself from opprobrium. China is not deflecting outside pressure, but inviting it. Rather than squandering diplomatic capital by defending an indefensible junta, Chinese leaders should be defending themselves by drawing clear distinctions between Burma's regime and their own.
Consider how different the two countries have become since their similar confrontations with democracy movements nearly two decades ago. Neither regime has given up power; but they have done very different things with the power they've kept. In China, the ruling party has presided over aggressive economic reforms and rapid economic growth. When Chinese leaders repeat their eternal refrain that they must sacrifice democracy to achieve development, pro-democracy activists may be right to disagree. But given China's economic record, they should think twice before they simply scoff.
Yet any similar claim by Burma's military rulers that they are holding off democracy for purposes of development would truly be laughable. Since seizing power in 1962 in a violent coup, they have run their resource-rich nation into the ground.
Burma's economy has been in shambles for so long that people forget that the country was not appreciably poorer than other Southeast Asian countries when the military first took over. Decades of brutal misrule have left the people of Burma not only without political freedom, but without economic hope and opportunity. The Burmese people have not been forced to sacrifice democracy for the benefits of development, but to sacrifice both freedom and well-being for the benefit of their military rulers.
China does itself no favors by associating itself – and thus implicitly equating itself – with such a regime. There is a clear difference between the many regimes in the world that deny their citizens democracy and the smaller number that deny their citizens everything. China belongs in the first category, while Burma belongs in the second. Regimes such as China's may deserve sustained criticism, but regimes such as Burma's deserve immediate intervention.
China has already gained global plaudits and prestige by withdrawing its blanket diplomatic support for North Korea. It is high time to do the same with Burma. Such a move would mute external criticism, not embolden it. (And Burma's lucrative natural resources will still be there for China to tap into when the junta eventually falls from power.)
Until Chinese leaders start distinguishing their own relatively successful regime from the unmitigated disaster that is Burma's, the human-rights protesters on their doorsteps can hardly be blamed for not discerning the difference.
• Dan Slater is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago. He specializes in Southeast Asian politics.