What can someone who is not at all a China expert, makes no real effort to keep up with the literature on China, and is also not an expert on Northeast Asia (or Southeast Asia for that matter) or on the politics of international economic relations, have to say about Hu Jintao's U.S. visit that might be of interest? Probably not much. But as they say in the blogosphere, you get what you pay for, and I herewith hazard a thought or two on a visit that has already faded from the news cycle -- or rather, I use the visit as an excuse to reflect on more general issues.
Hu's statement that China has 'some work to do on human rights' (that was the gist if not the verbatim) is striking: it was not broadcast back in China but the fact that he said it is remarkable. Talk may be cheap but it is never completely empty or meaningless. Surrounded as it was by the standard stuff about China and the U.S. being different societies at different levels of development, needing to respect each other's sovereignty, etcetera etcetera, the statement stands out all the more sharply. It struck me as noteworthy that the first-among-equals in a collective leadership of an authoritarian state would publicly utter the phrase 'human rights' at all, as opposed to finding some euphemistic substitute.
There is a wide -- albeit not universal -- agreement among observers of international politics that the world is entering a period in which power is diffusing to more countries, as 'rising powers' (China, India, Brazil, perhaps Russia, and a few others) take a more assertive, visible role on the world stage and as the relative power of the U.S. continues to decline. Because China and Russia are not Western-style democracies (though Russia has some democratic forms), one line of thought holds that an increasingly multipolar world will also be one in which basic values become bones of contention, so to speak, as the standard-bearers of authoritarianism become more assertive not just about their geopolitical and economic interests but also about the supposed merits of their domestic arrangements. A contrary line holds that because no country can escape the 'liberal' international economic system, increasing integration into the world economy, plus economic growth and development in general, should lead eventually to a softening of authoritarianism and perhaps, even more eventually, to indigenously-driven, gradual 'democratization'. Sophisticated new versions of modernization theory, based on work by Ronald Inglehart and others, maintain that there is indeed a connection, however qualified and contingent, between development (in the sense of rising incomes, rising consumption, rising urbanization, growth of a middle class, etc.) and democracy. If this view is even partly correct, then multipolarity will mean not a fiercer fight over values, at least among states, but on the contrary a growing agreement on values (the 'normative convergence' of this post's title). The new multipolar world, on this view, will be closer to what Raymond Aron many years ago called a 'homogeneous system' as opposed to a 'heterogeneous system', or at least we can expect it to move slowly in the direction of the former.
The question just raised is more descriptive or predictive (what might happen?) than prescriptive (what should policymakers, say in the U.S., do?). In an article last fall in Foreign Affairs ("Not Ready for Prime Time," Sept./Oct. 2010), Jorge Castañeda argued that Brazil, China, India, and South Africa should not be brought into the inner sanctums of global governance because they are not sufficiently committed to "the notion that a strong international regime should govern human rights, democracy, nonproliferation, trade liberalization, the environment, international criminal justice, and global health." They remain too tied to outworn notions of 'noninterference in internal affairs,' Castañeda suggested, and until that changes, they should not be invited to assume positions of greater responsibility in international institutions.
I'm not sure Castañeda got it right. How do we know that increased commitment to international regimes will not be a consequence of more responsibility? Countries that remain shut out of positions commensurate with their growing material power are likely to become resentful and may look for opportunities to disrupt rather than strengthen the international regimes that exist (except, perhaps, on particular issues such as piracy and maybe terrorism where all states' interests 'naturally' converge).
In this context, does Hu's statement about China and human rights mean something? Very possibly. As one data point, it doesn't count for much, to be sure, but if it is followed by actions it may form one piece of evidence that the 'not ready for prime time' prescription has it backwards. I'll fall back here on that old friend of pundits: it's too soon to tell.