The PRC’s ties with Burma go back long before “reform and opening,” despite Burma’s dogged anti-communism (although ties between the countries were strained during the Cultural Revolution, when ethnic Chinese radicals spooked Burmese authorities). As is often noted, China has extensive energy interests in the country (as have Western companies like Unocal). A need to stem the flow of drugs from south of its borders has also drawn Beijing into Burmese politics. So too has the occasional need to burnish China's credentials as a neutral power, saintly uninterested in others' internal affairs.
Editorials, political speeches and protests have demanded a Chinese response to repression of the protests. Only China has any sway in Rangoon! C'mon China, say something!
And China is responding, in its own meandering way. There was China’s rejection of sanctions against Burma today, of course, but also words by Chinese officials regarding “stability” and “reconciliation” and Burma’s need to find its own path to democracy—frustratingly vague words, but hardly supportive of the junta. Why?
There seems to be an impression among some journalists that Beijing is a member of some great, criminal brotherhood of authoritarian states, something like the “Sinister Six” of Spiderman lore or the cackling band of villains in the 1960s Batman TV series. Any threat to any authoritarian state anywhere is viewed as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party, regardless of the context. The story goes something like this: “China, facing human rights issues at home, would surely not want this or that to happen to such and such awful government…”
In truth, China seems as fine with authoritarian North Korea as it is with liberal South Korea, with a clamped-down, nationalistic Russia as it is with a sleepily generous EU, and, increasingly at least, as comfortable with a Pakistan under occasional military rule as a steadfastly, if unevenly, democratic India. And it goes without saying that ideology in its "left" and "right" sense plays little role in Beijing's calculations.
Reasons for China's support for Burma and for any pressure it has put on the junta--or will put on it--must be found elsewhere.
Isabel Hinton has a great piece in The Guardian entitled “China Does Not Want Another Tiananmen By Proxy” whose title makes a pretty forceful argument by itself.
David Lague writes in the International Herald Tribune about how Beijing has quietly made ties with the Burmese opposition:
…there is evidence that China has been hedging its bets on political developments in Myanmar for some years.
Lintner, the Thailand-based analyst, said Beijing maintained unofficial contacts with exiled Myanmar opposition groups in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries in a bid to minimize their antagonism and to improve its understanding of political developments.
He said Beijing also tolerated the presence of these groups in Ruili, on the border with Myanmar in Yunnan Province, where some maintain unofficial offices.
Naturally, there is also the question of whether China can do anything at all, whether anyone--China, India, Russia, the UN, ASEAN, anyone--has any real influence in Rangoon (see, for example, the rather dry, know-it-all, “let’s hear from a seasoned expat” argument in Foreign Policy).
Another question, though, not touched on much (other than in the caricatured, Sinister Six form) is what exactly the fall of the Burmese junta would mean for China or for other authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes in the region, such as Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand. What would it mean for Tibet?
Beyond wild hopes of revolution in these places--which it will sadly probably take more than a Burmese uprising to stir--what will it really mean for the spirit of people? The images we see of monks walking through the rain, having their feet bandaged by supportive city residents, and being beaten by soldiers strike a chord of pure sympathy that seems to have been buried, quite wrongly, with the perceived mush of the post-Cold War era (as if the Cold War wasn't a mush, too, a more horrible one).
No doubt there are complexities to Burma's own politics that someone like me, who doesn't really know more than what the papers have reported, could benefit from understanding. But as a symbol for the rest of the world, what is happening there now is powerful. We'll see what it means for China to engage with another country at a moment like this---for whatever reason China engages and with whatever effect it ends up having.
But in the meantime, it wouldn't hurt to hope.