Why We Continue to Get China Wrong

April 18, 2019

 

A year ago, The Economist published a fantastic piece explaining how the West has historically gotten China wrong (How the West Got China Wrong, p. 18-20).  That flawed perspective of China’s inevitable democratization following the steps that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong all took, is what I studied in University.  That said, I was beholden to American arrogance and egocentrism from a much, much earlier age.

 

In grade school while learning the Pledge of Allegiance (in between lessons of how Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality had finally been realized and the Native Americans had been peacefully assimilated into American culture), I was indoctrinated with the view that Democracy was the greatest system of government in the world because of all that “by the people, for the people” stuff.  I was taught that it was therefore inevitable that every nation would eventually find its way towards self-determination.  All that was necessary was for the mean ol' tyrants to eventually get overthrown.

 

Early on while pursuing my Bachelors, I was taught that this was not only a philosophical inevitability, but an economic one.  The lesson goes like this: Authoritarian governments pursue economic liberalization, and because free market economies perform more efficiently than guided ones, governments will over time tend towards free trade.  Then as free trade begins to build a wealthier middle class with improved quality of living, a nation will necessarily reach a tipping point in which a newly educated majority is no longer ok with the way things have been done.  Finally, through revolution or through more genteel abdications, the governments will democratize and democratic institutions will ensure for the development of civil liberties and a global citizenship as defined by the western block.  It was all such a rosy picture.

But my Modern Chinese Politics professor was more realistic than all that.  While he admitted that economic trends would tend towards an unprecedentedly empowered Chinese middle class, there was no guarantee that that would ever result in true democratization.  To challenge him, I posed my final paper on the question of what would happen in the 2008 Olympics.

 

If China followed the South Korean Olympic model, the extra eyes on Chinese social affairs and political scandals would give the emboldened Chinese people the courage to speak up on international television about the gross violations of human rights they faced.  At the same time the Chinese government would be under extreme pressure from the international community to make a show of good faith that it was treating its people well.  Nevertheless, despite really craving a conclusion in which 2008 would be the year it all happened, historical precedent was not on my side.

 

At the time, there had been a number of recent Free Tibet protests and China’s support of the Janjaweed (the military group in western Sudan credited with the brunt of the tragedies of Darfur) had been under a lot of international scrutiny.  Yet, China remained relatively unphased.  In fact, China has had a remarkable reputation as being “un-shame-able”.  Rather China has been especially good at denying, as well as uniting the Chinese people behind the “Party Line.”  Add to that the fact that the Chinese Baby Boomers could remember all too well Tian An Men, the Cultural Revolution before that, and maybe even the Great Leap Forward before that.  If you knew history in China you would then remember WWII, the Warlord Period, the Qing Overthrow, the Unequal Treaties, the Boxer Rebellion, and two Opium Wars (making a little peace and quiet a rare and attractive dream).  Lastly, the sudden upsurge in the Chinese economy seemed to herald the “Mandate of Heaven” granted emperors as evidenced by the country’s prosperity.  The Chinese people had 250 years of conflict, recent memories of Beijing brutality, as well as some newfound spending money all encouraging them to be happy and to be quiet.

 

Against my original intentions, I concluded that the Olympics would have little to no effect on Chinese democratization.  I was right.

 

Now as we enter a period we’re all too nervous to call “Cold War Round Two,” we continue to speculate about what the newly awakened dragon is up to.  In February of this year, the Economist published another issue hypothesizing on China’s coming, inevitable economic liberalization.  It seems ironic to me that their writers aren’t taking their own advice to abandon antiquated visions for China’s future development.

 

In their February issue the magazine argues that “If Xi Jinping reforms the economy, he could both calm the trade war and make China richer” (Can Pandas Fly, p. 13).  But this explanation fails to recognize something crucial that state diplomats continue to miss again and again – Xi Jinping doesn’t want to make China richer.

 

As a country dominated by the agenda of its single political party, Beijing’s aims have since the birth of the PRC been synonymous with the aims of those at its helm.  In this case, that means that Beijing wants what Xi wants.  But Xi doesn’t want happiness and well-being for all his people.  He wants a life-time term limit (check), canonization within Party ideology (check), and unprecedented ability to maintain and enforce his hold over the country’s agenda (check, check, check).  The problem that the West continues to make in evaluating China’s motivations is in using the same flowery, broad generalizations we use to justify our statecraft.  We do everything “for the good of Democracy.”  But Xi does what he does for the good of Xi.

 

I’ve heard (and made) arguments that what China needs to truly compete on a global level with other tech giants is to foster unfettered free collaboration and communication to allow for the Zuckerbergs and Jobs’es of tomorrow to work together today.  But why would China want to allow its people who are already acting out with several hundred mass instances a day (Taylor, 2012) the added ability to organize?  I’ve heard that China needs to unpeg the yuan and let it valuate naturally.  But why would China want to sacrifice the diplomatic footholds it’s made in developing its state-sponsored industries by making exports more expensive?  Now the Economist is repeating the same tired trope that China needs to let the invisible hand push the Chinese economy forward.  But why would the state sacrifice the influence it has over programs, products, and devices all working their way into western markets (along with their verified security back doors)?

To an extent, the statecraft thinkers of the 90s were right – liberalized economies lead to wealthy, enabled middle classes, who demand representation.  Why would China want that when “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics” have been working so well for them?

 

Don’t get me wrong, China will have to pay the piper one day.  Its artificially devalued currency has led to marked increases in the cost of living squashing the middle class leading to more overt steps to keep dissidents in line (we’re already seeing much more of that in recent days).  There’s a serious financial crisis in China brewing as citizens now invest heavily in real estate rather than laughably low banking interest rates for their future, leading to an unprecedented real estate bubble of empty upscale condos.  More to the point, there’s a burgeoning Millennial and Generation Z population who don’t remember Tian An Men, but grew up on Hollywood and travelling off of their family’s disposable income, who will one day start working their way into the upper echelons of the government.  But those are the problems of another China, perhaps even another president.  Us criticizing Chinese leaders of being shortsighted would be a hypocritical statement of gigantic proportions.
 

For now, things seem to be going very well for Chinese leaders and they don’t mind us Westerners continuing to get them wrong.  Xi Jinping may not support Deng Xiaoping’s style of economic liberalization, but he agrees with Deng’s more famous philosophy – “Hide your strength, bide your time.”  By the time the west has got China figured out, it will be too late.

 

That is unless, my dear readers, you’d like to prove me wrong.

 

References

  • The Economist (2018).  How the West got China wrong/The Economist (March 3rd-9th, 2018 Issue).  New York, NC: The Economist Newspaper Ltd.

  • The Economist (2019).  Can Pandas Fly?/The Economist (February 23rd – March 3rd, 2018 Issue).  New York, NC: The Economist Newspaper Ltd.

  • Taylor, Alan (2012).  Rising Protests in China/The Atlantic.  Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2012/02/rising-protests-in-china/100247

Weigh in

Where do you think China is heading and why?

What are Xi Jinping’s true motives?

How should the West be conducting its statecraft with China?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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