Copyright The International Herald Tribune
TUESDAY, APRIL 11, 2006
SEOUL While the world may be used to identifying China with the cute panda bears or mystic dragons, best-sellers in the People’s Republic now strongly advocate a new national totem of the wolf and the wolf pack’s blood-thirsty, aggression-oriented, force-worshipped spirit of predators as the essence of a renaissance of Chinese civilization.
Even though Beijing repeatedly asserts its peaceful acceptance of the existing world order, worries about its growing power are becoming more and more pronounced. As some Chinese strategists have already realized, Beijing needs to effectively address international suspicions to rise further.
A peaceful ascent seems – officially at least – to be Beijing’s sincere wish. But neither the Chinese people nor the world should trust words alone. The Chinese are no more or less peace-loving, nor more or less trustworthy, than any other nation. The only reliable assurance is that the rising Chinese power become structurally constrained, first of all internally.
When external constraints (like U.S. power) are weakening or fading, or becoming too costly, it is the internal constraints on Chinese power that must provide the assurance.
Authoritarian political corporatism with Chinese characteristics has helped to balloon the Chinese economy in the past two decades while maintaining sociopolitical stability. Such a system, however, is at odds with those of the United States and its allies.
Ultimately, Beijing has to convince the world that its internal politics will never be imposed beyond its borders. Alternatively, China could fundamentally assure the world that it is transforming structurally by developing effective internal constraints on its own political power based on well protected individual rights and property rights, freedom of speech, democratic governance, diversified civil society, and genuine rule of law.
Unfortunately, some early signals from the rising Chinese power have been rather unsettling.
Nourished by carefully censored media and tightly controlled education, a whole generation of angry youth has emerged with one-sided views of the world that are often laughably ignorant and frighteningly arrogant.
Philosophically, there is a considerable effort to advance the Chinese view of world order based on the so-called tianxia (under-the-sun) system, a notion that the whole world should be united and governed like an orderly and harmonious family with layers and ranks under one centralized ruler, a benevolent dictator, a “son of heaven” whose rule is based on “earning people’s hearts” with ethics rather than law.
The long stagnation and despotism under the Chinese world order in East Asia before the late 19th century are thus pretentiously repackaged as China’s alternative to the Western-dominated, Westphalian system of international relations.
None of these thoughts or attempts are in themselves undesirable or alarming. The real danger is the absence of opposing views or critical thinking more representative of the 1.3 billion Chinese and their interests.
The much-needed voices of balance and restraint are often systematically suppressed, harshly punished or simply eliminated. In March 2006, for example, a rare essay thanking Japan for its $30 billion- plus official aid to China since 1979 was deleted only two days after it was posted on a major Chinese Web portal, while hundreds of postings attacking the essay and its authors gave a dangerously misleading image of an unappreciative and extremist nation.
Much more than wishful words is urgently needed to head off a repeat of the historical tragedies of many past rising powers.
For a start, the Chinese people must not be misled about their own history any longer; there must be a marketplace for competing ideas, open discourse, and judicious reasoning. Only by facing its own record truthfully can a government become accountable.
For the best interest of the Chinese people and, ultimately, world peace, Beijing must give assurances that its rise will be peaceful, first by establishing credible internal constraints.
Fei-Ling Wang, professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is currently visiting professor at Yonsei University. His most recent book is “Organizing through Division and Exclusion: China’s Hukou System.”