Copyright The Financial Times March 30, 2017
“As China’s self-regard has swollen, along with its newfound power, Japan has returned to the center of the Chinese gaze in the form of a bull’s-eye,”
Copyright The Financial Times March 30, 2017
For Canada, managing relations with an expansionist and impatient China will not be easy. French’s closing words seem particularly apt for us. He notes, reasonably enough, that China has much to contribute and deserves to be treated as an equal. That’s not a problem. It’s the next part of French’s formula that Ottawa so often either avoids or gets wrong. It is also important, he says, to approach China with “understated but resolute firmness.”
Donald Trump isn’t the only global leader with wall-building ambitions. China’s President, Xi Jinping, recently called on his officials to encircle restive Xinjiang province, home to China’s Muslim Uyghur population, with a “Great Wall of steel.”
Trump’s Great Wall can be dismissed as an opportunistic policy gambit, but Xi’s wall-building impulse has deeper roots. The default symbol for the United States is the Statue of Liberty, which famously welcomes the huddled masses. China’s most notable structure, the Great Wall, was built to keep the masses out, particularly those with dynastic ambitions.
For China’s mandarins, trouble typically arrives in the form of the twin calamities captured in the gloomy couplet, “Nei luan, wai huan”: chaos at home and invasion from abroad.
Avoiding these linked perils remains a priority for Xi, a preoccupation that shapes his foreign and domestic policy. Xi presides over the world’s last surviving empire, a country that has devoured ethnic rivals such as the Uyghurs and Tibetans whole, and that treats neighbouring states as vassals to be kept in line. All non-Han “Others” are expected to understand and appreciate the concept of tian xia, or “everything under heaven,” the rather ambitious zone of influence that China has traditionally attributed to itself.
Living up to this imposing mandate means that China is forever managing others, walling them in or fending them off, hoping to pacify them with the offer of membership in a China-dominated order.
In his new book, appropriately titled Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Shapes China’s Push for Global Power, former New York Times journalist Howard W. French makes it clear China’s sense of national superiority is of more than historical significance. While China’s power has waxed and waned, its sense of being the Middle Kingdom has remained constant. So, too, has its inclination to manage those who lie outside the centre. Living up to its awesome self-image has required China to dispatch fleets and armies, and to develop a highly sophisticated diplomatic stagecraft of flattery and intimidation. For centuries, exercising this mandate of heaven has meant relentless efforts to manage and cajole, to pacify and control.
Nothing is quite what it seems. The generous offer of inclusion in a Chinese world masks a condescending disregard for partially sinicized neighbours, such as the Vietnamese and Tibetans, and contempt for the barbarians beyond. The offer of a peaceful place in a Chinese world is inevitably backed up by the sword.
French’s account, not surprisingly, runs counter to the official Chinese narrative. Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who led a Chinese armada to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka and the east coast of Africa, is lauded in China as an unconventional explorer. Unlike his Western counterparts, whose voyages were marked by greed, violence and conquest, Zheng, the story goes, was an ambassador of Chinese benevolence. The reality, as French reminds us, is that Zheng’s massive ships were actually troop carriers, whose menacing arrival conveyed a distinctly different message about the nature of the Chinese deal on offer.
Modern China continues to proclaim this theme of benevolent internationalism, something French challenges with numerous examples. The most chilling is his account of the Chinese navy’s 1988 massacre of flag-waving Vietnamese troops on the disputed Johnson Reef in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese protest is captured on a grainy YouTube video that is suddenly interrupted by Chinese naval gunfire. When the smoke clears, the Vietnamese are, shockingly, gone. It’s worth noting this happened just a year before the Chinese military perpetrated another massacre, this time of student protesters in Tiananmen Square. Nei luan, wai huan.
China is clearly in the midst of a new period of exuberance and expansion, and, as French makes clear, this inevitably involves friction with the two powers, Japan and the United States, that have come to dominate its neighbourhood over the past 200 years.
In recent decades, Japan, seduced by the lure of the China market and by the friendly pragmatism of previous (and needier) Chinese leaders, played down territorial disputes as it helped to rebuild China. The tables have since turned. All things Japanese are now demonized by China, which evokes past Japanese aggression as it steadily encroaches on the rocky outcroppings that mark the beginning of the Japanese archipelago.
Even more worrisome is China’s growing rivalry with its most formidable adversary, the United States. China is rapidly acquiring the weapons and technology to make it highly risky for the U.S. Navy to operate in the western Pacific, an ambition furthered by China’s construction of military airstrips on artificial islands in the South China Sea. French ominously quotes another Chinese aphorism: “When two emperors appear simultaneously, one must be destroyed.”
French suggests the current period of Chinese expansionism is particularly dangerous not just because it involves a clash between two nuclear-armed powers, but also because China’s leaders are in a race against time. The window on their ambitions for regional and broader domination is closing. China’s slowing economy means less money for military modernization. Worse for China is the fact its population will likely peak by 2025, while the United States will continue to enjoy a steadily increasing population, and resulting economic growth, for a long time to come. Much of this U.S. population growth will be powered by immigration. Trump may wish to rethink his wall.
All of this matters for Canadians. Any armed clash between the United States, our closest ally, and China would be devastating. Even if conflict is avoided, we can expect China’s larger ambitions and anxieties will influence the way it manages relations with Canada. The carrots and sticks are familiar.
Trade is one potential motivator. Even though it flows in China’s favour, its partners, Canada included, are all-too-easily persuaded that permission to do business is a benefit conferred only on those who agree to play by China’s rules. And access to China’s leaders is so carefully meted out and stage-managed that it becomes an objective in itself. Leaders refuse to kowtow at their peril. Recall that former prime minister Stephen Harper was widely castigated for declining to attend the Beijing Olympics in 2008, which took place only months after ugly scenes of unrest and repression in Tibet.
That’s another way of saying that, like China, we need to align our international strategy with a hard-nosed reading of national interest. Let’s hope Ottawa’s mandarins are paying attention.
David Mulroney is the author of Middle Power, Middle Kingdom: What Canadians Need to Know about China in the 21st Century, and is president of the University of St. Michael’s College. He was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.
Copyright The Wall Street Journal
Looking back on the three years that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, has been in power, it is tempting to say that his tenure has been leading, almost ineluctably, to revived memories of and comparisons to the moment 50 years ago when China embarked on the decade we remember as the Cultural Revolution.
Month after month has brought news from China of the unrelenting ways in which Mr. Xi has concentrated power in his own hands. This began early in his tenure, when state propagandists encouraged worshipful references to him as â€œXi Dada,â€ or â€œgrandpa Xi,â€ while elevating his glamorous wife, Peng Liyuan, to the status of national role model. In April, Mr. Xi, who was already president, chairman of the Communist Party and head of the countryâ€™s Central Military Commission, showed up in camouflage fatigues at a meeting with top military leaders, revealing yet another title: head of Chinaâ€™s Joint Battle Command Center.
Finally, just days before the anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution, which fell on May 25, Beijingâ€™s Tiananmen Square was the scene of a theatrical extravaganza that combined revived radical rhetoric from that era with twinned images of Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping. Developments like these have made many Chinese and foreign observers ask whether China under Mr. Xi is edging toward a revival of Mao-like rule.
But to read Frank DikÃ¶tterâ€™s â€œThe Cultural Revolution: A Peopleâ€™s History, 1962-1976â€ is to understand how far Mr. Xiâ€™s Chinaâ€”however worrisome recent trendsâ€”is from Maoâ€™s radical, despotic regime.
Most accounts of this era begin in May 1966, when dissidents at Peking University displayed so-called big-character posters denouncing the universityâ€™s leadership as â€œKhrushchev-type revisionist elements.â€ Mao responded by urging the young radicals to â€œbombard the headquartersâ€ of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, Mr. DikÃ¶tter commences his story four years earlier, when Mao began maneuvering to restore his prestige and power after the shattering failure of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, in which his plan to rapidly accelerate Chinaâ€™s economy ended in the starvation of tens of millions of his compatriots. Maoâ€™s new campaign was built on two main pillars: the promotion of leftist ideas, which would require uprooting supposed reactionaries seeded throughout the party; and the promotion of sycophancy, which was ultimately fanned to a white heat.
By Frank DikÃ¶tter
Bloomsbury, 396 pages. $32
According to Mr. DikÃ¶tter, this two-pronged approach began with a 1962 speech by Lin Biao,a power-hungry military commander who would soon rise to become the chairmanâ€™s designated successor. (In 1971, Lin was himself destroyed amid vicious political infighting, dying in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia as he fled his country.) Lin set the standard for the deification of Mao, declaring him infallible: â€œThe thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct. . . . He is never out of touch with reality.â€ Lin, who had the idea of printing millions of copies of a compendium of Maoâ€™s thoughts, which became known as the â€œLittle Red Book,â€ was only getting started.
As Mr. DikÃ¶tterâ€™s subtitle implies, his history aims to give new emphasis to the voices and experiences of ordinary Chinese during this period in order to better understand a bewilderingly chaotic political era. What emerges most strongly from the book, however, is a deepened sense of the elite politics of the period, as the higher reaches of the Communist Party, senior military commanders and even provincial leaders were kept guessing about their obscurantist leaderâ€™s ever-changing whims, which Mao expressed with abstruse aphorisms and pseudo-Marxist gibberish. Throughout the book, especially its first half, what predominates is the ceaseless rise and fall of members of the nomenklatura as they parry charges of being closet rightists and seek to stay in Maoâ€™s good graces. These figures include people at the very top of the hierarchy, such as Zhou Enlai, Maoâ€™s longest-serving lieutenant; the twice-purged Deng Xiaoping; Liu Shaoqi, who was purged as president and died in prison; and Maoâ€™s wife, Jiang Qing, who survived it all only to be arrested after the chairmanâ€™s death and imprisoned for her role as ringleader of the chaos.
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This is the first post in a new TMP series titled â€œThe Great Debate,â€ a round-up of opinions from experts, officials, professors and students on a pressing question in international affairs.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping concluded a significant trip to the United States last week. Speaking with his counterparts in Washington, traveling to the Iowa town where he spent part of his college years, and even taking in a Lakers game in Los Angeles, Xi presented an image of a confident, self-assured China.
Xi is expected to assume the leadership of his country later this year and his tenure comes at a particularly important moment in U.S.-China relations given the breadth of economic, military, and other international issues on which the two countries may collaborate or butt heads.
In light of his visit, TMPâ€™s new series â€œThe Great Debateâ€ turned to the experts to ask:
Will US-China relations improve under Xi Jinpingâ€™s leadership? Or are they likely to deteriorate under the 5th generation of party leaders?
(Several experts weigh in on these questions. Here’s my take. The full article can be accessed via the link below.)
Howard French, Columbia University
There are simply too many variables and unknowns to confidently predict the direction of U.S.-China relations under Xi Jinping and the so-called Fifth Generation of leaders.
What stands out for me at this moment, nonetheless, are a number of signs that point more toward turbulence than to smooth sailing.
What are these signs? To begin with, leadership politics in China seem to be entering a major new phase with the prospect of increasingly open and contentious jousting between individuals and factions. There is every prospect of this extending beyond merely patronage, position and favors and extending into the realm of real contests over policy and direction. This will happen in the absence of a strong elder statesman figure to mediate and adjudicate matters.
The relevance for bilateral relations is indirect, but potentially important. A situation of such fluidity and turbulence could encourage leaders to play the nationalist card to shore up their credentials and popular appeal. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a new leadership under almost any circumstances staking its reputation and prestige on accommodation of the U.S.
This leads to a second and related consideration. There is a lot of tension inherent to a dynamic that involves the relative rise of a rising power at the expense, both real and perceived of the established superpower. This is an unavoidably awkward and potentially dangerous situation, with one side reluctant to concede and the other sometimes over-eager to assert its new prerogatives. In both countries, public opinion plays an important and sometimes capricious role, reducing the room for maneuver of leaders or pushing them toward bad decisions.
Having said all of this, ten years, which is the nominal term of the incoming Chinese leadership, is a very long time, during which much can happen, including not just unpleasant outcomes. Under the right circumstances, a successful beginning to the new leadershipâ€™s mandate could make it a much more confident and relaxed working partner over the longer term.