Another China: The awakened giant

2002-10-31Asia Times

BEIJING - For the first time in its millennia-old history, China now acknowledges the existence of a world outside that it must confront.
Up to the mid-19th century - the time of the Opium Wars - China perceived itself as a world apart, a perfect and self-sufficient universe. Contacts with the European colonial powers and Japanese expansionism caused a shock. Feelings of frustration and humiliation ran to the ends of the empire, from the Opium War against the British (1840-42) through the clash with the colonial empires between the two centuries, the birth of the republic (1911) and the time of the warlords (in the 1930s), until the Japanese invasion, World War II and the advent of communism with the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists in 1949.

Under Mao Zedong and his successors the People's Republic of China remained a country closed to the outside - and thus exotic to Western eyes - conceding at the most to a few games with the Soviets or the Americans (president Richard Nixon's triangular diplomacy in the 1970s). It was only in the 1990s that Jiang Zemin's China emerged as a regional power with global ambitions capable of playing on all the chessboards and crisis areas from the Balkans to the Middle East.

Without this historical parable that over 150 years marked the decline and renaissance of China, it is impossible to gauge the significance of its current and tumultuous economic development and the vision of the world of the leadership that is preparing to take over power after the Communist Party's Congress in November. Chinese national pride is rooted in the memory of an immense country that, for most of its existence, considered itself so wealthy that it did not need to trade with the Western powers. It was nearly able to deny the existence of the rest of the world. Indeed, at the end of the 18th century a third of the world's population and nearly half its wealth were Chinese. Other peoples were considered barbarians or minor civilizations with which it was not worth having relations. China was Tianxia ("All That Is Under the Sky").

The first cracks in this peculiar Chinese consciousness emerged with the arrival of the Catholic missionaries. When the Jesuits landed in China in 1583, Matteo Ricci (1522-1610) started to convert the imperial elite, convinced that it would produce a domino effect and convert from above the Chinese people - wrongly so, as the following centuries proved. Jesuit propaganda clashed with three central aspects of the Chinese way of life: the question of Chinese "rites", or reverence for Confucius and one's family ancestors, the name of "God", and local sexual habits, tending toward concubines rather than monogamous marriage. However, it was under Ricci that the first world maps with China at their center were produced, a revolutionary geopolitical representation that allows for the existence of an "other" world - the world outside - hierarchically subordinated to China. In the course of the 17th century, Zhongguo ("the Land in the Middle") was born from Tianxia. To this day Chinese maps follow that model.

Outside China no one seems to consider the Middle Empire as central. The People's Republic of China is not the cornerstone of the global balance. However, recently some in what is universally recognized as the Middle Empire - ie, the United States - have started to fear that by the middle of this century or even before, China could actually become what the maps portray it as. Even the fight against terrorism, according to some White House advisers, is seen in this light: as a preface to the real clash that within a couple of decades will pit the US against China.

What is certain is that only in the second half of the 1990s did the Chinese leadership feel that it could finally close the long parenthesis of decline that had been inaugurated by the Opium War and return Beijing to the center of the global game. Not (yet) primi inter pares, but pares inter primos. Deng Xiaoping, the patriarch who took China beyond Maoism's horrors, expressed an approach that was in essence subservient to the United States. Only his successor Jiang Zemin started to accept the idea of a competitive cooperation with the Stars and Stripes superpower.

On the economic front, the divergence of interests between a more assertive China and a United States triumphant in the Cold War are visible especially in the US attempt to invade the Chinese market with low-cost products without giving away its high-tech know-how. On the strategic and geopolitical front, the Chinese leadership is rightly convinced that some in Washington love China enough to want three or four Chinas. This type of fragmentation could indeed emerge from the growing gap between the regions that are more developed and open to the West and the more isolated and backward regions, as well as through the explosion of regionalism and of some geopolitical issues largely of an ethnic-religious type (Xinjiang, Tibet). Finally, fragmentation could follow a possible war between Beijing and Taipei.

China's shift toward the external world was marked by the Asian economic crisis of 1997. Jiang Zemin resisted the temptation to devalue the yuan and offered a safety net to the rapidly falling Asian economies, by replacing the US capital that had fled from Asia. With its trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), its entry into the World Trade Organization, the proposal of an Asian Monetary Fund, its support of the Thai-sponsored Asian Cooperation Dialogue, and its participation in the Shanghai Group (which aims to counterbalance US strategic influence in the region), Beijing is becoming a big regional power at the heart of the Asian continent: a benign power, integrated but not hegemonic, the pole of a system of global balance currently tipped too far toward the United States. This idea is visible, for example, in the official photographs of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit held in Shanghai last November: all leaders - from US President George W Bush to Russian President Vladimir Putin to Jiang Zemin - wore the traditional dress of the Tang period. The message from the new China was clear: We no longer are the whole world, but we are inferior to no one.

This geopolitical representation is accompanied by a rapid process of modernization that is also a form of Westernization of China, from the economic point of view - it has one of the most deregulated production systems of the world - but especially from the social point of view. Anyone comparing today's China to that of 20 or even just 10 years ago is shocked by the enormous changes, visible in the way one opens a bank account, how one is treated at a restaurant, or in fashion, care for the body or sexual customs. The Western way of life (xifang) is synonymous with "modern" (xiandai), and thus progressive.

To accept such opening toward the world with a strong awareness of itself means having to face the question of relations with the United States. Against the expectations of many, the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and the spy-plane incident on Hainan in 2001 did not ruin the relations between Beijing and Washington. At the moment the power relations between the two will not allow China to break off, for it would be very inconvenient for the Americans. The ties between the two economies are too tight to risk a crisis that could threaten the many US investments in China. And the United States cannot give up on the vast and expanding Chinese market. While the US economy has been stuttering over the past three years, China's continues to grow. Perhaps the real growth rate is below the official one of 7-8 percent a year, but even a gross domestic product (GDP) growth of about 5-6 percent a year, the figure most skeptical European observers believe, means a growth rate about five times that of Europe. The Chinese market counts today about 300 million individuals of a population of about 1.3 billion: these figures are enough to give an idea of the potential development of the domestic market. Everyone can feel the expansion of the Chinese economy in the region, especially in South Korea and in Thailand.

Geopolitical stability is the condition for China to have more influence in the world and to continue modernizing its economy. From this point of view the Chinese leadership is still uncertain. Fears of socio-economic cleavages, ethno-religious differences, and possible external (US) influences interested in accentuating these potential fractures of the Middle Empire, all condition Chinese policies. They also support the self-legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party, understood more in terms of nationalism than ideology. The communist lineage is a kind of dynasty, which will soon be placed next to the Qing and the Ming. Its legitimacy derives from its imperial history, not from Marx.

The self-legitimization of the Party can work as long as the economy continues to grow. It will then be necessary that the various centers of power that have grown in the shade of the Party do not start fighting one another. These are the issues that the new leader, Hu Jintao, will have to face. Once the Party was the dragon hovering above everyone; now it is only the umpire, among various groups and power centers.

The match is open. There are regional powers, lobbies and even very ambitious mafia-type groups that tend to take influence away from official power. Pressure groups also cut across the government.

At some point, issues related to the rule of law and democracy will become unavoidable. Of course, China is likely to become a sui generis democracy - as all existing democracies are, after all. A neat transition from the Party's absolutism to the "one man, one vote" criterion is unthinkable. It would be far more reasonable to aim for the development of an acceptable rule of law starting from a system of rules that can assimilate China to the largest industrial countries. It would be hard to hope for foreign capital entering the country without a civil code protecting fully the right to private property.

China has sought to use the fight against terrorism to convince the United States that it does not want to become an enemy. September 11, 2001, should have made the Americans understand the origin of threats - whence the attempt to develop all possible avenues to build confidence, starting from the confidential information given on Afghanistan during the war last autumn. This approach was confirmed to Heartland during a Euro-Sino-American conference held in Rome on May 10-11 on "geopolitical black holes". The seminar was organized by Heartland together with Washington's National Security Information Center and the Chinese think-tank Strategy and Management, and was dedicated in particular to identifying a common approach between the Chinese and Americans on northern Myanmar, a land governed by traffickers and mafias.

More than one year after the September 11 attacks, Beijing found that the United States did not respond very satisfactorily to Chinese openings. Of course, some signals from Washington were considered favorable: the inclusion of the Liberation Front of East Turkestan on the list of terrorist groups published by the US government; the arrest of some Xinjiang Muslims present in Afghanistan who were immediately imprisoned in Guantanamo, Cuba; and especially the intervention to placate the drift toward independence of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian in July.

But the Chinese are still skeptical of the US approach to the fight against terrorism. Afghanistan and Central Asia have not been stabilized yet. And China cannot remain indifferent to this climate in its back yard, especially as US soldiers are deployed there in large numbers. On this aspect there are two schools of thought in Beijing: those who view the US military penetration in the region with fear and suspicion and those who believe that a few military bases are not sufficient to establish a permanent influence in the area. In any case, the geopolitical compromise between Russia and the United States on Central Asian transport routes for energy cannot avoid taking Chinese interests into account. Beijing is fundamental in any equation of Asian power. Even the Americans cannot ignore China.

War against Iraq is another story altogether. Having insisted at length that the issue go through the United Nations Security Council, Beijing cannot directly oppose an attack against Baghdad. There are not vital Chinese interests at risk in Iraq. On the contrary, the risk is of inflaming the Islamic world and destabilizing Pakistan - China's historical partner.

Sooner or later the war against terrorism will end. Or rather the Americans will decree that it is over. At that point we will all return to focus on the real core of global geopolitics: the relationship between China and the United States. (2002-10-31 Asia Times)


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