“The glory of Our Empire shines on this universe with brilliance,” a ruler once declared in a letter to courtiers in London. “Not one single person or country is excluded from Our kindness and benevolence.” He had good reason to be pleased. His country sat astride the global economy. His army was large, his domains vast. He believed his country to be the center of the world, and a good chunk of the world agreed.
And yet, despite the fulsome satisfaction of this 1805 letter, its author, the head of the Manchu Qing dynasty and emperor of China, had cause for anxiety. Less than twenty years before, China had suffered a humiliating defeat in Vietnam and continued to have difficulty besting the Burmese, Tibetans and Zunghars. Trade with Europe was still expanding rapidly. But the European powers were quickly getting the upper hand by controlling shipping and financial flows, and China was developing a dangerous dependency on silver and opium. Until the late nineteenth century, China’s economy was the largest in the world, but then it headed precipitously downward. The Chinese knew practically nothing about the modern firearms with which Europe was taking over the world.
Did the advisers to the Jiaqing Emperor warn him of the coming conflict with Europe and the potential collapse of the Chinese Empire? Perhaps some courageous and far-seeing mandarin spoke of Europe’s rise, of the dangerous trajectory of the terms of trade, of the military modernizations of Britain, of the equally pernicious soft power of missionaries and merchants. The documentary evidence makes no mention of such a pundit. In 1816, after dealing with barbarians from Britain who refused to kowtow to the emperor, the Chinese court sent another letter to London: “The Celestial Empire has little regard for foreign things.” By the time China learned the value of foreign things and adopted the Japanese approach of “Eastern thought, Western machines,” it would be too late. The Chinese Empire had been carved up like a crisp Peking duck.
Two hundred years later, the roles are reversed. As John Quincy Adams once accused the Chinese of “arrogant and insupportable pretensions,” so now America is subjected to the slings and arrows of the world’s disgruntled and disaffected. Yet the US President surveys his realm and sees only cause for satisfaction: America is God’s country and Americans his chosen people. There are barbarians at the gate, of course, repudiators of American benevolence who must be crushed. A small clutch of imperial cheerleaders, the Max Boots and Niall Fergusons, thrill to the President’s muscular stance. Pundits, meanwhile, play the latest intellectual parlor game: name that imperial analogy. Will the US empire end with a Roman bang or a British whimper? Or, blind to the desperate need for reform and a tempering of arrogance, will the United States suffer China’s nineteenth-century fate? In place of opium, there are the distracting pleasures of Chinese goods for sale at Wal-Mart. Instead of the redoubtable Vietnamese, there are the recalcitrant Iraqis.
In contrast to the emperor’s court, an army of advisers are scrambling to warn Washington of the only threat on the horizon that could displace the United States in the next few decades. Their books assess China’s potential at the periphery and in the Eurasian heartland. China is using trade and no-strings-attached aid to inveigle its way into the hearts of Africans and Latin Americans. It is building up its military and risking a showdown with the United States, most likely over Taiwan. Internal weaknesses such as poverty and corruption threaten to undermine the current Chinese system and create international havoc. President Bush is certainly getting more advice than the Chinese emperor did 200 years ago. But the warnings of impending confrontation reflect less the realities of China’s new global stance than the unrealities of the US foreign policy establishment, which believes that the laws of geopolitics require an equal but opposite fall on the other side of the globe.
The “yellow peril” was once feared for the damage it could do near home. Washington strategists stayed up late at night worrying about Mao knocking down dominoes the length of the Asian littoral. There was also the Chinese influence in South Asia, and the Kremlin’s worries about the Soviet Union’s borders and millions of land-poor Chinese swarming into Siberia. But although China inspired the leadership of Albania, some Maoist guerrillas in Peru and a handful of French and American students in the 1970s, Beijing’s influence outside its neighborhood was marginal.
Now that the Big Red Checkbook has replaced the Little Red Book, China has expanded its reach into far-flung regions. Journalist Joshua Kurlantzick has been writing about the rise of China’s soft power for several years, and in his recent book Charm Offensive he describes a chessboard world in which one side’s advancing pawns grab power from the other side’s retreating rooks. “As the United States remains unpopular in many parts of the world, China finds willing partners,” Kurlantzick writes. “In the worst-case scenario, China eventually will use soft power to push countries to choose between closer ties to Washington and closer ties to Beijing.”
China is simply doing what the United States did during the cold war: cozying up to the powerful, extracting resources and buying influence. Kurlantzick expands Joseph Nye’s classic formulation of soft power to include formal diplomacy and economic leverage alongside the more informal export of cultural values and norms. He describes a China of deep pockets that provides more loans to Africa than the World Bank, has promised $100 billion of investments to Argentina and Brazil, snatched up factories the world over and replaced striking workers with compliant Chinese, and outmaneuvered Japan to conclude a recent free-trade agreement with Southeast Asia.
Economic influence is not even the half of it. Nearly three millennia of fearing the outside world, which stretched from the Great Wall to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, have abruptly ended. Multilateralism is the new watchword for China’s 4,000 diplomats, half of whom are younger than 35, according to a 2005 study. China has become the great joiner–facilitating the six-party talks over the North Korean nuclear crisis, convening the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia, even becoming an observer in the Organization of American States. It has created its own version of the Peace Corps that sends Chinese youth to developing countries. With the Beijing Olympics set for next year, China is doing a credible imitation of a good sport.
Kurlantzick seems taken aback at times that China’s advances are built on great-power realism rather than fortune-cookie idealism. Beijing wants stability in its immediate environs and raw materials from Africa and Latin America to fuel its growth. It will break strikes, support the Mugabes and Karimovs of the world and ignore environmental standards to achieve these goals. When Communist China first opened to the capitalist West in the early 1970s, the Chinese leaders imprinted on Henry Kissinger, the first Western mug they saw up close. Like love-blind chicks, Mao’s heirs have been following Kissingerian realpolitik ever since.
And yet China is not a chess player making zero-sum calculations, particularly in its relations with Washington. In 2004 Colin Powell aptly described US-Chinese relations in the George W. Bush era as the best in thirty years. China and the United States are cooperating on containing North Korea, countering terrorists in Asia and expanding the global economy. Naturally, disagreements have arisen over intervention in Darfur and US military bases in Central Asia. The United States has been haranguing China to float its currency to raise the price of Chinese exports (and theoretically reduce Washington’s massive trade deficit with Beijing). But spats are to be expected in any marriage, especially one of convenience. The relationship is sustained in part because of mutual economic interest. China is propping up the US economy with its purchase of Treasury bonds, and American consumers keep the Chinese economy humming with super-sized purchases of everything from cheap toys to high-end electronics.
When it comes to US-China relations, Washington’s mandarin class is worried less about soft-power competition at the margins than military confrontation over Taiwan, head-to-head economic competition and the potential of China to implode politically. To achieve credibility in a Washington devoted to “congagement”–containing China militarily and engaging it economically–most China watchers try to stake out the middle ground between panda-hugging and China-bashing. Against the huggers they assert that China is indeed a potential military threat; against the bashers they qualify China as only a selective menace.
The issue of greatest controversy is China’s increased military spending. Beijing argues that it is spending around $36 billion a year; some US estimates run double or even triple that amount. However you slice it, China wants a world-class army to match its world-class economy. But with its air and sea power still limited, China has an anemic ability to project force over distance. A mere twenty long-range nuclear missiles serve as a very slender deterrent force. And while the bean counters scrutinize China’s arms purchases, the annual US military budget has sailed past $500 billion (not including the Iraq and Afghanistan supplemental spending). To match the United States, China would have to play Soviet-style catch-up, and it knows the endpoint of that strategy.
It’s not China’s arsenal but its military strategy that has undergone the more telling transformation, and here Bates Gill, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offers some useful insights. “China is unlikely to seek aggressive territorial gains into areas of core American strategic interest, such as the heart of Europe, or seek to extend imperial dominion across vast areas of Pacific Asia, or attack American possessions to meet those aims,” he writes in his dry but important new book Rising Star. “Beijing does not seek to spread Communist ideals, establish global networks of ideological client states, or foment revolution in the developing world.” China has quietly become a major advocate of arms control, even undertaking several important unilateral nonproliferation initiatives, such as pledging to the United States to cut its nuclear ties to Iran. Its share of global arms exports fell from around 4 percent in the early 1990s to less than 2 percent between 2000 and 2004. It has placed a qualitative cap on its own nuclear modernization program and thrown open its military exercises to foreign observers from the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa.
At the same time, China has gradually altered what had previously been a strident position on sovereignty. Beijing still asserts the principles of noninterference and peaceful coexistence, repackaged as its “new security concept,” particularly in the face of potential military interventions in Sudan, Iran and elsewhere. Beyond the rhetoric, however, Beijing has clearly compromised its previously literal understanding of sovereignty. Witness its power-sharing arrangement with Hong Kong and its support of US intervention in Afghanistan. It currently provides “more civilian police, military observers, and troops to UN peacekeeping operations than any of the other permanent five members of the UN Security Council–and more than any NATO country,” Gill writes. Sovereignty in today’s globalizing world is the refuge of the weak and the privilege of the strong. China, caught somewhere between the two poles, has taken a pragmatically flexible approach.
On the issue of Taiwan, however, Beijing retains an old-fashioned inflexibility. For Washington, the island is a foreign policy issue; Beijing, on the other hand, considers Taiwan a family problem, one that will eventually be resolved internally by persuasion or, if necessary, by force. Because foreign policy analysts inside the Beltway are essentially risk analysts, those who follow East Asia are drawn to likely flashpoints. Journalists Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro tried to make the case for a “coming conflict with China” in their 1997 book of the same name, pointing to Taiwan as the spark. A decade later, even as Taiwan has moved closer to formal independence, the “global war on terror” has eclipsed the presumed China threat.
Richard Bush and Michael O’Hanlon have tried to update this argument in A War Like No Other. They promise “the truth about China’s challenge to America” but have to jump-start their argument by turning back the clock to 1995-96, the tensest moments in recent US-Chinese relations. At that time, the Clinton Administration reversed restrictions on US visits by high-level Taiwanese officials and let President Lee Teng-hui visit his alma mater, Cornell; Beijing retaliated by sending missiles in the direction of Taiwan and conducting large-scale military exercises. Bush and O’Hanlon imagine a repeat scenario in which “in a fog of miscommunication and politics, an enraged China prepares to attack the island” and the United States comes to Taiwan’s defense: “No one backs down–each has too much at stake,” they write, and then string together a series of maybes that lead to a “terrifying scenario.” It reads like the kind of overstatement that foreign policy analysts resort to in order to pitch skeptical editors yet another article or book on China.
A conflict over Taiwan could indeed result from Taiwanese impatience, Chinese nationalism and US pigheadedness. Taiwan continues to make noises about shifting from de facto to de jure sovereign status. Although large majorities of Americans oppose war with China over Taiwan, more than 90 percent of the Chinese people support military action against Taiwan if it splits.
But Bush and O’Hanlon concede that the economies of China and Taiwan have grown inextricably linked, as have the Chinese and American economies. And despite several chapters devoted to an extended war-gaming scenario, they admit that “most hypothetical causes of war” between Washington and Beijing “turn out, upon inspection, to have little or no basis.” Even if their premises are sensational, their advice is sensible: Washington should help Beijing and Taipei toward “a more benign, unification-friendly sovereignty” for Taiwan. After all, what would Beijing do with the island after military takeover? Taiwan is no Tibet. It is a powerful capitalist country that has developed a strong taste for democracy. Beijing beware: even a small bone, if swallowed the wrong way, can prove deadly.
Washington should pay less attention to the strength of China, some knowledgeable courtiers are whispering, and more to the great country’s weakness. In this telling of the story, China is an elaborate pyramid scam, its prosperity resting on a foundation of sand. Only by continuing to generate unprecedented levels of growth–11 percent in 2006–can China continue to fool its domestic supporters and foreign investors into playing the game. Inside China, troubling stories appear every day. There is rampant corruption. Some grow impossibly rich while many remain impatiently poor. Tens of thousands of protests break out in the cities and the countryside every year. The AIDS and SARS scandals, the harrowing coal mine disasters, the ruthless suppression of dissidents–eloquently described by Chinese activists themselves in the new collection Challenging China, edited by Human Rights in China staffers Sharon Hom and Stacy Mosher–all have the potential of sapping the confidence of the population in the leadership’s capacity to govern.
In the most poignant chapter in the collection, “The View Beneath the Bridge,” writer Yi Ban describes a group of people who travel to Beijing from all over the country to petition the government to redress wrongs. They end up living under a bridge near a compound of government offices. They scavenge for food. They spend precious money to produce reports on the corruption and legal miscarriages with which they hope to impress the central authorities. And they get nowhere. One day, the police come through like a terrible wind and sweep the petitioners away as if they never existed. These workaday tyrannies, more so perhaps than the jailings of high-profile dissidents, may prove cancerous in the long run.
With all the talk of China’s rise, it might seem perverse to cast the country as the sick man of Asia. Yet in China: Fragile Superpower, Susan Shirk argues that “the weak legitimacy of the Communist Party and its leaders’ sense of vulnerability could cause China to behave rashly.” Shirk, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Clinton Administration, gives insightful summaries of China’s relations with Taiwan and Japan. But her argument about China’s potentially rash conduct, like Bush and O’Hanlon’s, is based on some farfetched assumptions. Shirk sees China’s nationalism as a double-edged sword, one the government wields against its adversaries and finds pressed against its own neck. In order to maintain their own position, Chinese leaders may launch a wag-the-dog invasion of Taiwan–or Hong Kong or Tibet or Xinjiang.
This is possible, but is it probable? Why would Chinese leaders risk the stability they need to maintain economic growth? Nationalism and the pride that comes with becoming once again a world power will more likely have a centripetal rather than centrifugal effect, bolstering the legitimacy of the Communist Party rather than pushing it to bet the house on a military adventure. China has ultimately borrowed a great deal from the West, and this notion of the nation-state, so alien to the Jiaqing Emperor in 1805, will prove the most influential import. Alongside its twenty-first-century economy and twentieth-century political structure, China has a very nineteenth-century sense of nationhood.
In China Road, his absorbing chronicle of traveling Route 312 from Shanghai across the expanse of China to the farthest reaches of the Gobi Desert, National Public Radio correspondent Rob Gifford meets a Tibetan who makes his living teaching Chinese to his compatriots. Gifford carefully broaches the subject of betrayal.
“No one blames me,” the Tibetan tells him. “There is no other choice. The only way to say I’m not going to take part in this is not to learn Chinese and reject the whole Chinese system. But that would condemn me to poverty.” He won’t give up his Buddhism, and he will never marry a Han Chinese woman. But otherwise he has decided to trade in the nomadic life, which he says is nothing to romanticize, for the life of an upwardly mobile Chinese citizen. “That is simply today’s world. The modern world. The globalized world. I’m not sure we can completely blame the Chinese for that.”
Not everyone Gifford meets is so resignedly pragmatic. He talks with Chinese who have eaten more than their fair share of bitterness. Deng Xiaoming, who probably contracted AIDS in a government-sponsored blood-selling scheme gone awry, is so outraged at the failure of the local hospital to save his ailing daughter that he places her corpse in the hospital lobby for all to see. Lao Zhang, a cafe owner in a remote desert oasis, rails against local officials for capping the natural spring in order to profit from their own water sales. In a society that not long ago banned prostitution, Wu Yan sings, gambles and drinks with her clients but makes the most money with the “fourth accompaniment.” And the Uighurs of northwest China lament the ongoing colonization of their culture.
Foreign policy analysts speak of various crunches that China will face. There’s the demographic one, when China suddenly becomes a senior citizen society virtually overnight because of its one-child policy. There is the economic one, when rapid growth begins to sputter and an angry middle class joins hands with the disenfranchised to close down the party. There’s the environmental one, when the poisons of industrial development choke the country to death.
Gifford adds one more to the mix. The central government is rushing against time to make Tibetans, Uighurs and other ethnic minorities into Chinese, much like the French government, as Eugen Weber described it, turned Breton and Provençal peasants into Frenchmen in the nineteenth century. Democracy, as it comes, means giving the vote not just to the 93 percent of the population that is Han Chinese but to the minorities as well. “That’s why Beijing is pedaling so fast to try to make Uighurs and Tibetans more ‘Chinese,’ so that if the crunch comes (or even if it doesn’t) they will be too well integrated into China to want to opt out,” Gifford argues. Building the nation–not just dams, power plants, tanks and cooperation agreements with other countries–will be the make-or-break project for the next generation of Chinese leaders.
Predicting what will happen with China is a fool’s errand. China is the exception that proves so many rules wrong. It is a Communist system that has managed a transition to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” It has fostered market growth without much political reform. And it has pulled huge swaths of its population out of poverty and illiteracy faster than all the well-paid development professionals in the West. Yet as Gifford argues, “For every fact that is true about China, the opposite is almost always true as well, somewhere in the country.” The data set is so large that it defies generalizations.
Will China overtake the United States as Europe once overtook China? Having spent so long at the top, China could teach America some lessons about imperial decline. China once believed itself the center of the world and the pivot of history. It tried to understand the rise of other great powers in its own terms rather than as a fundamentally new phenomenon. Most important, it waited too long to reform its foreign and domestic policies. Beijing could change tactics again, perhaps after the 2008 Olympics, and rely more on punch than politics. Yet, blinded by its own putative imperial glory and thinking of the world only in boxing-ring terms, Washington is the real wild card. In the contest for world leadership, the United States is the more likely one to come out swinging–and end up knocking itself out.
The Nation, October 22, 2007