Two major biases obscure a clear understanding of the global impact of authoritarian China’s earth-shaking rise—what could be called the American and Chinese errors.
The American—or Western, or democratic—error is to simply wish away the need to really grapple with the enormous implications of superpower China and its ability to re-shape the world to the detriment of democratic and human rights concerns at home and abroad. Tibetans, Muslim Uighurs, and the far more numerous vulnerable Han Chinese will all be adversely affected, as will myriad international organizations, including the International Labor Organization and the UN Refugee Agency.
Instead of facing up to this reality, wishful thinking democracies have imagined that the challenge China poses would somehow disappear by itself—that China would democratize or learn to abide by OECD norms or else economically implode. Few in the democratic world have faced up to the real consequences of a nationalistic government in charge of a nation that has seen double-digit economic growth rates for a generation. Such extraordinary growth creates major interests among international businesses that don’t want their elected governments to do anything that could prompt the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to hurt the ability of these firms to profit from involvement with China’s economic dynamism. This is only natural. As a result, however, China’s formidable challenge to democracy and human rights is cast aside.
The Chinese misunderstanding, meanwhile, also obscures some central realities. Under this view, China has succeeded because China is China. Until supposedly interrupted by the relatively recent Opium Wars, China had for centuries been the centre of the universe—a natural role it is now returning to. Perhaps uniquely, many Chinese believe (incorrectly) that only those reared with ‘Chinese values’ could be capable of doing what it took to ensure China’s unique rise—putting the collective first, sacrificing for the long run, stressing education, being good at business, strategically outwitting all others.
In reality, China didn’t actually rise to strength over its neighbours until around 450. China wasn’t always the centre of the universe and Europe’s rise, and China’s relative decline, both began long before the Opium Wars. Indeed, according to paramount reform leader Deng Xiaoping, China fell behind when the Ming dynasty closed itself off from long-distance maritime trade around 1450, a self-wounding policy of isolation revived by the economically irrational Mao Zedong. But CCP leaders, now as in the Mao era, prefer to scapegoat so-called imperialistic Western democracies for China’s own self-inflicted wounds.
Post-Mao China rose by abandoning its disregard for the market and both copying and plugging into other ‘varieties’ of Asian capitalism. For example, China copied Japan in manipulating and disciplining money to promote exports and move up the value added ladder, aided by government preferences and grabbing and absorbing new technology. From South Korea, the CCP regime learned how to turn state enterprises into globally competitive national champions. From Taiwan, China learned how to use Free Trade Zones to create jobs, transfer managerial know-how and build exports. From Singapore, Beijing learned that EDI from MNCs could serve growth and industrial up-grading, especially when combined with the talents and connections of tens of millions of diasporic Chinese.
In addition to the extraordinary advantage of being located in the most economically dynamic region of the world since the end of World War II, China (and also India, Turkey, Indonesia, Brazil and other rapidly rising emerging economies) eventually benefitted from the structural forces of post-Bretton Woods globalization. The fact is that broad international political economy factors, not culture, explain China’s rise.
If CCP ruling groups make the Chinese mistake of singular cultural self-congratulation, they will fail to see the degree to which their country’s rise is rooted in the policies and practices of the industrialized democracies in a single world market. The United States early on gave the CCP government most favoured nation (MFN) trading privileges, even though China wasn’t a market economy. Indeed, Washington gave Beijing its largest quota for apparel exports to the United States under the Multi Fibre Arrangement (MFA) in 1974. Europe and the United States, meanwhile, also welcomed Chinese to study science and technology, all while allowing China to run up huge trade surpluses.
That foreign exchange has given China its global clout to buy commodities, make investments and offer huge loans all around the world, helped make China the world power it has become. But the CCP’s expansive territorial and military agenda, however right it seems from the perspective of China’s Opium Wars victimhood, is seen by many of China’s neighbours as aggressive and threatening. The CCP’s misunderstanding of its growth therefore contains some potentially explosive risks.
If ruling groups in Beijing act on the notion that the Chinese don’t need the industrial democracies and can simply impose an imperial agenda upon their neighbours while expecting its military assertiveness to be treated as national justice, then there’s a danger China’s leadership will behave as Wilhemite Germany did.
Of course, international forces lack the means to alter Chinese domestic politics, meaning that there’s the difficult question of what exactly the industrialized democracies can do, even if they abandon their illusions. The problem is made all the harder because it’s not clear that the industrialized democracies are even succeeding in facing up to their own significant domestic challenges. If they don’t, then they’ll be in no position to contest the global agenda of a CCP that pursues foreign policies aimed at ‘restoring’ regional predominance and global centrality, all while checking democracy and human rights globally.
Such Chinese policies, energized by enormous economic clout, would construct facts on the ground. They would make the world safe and secure for China’s ruling groups, who would no doubt be infused by a self-blinding nationalism in which the core interests of CCP foreign policy come to seem moral—and become virtually unstoppable.
Edward Friedman is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, specializing in Chinese foreign policy, international political economy and democratization.