What West Doesn’t Get About China
Image Credit: White House

What West Doesn’t Get About China


China’s rise on the world stage and the United States’ supposed decline are perhaps the two most discussed trends in international politics today. Many feel we are seeing two great ships of state passing in the night, with the former poised to lead and the latter at risk of falling behind. While the degree to which this has occurred is open to debate, the sense that a new strategic threshold is being crossed is accepted on both sides of the Pacific.

Yet the ancillary (but no less important) suggestion that the Chinese somehow have a clear and unified vision of what this new order should be is entirely contestable. It’s true that many Chinese opinion-makers increasingly are confident of – and even boastful about – their country’s emergence as a global player. Moreover, their worldview often combines equal measures of great power calculation, nationalism and a mercantilist approach to economic competition. This leaves little room for long-term cooperation with other states or constructive engagement in international institutions. And, as a result, the outlook for Sino-U.S. relations and China’s relationship with the rest of the international system can often seem bleak. But this analysis has a fundamental problem: it overlooks real ferment within the Chinese political establishment regarding each of these issues.

Although many Chinese do hold zero-sum visions of international relations, that view hasn’t yet cornered the market. On the one hand, there are signs within China of a military pushing for more rapid modernization and advocating more forceful policies toward both its neighbors and the United States. On the other, the Chinese Foreign Ministry remains actively engaged in a wide array of bilateral and multilateral exchanges. Moreover, in recent years, debates have ebbed and flowed within the Chinese foreign policy community over how to think about Sino-Japanese relations, the possibility of China’s rise remaining a peaceful one, and the distribution of power within the existing international order. 

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In addition, while strongly nationalist voices are often the loudest ones heard from China, it’s clear there’s no agreement about just what role nationalism should play in the country’s foreign relations. Assertive nationalism has been on display in its discussions of the 1999 Belgrade embassy bombing and more recently in response to the anti-Chinese protests in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009. Yet it was much less evident following the 2001 spy plane incident or, more recently, in discussions about contested territorial claims relating to disputed North Pacific islands and huge chunks of the South China Sea. It also hasn’t dominated relations with Taiwan, which have grown closer without rancor. Moreover, some establishment intellectuals have even begun to question the relationships between China’s Han majority and minority groups that live in border regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang. In doing so, they are suggesting novel, even innovative, approaches to broader questions of Chinese nationalism and what it means to be Chinese.

Finally, there are obvious divisions over the basic direction of China’s economy and its relations with the rest of the world. For example, China’s central bankers are at odds with many export-oriented industries and even government agencies over exchange rate policies. In addition, questions of how to respond to mounting economic inequalities within China, and the social dislocations they create, have generated intense disagreements.

The Shakespearian fall of Bo Xilai, the now disgraced politician who many expected to join the nine member Standing Committee of the ruling Politburo this autumn, plus the waves of recrimination and accusation it has caused, offers a fascinating window into some of these disputes. Much more is involved than a simple reshuffle of the leadership. More basically, questions are percolating about the basic social purposes of the Chinese state at home and abroad. Why are such differences so often overlooked, with many outside commentators suggesting there’s a single “Chinese” opinion on major issues? To be fair, the differences are rarely on display in the monochrome policy pronouncements of Chinese leaders. Nor do they often feature in officially sanctioned media outlets. They are, however, readily discerned just beyond these easily accessible and conventional sources. 

Chinese cyberspace is teeming with multiple perspectives, with views that range from virulent nationalism to liberal cosmopolitanism. While these may be dismissed as the work of netizens who operate only on the establishment’s fringes, similar diversity also exists in the expansive universe of more official Chinese foreign policy and national security journals. In addition, and perhaps most tellingly, these differences are also displayed prominently in China’s widely read and purportedly most nationalistic newspaper, the Global Times (Huanqiu Shibao). While its provocative headlines and cover photos attract great attention (and are often cited as examples of an aggressive Chinese perspective), a survey of its influential editorial pages discloses a striking plurality of thinking. Here, uncompromising and especially nationalistic voices are nowhere near as dominant as one might expect. In fact, many of the essays are quite critical of the Chinese state and reflect real division over what to make of broader changes within the global economy. Finally, criticisms of America, which one might expect to be a leading topic, do not dominate the writings of this important outlet’s leading contributors.

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