It was a tough question, but it sounded innocuous enough when first asked by a Chinese guest. “Why,” the guest said, “does the world outside China think our government is very strong, while people in China always feel that the government is actually weak?”
A first stab at an answer could have argued that the mismatch comes from trying to discuss two separate things. Outsiders are getting edgy about evidence of China’s increased international influence, its rising military expenditure, and what is seen as assertiveness toward neighbors like Japan. Inside China, people are irritated by the problems outlined in the 2009 book Unhappy China — a government unable to sort out food safety, smog in the cities, or a decent health system. Surely it is a classic tactic to be tough toward the outside world when you are weak within. Once we pick apart the domestic and external parts of the equation, the mysterious mismatch raised by my Chinese friend becomes understandable: weakness on one side is compensated for by strength on the other.
Even so, it is still irritating that we have no coherent concept of what qualities the Chinese state does, in fact, have. This ambiguity about such a major actor is unnerving. Having contradictory perceptions about the same entity — saying it is strong and fragile at the same time — subverts our intuition and prompts us to search for a better explanation to iron out the conflict.
One recent case illustrates the problems that arise from this cognitive mismatch. In mid-April, reports emerged accusing the Chinese state and its agents of running a vast spy network to keep track of Chinese nationals at some of Australia’s oldest, most prestigious universities. The descriptions of this network made it sound like the product of a very well-oiled, sophisticated, and extensive machine. But why would a state where over 100,000 protests erupt every year, and which seems most of the time to be struggling to catch up with its own people, have the commitment and resources to follow events thousands of kilometers away? What was Beijing seeking to control and how did it think a vast spy network on foreign soil would achieve this? Surely it would be more sensible to shift all the effort and resources spent in places outside China (where the returns would be limited at best) toward projects closer to home, where the real and most threatening problems could occur. In fact, looking at it dispassionately, all this effort spent keeping tabs on Chinese students and academics thousands of miles away, if true, bespeaks an immense insecurity and paranoia on the part of the Chinese government. It’s a sign of weakness, not strength.
This comes to the heart of why the question my friend posed is so startling. If that analysis is right, and Chinese do think their government is weak, then the principle of proximity has been inverted. Physically, I have more influence over the things nearest me than I have over those farther away. The same principle applies to power. The strongest levers any government has are within their own country. As Robert Cooper pointed out over a decade ago in his superb The Breaking of Nations, a government’s ability to influence internal issues within its borders far outweighs its capacity to have an impact on the outside world.
So it is remarkably revealing that Chinese people like, for instance, the authors of Unhappy China do not think their government is strong. The Chinese, after all, are closest to the action, and are the people most likely to be qualified to make a judgment on this. There are two possible explanations. One, they are right, in which case we need to think hard about the implications of this perceptual mismatch and factor it into our own views of China. Or two, the Chinese have been hoodwinked by the plotting of their clever leaders, who have managed to conceal their true power from the people. That is a high risk strategy — surely you would want your own people to think you are strong and purposeful rather than hiding this information from them.
The only moral with any certitude I can draw from this story is that we might need to listen more seriously to Chinese people’s views about their own government’s powers. After all, they are at the epicenter of it all. My hunch is that many Chinese would find the claims about the spies in Australia baffling. They would have a hard time reconciling that story with the somewhat hapless image their daily experience of the Chinese state gives them. More to the point, I imagine they would be profoundly irritated that their state, which is confronted with so many issues at home, was wasting precious time and energy outside China on issues it could neither control nor get real benefit from.