There may be several reasons why Xi Jinping, and Chinese leaders before him, have been reluctant to “solve” the North Korea problem. Some have suggested that the Chinese Communist Party leadership does not see North Korea as a problem, and to some extent, this is true. Why would the Chinese Communist Party, which has prevailed against overwhelming odds not only to stay in power, but also to propel its country dramatically forward, see its sister political party in North Korea as anything but legitimate? More importantly, if the Kim dynasty and the Communist Party in North Korea are in any way illegitimate, then does this not bite at the heels of the perceived legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party? Why would the Party do anything to undermine its own philosophical basis for power?
There are, however, other compelling aspects of China’s ambivalence to truly solve the North Korean problem. One is China’s reluctance to look too closely at its own past. Put quite simply, China is embarrassed by North Korea. In North Korea China sees its own cult of personality, its own zealotry, and its own Cultural Revolution-era madness. In North Korea China also sees a Communist Party that has remained dysfunctional, that has not succeeded — and perhaps does not wish to succeed — in bringing improved conditions for its people. Many senior officials in Beijing echo this sentiment. North Korea is an uncomfortable reality for them. Looking at North Korea means revisiting, particularly for Xi’s generation, the disturbing reality of one’s own behavior and humiliation during that harrowing period between 1966 and 1976 when much of China lost its mind and soul.
Discussing the Cultural Revolution with Chinese who lived through it is not so much politically taboo in China as it is personally wrenching. China does not like to be reminded of its own descent into zealotry, madness, and murder. The period is still horrific and inexplicable in the minds of most Chinese. Chinese society is not much given to either the pop psychology or the legitimate psychiatry of the West; exploring one’s own psyche and motivations is in direct odds with obsessively maintaining face. So little introspection exists to explain to the Chinese why the Cultural Revolution happened, but sitting on their northeast border is a constant and nagging reminder of the conditions that spawned it.
North Korea is uncomfortable for China in another aspect. North Korea is backward and North Korea is poor. Both of these conditions are a mirror of most of China in the not so distant past. And again, both of these conditions are a source of humiliation both for the Chinese leadership, and for Chinese citizens in general. Even today, with poverty still gripping significant areas of the country — a trip through rural Henan province south of Beijing is a stark reminder — most newly successful Chinese recoil from that reality by ignoring it. The phrase “now that we have money” is often heard among China’s nouveau riche, suggesting that all of China is now rich, in stark contrast to the truth. That the rest of the world apparently sees China as the key to solving the North Korea problem brings into relief the relationship between the two countries. For many Chinese, and a country now obsessed with personal status (long gone is the concept of “comrade”), that relationship is unflattering. North Korea is the country cousin, the embarrassingly backward bumpkin whom the Chinese are nevertheless committed by political brotherhood to help.
Xi, of course, is descended from revolutionary royalty. The foundation for the power he now holds is derived from his father, Xi Zhongxun, a military hero of the Communist revolution, and a major political figure in the Chinese Communist Party until the late 1980s. Descendants of the elder Xi’s background, referred to as “Old Red Army,” are indeed in a class by themselves in China. These privileged and confident families operate effortlessly in Chinese society by virtue of their famous relative’s service to the revolution and the Party. Kim Jong-un’s power hails from a parallel path, with the added distinction that he is the third leader in his family’s line to take power in North Korea. That spells dynasty. Xi Jinping, the titleholder of his father’s legacy, is not likely to undermine the underpinnings of his neighbor’s revolutionary aristocracy. He may scold or even punish North Korea’s current titleholder, but he won’t do anything that could taint the title itself. Monarchs may overthrow other monarchs, but they don’t overthrow monarchies as a concept.
When the world first began to turn to China as the key to solving the North Korea problem, Chinese officialdom was bewildered by and incredulous at the pivot. China was accustomed to being beaten up for its human rights record, for Tiananmen Square, for Tibet, for Taiwan, and indeed, for a whole host of bad behavior. All of a sudden, it found itself being labeled as the answer to who could solve the world’s biggest problem. China was unused to having this kind of implied praise heaped upon it, particularly by Western nations. What to do with this new-found prestige? Why not string it out, use it as leverage in other issues, and play the “honest” but eternal broker? This, in fact, is exactly what China has successfully done for more than two decades. In the meantime, a world largely inexperienced in negotiating with China seems to believe that each new round of talks are genuine efforts to arrive at a lasting solution. Anyone experienced in commercial negotiations in China knows that the Chinese will carry on discussions as long as the other party will come to the table; China has as much time as the other party has patience and stamina. Political and diplomatic discussions are no different.
Not only that, it is crucial to remember that China was still feeling the effects of having been utterly closed to the outside world for decades, and in large part for several hundred years prior to that. China as it began to open in the 1970s and 1980s had little experience in wide-ranging foreign diplomacy, or world-class statesmanship. Its Foreign Affairs College in Beijing, designed to train diplomats for the Foreign Ministry and its embassies around the world, was woefully insufficient for the job, leaving its graduates with little training in how to effectively operate in an international environment, personally or professionally. Chinese diplomats often follow rigid, formulaic rules of diplomacy that leave little room for the creative, nimble, and nuanced thinking that multi-party talks on critical issues require.
As we assess China’s willingness and ability to solve the North Korea nuclear problem, policymakers would be wise to take into account a number of historical, political, and cultural factors that may impact China’s effectiveness for the job at hand. Mirrors don’t lie, but they may tell uncomfortable truths.
Bonnie Girard is the founder of China Channel Ltd.