With the rise of China as an emergent world power, there are voices – especially in America – asking whether China is a threat to the West. China owns huge amounts of America’s gold bullion, which reaches into American anxiety about its own ascendent economy especially compared with China’s exponential growth. John Key’s meeting with Hillary Clinton highlighted China’s increasing role in the Pacific at the Pacific Forum. I offer some thoughts here on what I think is going on/and will go on, regarding China.
I think America has been caught napping in the Pacific. China, for reasons other than imperialism (which I’ll get to in a minute) has expanded its influence in various Pacific principalities and America has been forced to play catch-up. That’s because China is far more relational than America. China is female, America is male.
Disputes over Taiwan, Tibet, and the Senkaku Islands with Japan, are about national pride, integrity of nationhood etc (like the British with The Falklands). But China was happy for the UK to have Hong Kong for over a century and then accepted it back as per their agreement. It was a beneficial long term lease.
If you look at China’s history and temperament, it is not an expansionist imperialistic culture. There is no threat from China militarily. Russia, Korea, Japan, none of them feel threatened. The Chinese are not aggressive sabre-rattlers like Iran or N. Korea. China needs the West; it wants to be accepted and at the table. China craves trade, so it can modernize and change. “Made in China.”
The Chinese government is also preoccupied with internal politics and the management of what it already has. In the late 20th C. Chinese politics could perhaps be summed up as ‘communist capitalism’ and modernization. Chinese politicians are busy coping and managing internal change. China’s worst excesses: Tibet, Tiananmen Square, the suppression of Christianity and Falun Gong etc, is related to China’s fear of internal dissent disrupting the cohesion of Chinese life, and securing harmony (which has been traditionaly intrepreted as conformity or sameness). This fear overrode concerns for individual human rights when the tanks drove in to Tiananmen Square.
In America there were shootings, lynchings, bombings and police brutality during the Black Civil Rights movement, because middle America was anxious about its own internal security and cohesion as a nation. The same fears in China underlay their worst political sins.
I perceive a key element to the Chinese psyche to be about gaining international approval. That’s why they work so hard at winning Olympic gold medals. Chinese are also acutely aware of other nations’ unease about their existing communism and single party rule.
China is in transition, culturally and politically. Like any culture going through such vast and rapid change (France in the mid 1800s; American colonies in the 1700s and the fledging USA in the mid-1800s; Maori NZ in the 1820-1840s) they are vulnerable to social unrest, inequalities, corruption, war.
The ruling elite of China are in a predicament. Traditionally, Chinese people have ceded personal freedom in exchange for security and a managed growing standard of living. These expectations on the back of a newly emerging middle class are growing. The Internet- still managed in China – has had a massive impact on Chinese Gen. Y in the same way that it has in the Middle East.
The Communist party is struggling to address these new aspirations while also serving its traditional role as ‘father’ and ‘protecter’ of the people. [Chinese people it has to be remembered think collectively, rather than individually, as we do at first thought, in the West]. But young and affluent Chinese are becoming less tolerant of their government, demanding more accountability and more power-sharing.
Professor Zhu Feng (of Peking University in Beijing) now at my alma mater Victoria university (Wellington) and one of the world’s leading authorities on China’s foreign policy and North Asian security issues. Feng has said famously about his country, “Communism is just a metaphor.” He says China is completely capitalist and market-driven. There is no planned economy. The Party adheres to a hypothetic historic dogma, but in reality life in China has completely changed and is underpinned by completely new forces.
They are undergoing a whole new Cultural Revolution.
China remains an oppressive autocratic capitalist state, yet market-led, which is at first strange and unsustainable, perhaps even a political an oxymoron. But these contradictory forces are unstoppable, and demands for freedom and power sharing in a modern China flushed with trade, will shake its political pillars.
China needs a Gorbachev. She is unlikely to embrace a Stalin. But as she wrestles with internal preoccupations (voices for democracy and change, a middle-class) and reaches out for acceptance in the West (such as in the Pacific; NZ her first Foreign Free Trade Agreement partner) after centuries of historic isolation, I think we can be reassured that China is not a threat, but a partner in modernity for the rest of the first half of the 21st C.