China on a collision course with the West
Analyse Geopolitiek & Wereldorde

China on a collision course with the West

12 Feb 2019 - 15:36
Photo: Flickr / Alexander Mueller
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The legitimacy of the Communist Party of China (CPC) depends on its ability to create prosperity. In order to do so, it is crucial for Beijing  to dominate 21st century technologies. The battle with the United States has only just begun.

Not long before his death in 1997, iconic leader Deng Xiaoping wrote a 24 character long guideline for foreign policy, in which he described how his successors were to behave in the international sphere. Its most well-known line is taoguang yanghui- ‘hide brightness and nourish obscurity’. Chinese leaders often employ terminology that is both bombastic and vague, so Deng’s true intentions remain subject for discussion for sinologists. The most broadly accepted explanation of this sentence is that China should adopt a modest approach on the international stage to prevent responses that could interrupt China’s return to the highest stage. A ‘Return’, because in the early  19th century, Qing dynasty China still had the most extensive population, the largest territory and the biggest economy in the world.

In hindsight, this blooming period turned out to be the beginning of the end: the inward-looking empire could not keep up with the spectacular technological and military revolution in the West, and since the opium war of 1840, China was considered a vassal state of western powers and Japan. To save the country from its downfall, the so-called ‘self-enforcement movement’ in the late 19th century was in favour of zhongti xiyong policy – ‘Retention of Chinese learning,  application of Western technology’. With the exception of iconoclast Mao Zedong, who favoured the extirpation of Chinese culture and only introduced Soviet Union technology, this slogan has influenced every Chinese leader’s ideas. However, differences in emphasis can be noted. Current leader Xi Jinping, for example, ceased to follow up on Deng’s modest approach. During a three and a half hour long marathon-speech he held at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC)  in October 2017, the great leader underlined ‘China’s elevated and strong  position in the East’. He even stated that a state-led economic model, closed capital markets and a one-party state ‘could be examples for countries that want to accelerate development, while preserving their sovereignty’ (in other words: a rejection of Western democracy).   

A Chinese New Year dragon. © Pixabay

Chinese dependence on the United States
Modesty made way for triumph. The documentary Amazing China, that was released in march 2018 and became a blockbuster as tens of thousands of the Communist Party’s members were forced to watch it, highlights the technological ‘Great Leap Forward’ China made thanks to the noble governance of  the CPC. The United States beg to differ: they claim that large scale theft of American technology enabled this ‘Leap’, and hence demand its immediate halt. If this requirement is not met, Washington will penalise Beijing with even higher tariffs on the larger part of  imported Chinese goods in the United States. This would be disastrous for Beijing; despite tough talk about ‘self-sufficiency’, China remains dependent on the United States, both  as a source for technology and as a sales market for their consumer goods. Therefore, CPC has adopted a more modest approach since the end of 2018; amongst other things by removing Amazing China from the silver screen.

Rumour has it that the great leader would like to remain in power until he is 82 years of age– just like his idol Mao Zedong

It remains questionable if this kind of symbolism sufficiently pleases the United States: people like Trump’s  trade representative Lighthizer are aware of China’s intentions to dominate technologies such as artificial intelligence and microchips. In this process, Xi Jinping wishes to position himself as a transformative figure who turns the 19th century’s self-enforcement movement’s dream into reality. He is in no immediate rush, as since the constitutional amendment of march 2018, Xi is no longer constrained by a maximum term of office of two terms of  five years. Rumour has it that the great leader would like to remain in power until he is 82 years of age– just like his idol Mao Zedong. In that case he would govern until 2035.

China’s newfound ‘modesty’ turns out to be a tactic to pull the wool over the Americans’ eyes. CPC plans on continuing its own course.  Xi Jinping formulated that in the following way in December 2018: ‘No one is in a position to dictate to the Chinese people what should or should not be done’. This remark is not quite factual, as CPC has dictated ( a word with the same etymological origin as ‘dictator’) the Chinese people since 1949. To maintain a one-party state, the economy must continue to grow, as CPC’s legitimacy depends on its ability to create prosperity. In order to do so, it is crucial for Beijing  to dominate 21st century technologies, because the industries that provided prosperity over the last 40 years are often polluting or obsolete (or both). The battle with the United States has only just begun.

No allies for China
Well-known American Chinawatcher David Shambaugh refers to China as a ‘solitary power’.  At first glance, this description seems unfitting, as China maintains intense and versatile relations with countless states. It is the largest trading nation in the world, and has shown to be an active foreign investor over the last ten years – not only in natural resource projects in Africa, but also in harbours and technology firms in Europe. In most cases, enterprises are state-owned or semi-state-owned (the distinction between the two is not always clear), which means that the Chinese government actively guides economic expansion. They do so by means of trade- and investment agreements, banks such as the Asian Investment bank, export financing structures and Xi Jinping’s favourite: The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) programme that was launched  in 2013, which provides the construction of power plants, harbours, bridges, railways and roads in over 120 countries. China proves to be a more and more active player in fields other than the economic one. The country claims to be a climate champion; a claim that seems to lack credibility when looking at the poor state of China’s own environment. However, since Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement, this view of China has been received enthusiastically by many. Beijing is the biggest supplier of UN peacekeeping forces, and has established over four hundred Confucius Institutes abroad. The goal of all this is to fortify the state’s soft power, and to frame China as a peaceful leviathan that takes humanity’s best interests to heart. The ever-creative propaganda department of the CPC claims China has made it its goal to create a ‘shared destination for humanity’.

China considered and still considers itself a developing country

Still, Shambaugh does have a point. For a start, China does not have allies. In the past, China belonged to the socialist block, but after its break with the Soviet Union in 1960 it never entered another alliance. Relations with Putin’s Russia are close, but are mainly driven by a mutual aversion against the West and the complementary nature of both countries’ economies: China’s giant manufacturing industry has an insatiable need for oil and gas from its northern neighbour. The Russians, in turn, are alarmed by the big difference in economic power and population size. Over 100 million people live in China’s three north eastern provinces, while only 5 million people inhabit eastern Siberia.  It is not without reason that the Russian part of the high-speed railway that is supposed to connect Hunchun in the Jilin province to Vladivostok has not yet been built.

Forbidden City
The Forbidden City. © Flickr / Xiquinho Silva

The other block to which Beijing wanted to be connected to after the Second World War was the Non-Aligned Movement. China considered and still considers itself a developing country. This identity statement, however, leads to two problems. Because of the large number of countries and their disparities, the developing countries have never succeeded in enhancing effective cooperation. Even smaller alliances such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South-Africa), cannot at all be considered a unity. Differences in economic power are vast, and political relations are often tense. The border dispute in the Himalaya between India and China that has been going on since the 1960’s has often resurged; in 2017, an escalation of the conflict (close to Bhutan)  could only just be prevented by means of a summit meeting between Xi and Modi. 

China at the centre of civilisation
There is a deeper cause as to why Beijing does not build international alliances: its pre-modern outlook on interstate relations. The emperors that ruled the country two thousand years ago deemed China to be the centre of civilisation – elevated far beyond other peoples or cultures. Relations with other political entities were only possible in a tribute system, in which ‘barbarous’ monarchs came to Beijing to bash their heads onto the ground nine times in front of the emperor. Trade with the Celestial Empire was only possible after this ritualistic subjugation. After the fall of the empire in 1911, China had to adjust to the Westphalian order of equality between sovereign states. However, it never became truly convicted of this system. This is illustrated in the pompous way in which foreign state leaders are received by ‘emperor’ Xi, and especially in the way in which China deals with its neighbouring countries. Countries like Pakistan, Cambodia and Nepal are reduced to vassal states, and based on ‘historical rights’ Beijing claims sovereignty over 90% of the South China Sea – even when in 2016 the Court of Arbitration ruled that China’s claims are not in line with international law. In East Asia, Beijing strives for recuperation of the situations during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, when Mongolia, Java, Korea, and multiple other ‘barbarous nations’ were subjected to the Chinese emperor. Xi Jinping calls this aspiration ‘The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation’.

Great Hall of the People Beijing
Great Hall of the People Beijing. © Flickr / OZinOH

Beijing’s expansion of power is not limited to its direct region. In order to fracture the American hegemony, to ensure the supply of natural resources and to guarantee to retain the growth of  its enormous export- and construction industries, China aims to influence as many countries as possible. A march 2018 Center for Global Development report establishes that 23 countries that receive OBOR aid are prone to debt distress, because they cannot reimburse Chinese project loans. As a way out, these loans are often converted into shares. In 2017, for example, it was decided that Sri Lanka’s most important harbour, Hambantota, was run by Chinese state-owned enterprise China Merchants for 99 years- this result is reminiscent of the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory, a 1898 treaty between the United Kingdom and China in which the New Territories close to Hong Kong were leased to the United Kingdom for a similar time period. Because China was too weak to resist these pressures, this transfer of power is deemed an imperialistic crime by the CPC. It appears that China’s current rulers have no sense of historical irony.

To hold on to power, China has to dominate 21st century technology

Europe has also been subject to Chinese attempts to influence internal affairs of other countries. By investing in harbours and railways in Greece, Serbia, Hungary and Poland, Beijing succeeded in persuading these countries to adopt a ‘China-friendly’ position. In 2017, for example, Athens refused to support an EU declaration that condemned China’s human rights record. Because of its apparent discord, the EU seems to be powerless in this political game of divide and rule. However, for over a year, a change of direction has taken place: since the 2016 acquisition of Kuka, a producer of industrial robots, Berlin has become reluctant to hand over more of its crown-jewels to Beijing. Furthermore, Chinese investments in the United Kingdom’s nuclear industry have been put on hold. Apart from concerns about national security, Europeans have become increasingly displeased about the lack of a level playing field: if foreign investments in the infrastructure, energy and telecommunication sectors are ruled out in China; then why should Europe allow Chinese enterprises to invest in theirs?

Future of Chinese policy
As long as the CPC is in charge, Beijing’s foreign policy is unlikely to change much. To hold on to power, China has to dominate 21st century technology. Otherwise, economic growth will level off, and dependency on the United States will continue to grow. Furthermore, by means of collecting and processing big data, China’s control over its own people will intensify. Beijing’s ambitions cause strained relations with the West: not only with the United States, but also increasingly with Europe. The realisation that China is no benevolent panda, but rather a powerful one-party state with a completely different culture that can be perceived as a threat to the prosperity and political durability of the free West, permeates deeper and deeper.

Another, more hopeful scenario, is that Beijing opts for a different political model. A copy-paste of  Western parliamentary democracy cannot be expected (and would not be preferred because of the chaos it would cause). However, a ‘third way’ between the current one-party state and a Western democratic model is being explored by Chinese intellectuals. The legitimacy of the new regime would no longer be based on ‘The Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation’, but rather on being less corrupt, its ability to enhance more equality and a cleaner environment – elements that create democratic support amongst the Chinese population. Relations with Western states would become less strained, and China’s neighbouring countries would no longer have to be afraid of a recuperation of the imperial order in which states are considered unequal. Until then, the West should aim to engage Beijing in a positive, yet powerful manner by demanding an economic level playing field and preventing China from infiltrating our free Western society.


Henk Schulte Nordholt
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