CHINA’'S ASSERTIVENESS AND POWER

CHINA'S AMBITION TO BE A SUPERPOWER

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Mao-era foreign imperialist poster
There is a widespread belief that "China is not yet a great power by is clearly going to be." A worldwide survey conducted in 2006 by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation found that many believe that the United States will lose its position as the undisputed leading power by 2020 as China emerges as a formidable rival. China is already regarded as the dominant military and economic power in Asia not Japan or India.

Bob Woodruff of ABC said that China is effectively creating “a new world map with China at its center.” China is everywhere. In former war-torn countries like Angola and Cambodia exploiting oil reserves and labor. It is in Brazil and the United States buying up bumper crops of soy beans and corn. It is hard for any place on earth where cheap Chinese products have made many things formally too expensive cheap enough for the poorest of poor to buy.

While the United States under Bush has come across as the unilateral cowboy that acts aggressively to pursue its self interests China has come across as major power that takes into consideration other country’s interests and acts for greater public good.

China is aiming to placate worries about the economic threat it presents by building bilateral ties, promoting institutions for regional cooperation, allying itself with both developed countries and developing ones, and taking an active role in international organizations like the United Nations and regional organizations like ASEAN. In the old days China used to abstain a lot in Security Council votes but these days it is much more active in defining policy as well as supporting or rejecting it. But the limits of its reach were clear during after the tsunami disaster when China could only offer modest amounts of money and logistical assistance while the United States and Europe were donating billions of dollars and sending ships, planes, equipment, rescue teams other kinds of assistance.

The United States and others have urged China to become “responsible stakeholder in international affairs” and have argued it is in China’s self-interest to do so. Many feel that China is shirking its responsibility as a rising world power by failing to offer much help in tragedies such as the tsunami in south Asia, famines in Africa and the earthquake in Pakistan and pursing a business only strategy in Africa.

Wang Xiaodong, a widely respected writer on Chinese issues, told the International Herald Tribune: “We can’t be a country that just does business. We must develop relationships besides economic and trade ties with other countries “including strong military projection But for the majority of the people, all they want to do is develop the economy, and for them anyone who thinks of anything else is foolish.”

China’s New Assertiveness

China’s quick and strong recovery from the global economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 has given it a new found confidence and assertiveness. Kenneth Lieberthal, a former Clinton administration official and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told the Los Angeles Times, “The Chinese have been catapulted more rapidly than they had anticipated into a more prominent global role. At the beginning of 2010 they are in a position they did not expect to be in for years. It has affected their style. They are being at least rhetorically more assertive than they’ve been before and confidence might be affecting their calculations.”

Debates “particularly in the blogosphere and in newspapers in China” that urge a far faster, more assertive rise, and that trumpet American decline.

Susan Shirk, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, says, “There is this paradox of increasing confidence externally and the lack of confidence domestically. There’s also what I consider a serious misperception of the country’s economic strength and how that translates to power.”

Bill Emmott of the Times of London theorized that the assertiveness and bluster provides convenient cover as China prepares to carry out unpopular policies to gain control over the economy and prevent a bubble from exploding especially with many of these policies such as possibly raising the value of the yuan being in line with what foreign critics of Chinese policy want China to do.

Francis Fukuyama wrote in Yomiuri Shimbun, “China's self-confidence after the financial crisis was on display at last year's Copenhagen climate conference, where the Chinese delegation aggressively defended Chinese national interests with their new African and Latin American allies in tow. To the dismay of the Europeans, they showed no interest in promoting international institutions or making commitments on carbon abatement that would limit their growth options. The United States, by contrast, played no significant role at the conference because it had not succeeded in achieving domestic consensus on a long- term energy policy. [Source: Francis Fukuyama, Yomiuri Shimbun, June 28, 2011]

For all the talk of China’s assertiveness it can be very passive at international meeting often acting more like a member of the audience than a participant or leader. It has been very passive on North Korea and when it does take action it acts more of an obstructionist than activist as with Iran.

Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye on China’s Assertiveness

Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye Jr. wrote in the Los Angeles Times, in 2010, when “China broke off military-to-military talks over the sale weapons to Taiwan, a high American official asked his Chinese counterpart why China reacted so strongly to something it had accepted in the past. The answer: "Because we were weak then and now we are strong." On a recent visit to Beijing, I asked a Chinese expert what was behind the new assertiveness in China's foreign policy. His answer: "After the financial crisis, many Chinese believe we are rising and the U.S. is declining." [Source: Joseph S. Nye Jr, Los Angeles Times April 06, 2011]

“These Chinese are not alone. A recent poll shows there are more Americans who believe China will be the dominant power in 20 years than believe the United States will retain that position. Some analysts go further and argue that China's rise will result in a clash similar to that between a rising Germany and a hegemonic Britain that led to World War I a century ago.

One should be skeptical about such dire projections. China still has a long way to go to catch up in military, economic and soft-power resources. In contrast, by 1900, Germany had surpassed Britain. Even if Chinese gross domestic product passes that of the United States at some point in the 2020s, the two economies would not be equal. China would still have a vast underdeveloped countryside, and it would almost certainly have begun to face demographic problems and slowing economic growth. As some Chinese say, they fear they will grow old before growing rich. China is a long way from posing the kind of challenge to America that the Kaiser's Germany posed when it passed Britain.” [Ibid]

“But many Chinese do not see the world this way. They believe that the recession of 2008 represented a shift in the balance of world power, and that China should be less deferential to a declining United States. This overconfident power assessment has contributed to a more assertive Chinese foreign policy in the last two years. The shift in perceptions seems to have emboldened the Chinese government, even though the judgment is wrong.” [Ibid]

“For years, China followed the advice of Deng Xiaoping to keep a low profile. However, with its successful economic recovery from the recession and 10 percent growth rate, China passed Japan as the world's second-largest economy last year, and many in China pressed for a stronger foreign policy. Some blame this on President Hu Jintao, but that view is too simple. The top leaders still want to follow Deng's strategy of not rocking the boat, but they feel pressured from below by rising nationalism, both in the bureaucracy and the blogosphere.” [Ibid]

“China's new assertiveness affected its relations with others besides the United States. Its policies in the South China Sea created fear among countries in the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, and its overreaction to Japan's actions after a ship collision near the disputed Senkaku islands led Tokyo to reaffirm its alliance with Washington. Beijing alienated South Korea by failing to criticize North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island, irritated India over border and passport issues, and embarrassed itself in Europe and elsewhere by overreacting to the Nobel Peace Prize granted to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo.” [Ibid]

Given that China and the United States face global challenges such as financial stability, cyber security and climate change, the two countries have much to gain from working together. Unfortunately, faulty power assessments have created hubris among some Chinese, and unnecessary fear of decline among some Americans, and these shifts in perception make cooperation difficult. Any American compromise is read in Beijing as confirmation of American weakness. But with more realistic projections and policies, China and America need not repeat the disastrous experience of Germany and Britain a century ago. Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of "The Future of Power."

Myths about China’s Power

Minxin Pei wrote in the Washington Post: As China gains on the world’s most advanced economies, the country excites fascination as well as fear---particularly in the United States, where many worry that China will supplant America as the 21st century’s superpower. Many ask how China has grown so much so fast, whether the Communist Party can stay in power and what Beijing’s expanding global influence means for the rest of us. But to understand China’s new role on the world stage, it helps to rethink several misconceptions that dominate Western thinking. [Source: Minxin Pei, Washington Post, January 26, 2011;Minxin Pei, director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of “China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy.”]

1. China’s rise is marginalizing American influence in Asia . Just the opposite. Certainly, China’s power in Asia is growing; its economy is now the biggest in the region, and China is the largest trading partner for every Asian nation. And its military modernization has made the People’s Liberation Army a more lethal fighting force. But instead of marginalizing or supplanting U.S. influence, China’s expanding power is pushing most Asian countries closer to Washington---and elevating America’s status. Uncle Sam’s presence is still welcome because it prevents a regional power from dominating its neighbors and promotes strategic balance. Today, the more power China gains, the more critical the U.S. commitment to the region becomes, and the greater influence Washington exercises. No surprise, then, that when the Obama administration recently announced a strategic pivot toward Asia, China bristled, while most countries in the region felt reassured and applauded quietly. Today, U.S. security ties with key Asian nations---India, Australia, Japan, Korea and even Vietnam---are better than ever.

2. China’s massive foreign exchange reserves give it huge clout . China owns roughly $2 trillion in U.S. Treasury and mortgage-backed debt and $800 billion in European bonds. These massive holdings may cause anxiety in the West and give Beijing a lot of prestige and bragging rights---but they haven’t afforded China a lot of diplomatic sway. The much-feared scenario of China dumping U.S. sovereign debt on world markets to bend Washington to its will has not materialized---and probably won’t. China’s sovereign wealth fund, which invests part of those reserves, has favored low-risk assets (such as a recent minority stake in a British water utility) and has sought to avoid geopolitical controversy. And in the European debt crisis, China has been conspicuously absent.

China’s hard currency hoard adds little punch to its geopolitical power because its stockpile results from a growth strategy that relies on an undervalued currency to keep exports competitive. If China threatens to reduce its investment in U.S. debt, it will either have to find alternative investments (not an easy task these days) or export less to the United States (not a good idea for Chinese manufacturers). Moreover, with so much invested in Western debt, China would suffer disastrous capital losses if it spooked financial markets. 3. The Communist Party controls China’s Internet. In spite of its huge investments in technology and manpower, the Communist Party is having a hard time taming China’s vibrant cyberspace. While China’s Internet-filtering technology is more sophisticated and its regulations more onerous than those of other authoritarian regimes, the growth of the nation’s online population (now surpassing 500 million) and technological advances (such as Twitter-style microblogs) have made censorship largely ineffective. The government constantly plays catch-up; its latest effort is to force microbloggers to register with real names. Such regulations often prove too costly to enforce, even for a one-party regime. At most, the party can selectively censor what it deems “sensitive” after the fact. Whenever there is breaking news---a corruption scandal, a serious public safety incident or a big anti-government demonstration---the Internet is quickly filled with coverage and searing criticisms of the government. By the time the censors restore some control, the political damage is done.

Why China Is Weak on Soft Power

China’s president, Hu Jintao, began 2012 with an important essay warning that China was being battered by Western culture: “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration,” he wrote, adding that “the international culture of the West is strong while we are weak.” [Source: Joseph S. Nye Jr., New York Times, January 17, 2012]

Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye Jr. wrote in the New York Times, Essentially, Hu was saying that China was under assault by Western soft power---the ability to produce outcomes through persuasion and attraction rather than coercion or payment---and needed to fight back. Over the past decade, China’s economic and military might has grown impressively, and this has frightened its neighbors into looking for allies to balance rising Chinese hard power. But if a country can also increase its soft power, its neighbors feel less need to seek balancing alliances. For example, Canada and Mexico do not seek alliances with China to balance American power the way Asian countries seek an American presence to balance China. [Source: Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard and the author, most recently, of “The Future of Power”]

Already in 2007, Hu told the 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party that China needed to invest more in its soft power resources. Accordingly, China is spending billions of dollars on a charm offensive. The Chinese style emphasizes high-profile gestures, such as rebuilding the Cambodian Parliament or Mozambique’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. The elaborately staged 2008 Beijing Olympics enhanced China’s reputation, and the 2010 Shanghai Expo attracted more than 70 million visitors. The Boao Forum for Asia on Hainan Island attracts nearly 2,000 Asian politicians and business leaders to what is billed as an “Asian Davos.” And Chinese aid programs to Africa and Latin America are not limited by the institutional or human rights concerns that constrain Western aid.

China has always had an attractive traditional culture, and now it has created several hundred Confucius Institutes around the world to teach its language and culture. The enrollment of foreign students in China has increased from 36,000 a decade ago to at least 240,000 in 2010, and while the Voice of America was cutting its Chinese broadcasts, China Radio International was increasing its broadcasts in English to 24 hours a day. In 2009, Beijing announced plans to spend billions of dollars to develop global media giants to compete with Bloomberg, Time Warner and Viacom. China invested $8.9 billion in external publicity work, including a 24-hour Xinhua cable news channel designed to imitate Al Jazeera. Beijing has also raised defenses. It limits foreign films to only 20 per year, subsidizes Chinese companies creating cultural products, and has restricted Chinese television shows that are imitations of Western entertainment programs.

But for all its efforts, China has had a limited return on its investment. A recent BBC poll shows that opinions of China’s influence are positive in much of Africa and Latin America, but predominantly negative in the United States and Europe, as well as in India, Japan and South Korea. A poll taken in Asia after the Beijing Olympics found that China’s charm offensive had been ineffective.

What China seems not to appreciate is that using culture and narrative to create soft power is not easy when they are inconsistent with domestic realities. The 2008 Olympics were a success, but shortly afterwards, China’s domestic crackdown in Tibet and Xianjiang, and on human rights activists, undercut its soft power gains. The Shanghai Expo was also a great success, but was followed by the jailing of the Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and the artist Ai Weiwei. And for all the efforts to turn Xinhua and China Central Television into competitors for CNN and the BBC, there is little international audience for brittle propaganda.

Now, in the aftermath of the Middle East revolutions, China is clamping down on the Internet and jailing human rights lawyers, once again torpedoing its soft power campaign. As Han Han, a novelist and popular blogger, argued in December, “the restriction on cultural activities makes it impossible for China to influence literature and cinema on a global basis or for us culturati to raise our heads up proud.” The development of soft power need not be a zero sum game. All countries can gain from finding attraction in one anothers’ cultures. But for China to succeed, it will need to unleash the talents of its civil society. Unfortunately, that does not seem about to happen soon.

Myth of China as a Harmless Tiger

The Chinese dissident Yu Jie wrote in the Washington Post: “In 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger advised President Ford not to meet with writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, warning in a memorandum that doing so would offend the Soviet Union. Now, similar views are held not only by pragmatic politicians but also by multinational corporations with large investments in China as well as universities and foundations with inextricable links to China. [Source: Yu Jie, Washington Post, February 13, 2012; Yu Jie is the author of several Chinese-language books, including “China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao.” He left China in January 2011 for the United States, where he intends to study and write on religious freedom]

The Chinese communist regime’s penetration of the West far exceeds that of the former Soviet Union. In the Cold War era, the Soviet Union was blocked behind the Iron Curtain; there were few links between Soviet and Western economies. An average American family would not be using products “made in the USSR.” Today, China is deeply embedded within the globalized system. An American recently wrote an interesting book detailing a year of her refusal to buy products that were “made in China” and the many difficulties she encountered as a result of this decision.

On the surface, the West has profited from its trade with China. Western consumers can buy vast amounts of cheap Chinese products. However, fundamental values of the West are quietly being eroded: Who knows whether the American flag flying outside your home was manufactured by inmates in Chinese prisons or by child labor?

I arrived in the United States a month ago, thinking I had escaped the reach of Beijing, only to realize that the Chinese government’s shadow continues to be omnipresent. Several U.S. universities that I have contacted dare not invite me for a lecture, as they cooperate with China on many projects. If you are a scholar of Chinese studies who has criticized the Communist Party, it would be impossible for you to be involved in research projects with the Chinese-funded Confucius Institute, and you may even be denied a Chinese visa. Conversely, if you praise the Communist Party, not only would you receive ample research funding but you might also be invited to visit China and even received by high-level officials. Western academic freedom has been distorted by invisible hands.

I believe that China is a far greater threat than the former Soviet Union ever was; unfortunately, the West lacks visionary politicians, such as Ronald Reagan, to stand up to this threat. President Obama might perceive the Chinese Communist Party as a tiger that does not bite and, hence, is looking forward to Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit this week. Will Obama, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, openly request that China release Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace laureate imprisoned by the Communist Party? Why did Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have the courage to meet with Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi but not to meet with Liu? Is it because Burma is weak, while China is strong?

The Chinese Communist Party remains a tiger that will bite. For working on human rights with Liu Xiaobo, after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, I was tortured by the country’s secret police and nearly lost my life. Since then, dozens of lawyers and writers have been subjected to brutal torture; some contracted severe pneumonia after being held in front of fans blowing cold air and then being baked by an electric furnace. The secret police threatened me, saying that they had a list of 200 anticommunist party intellectuals whom they were ready to arrest and bury alive. Over the past year, the number of political prisoners in China has increased, and the jail sentences have become longer---yet Western voices of protest have become weaker.

Harsh internal repression and unrestrained external expansion are two sides of the same coin. The Chinese Communist Party recently vetoed the U.N. Security Council’s resolution on Syria because killings not unlike those committed by Damascus continue in Tibet. More than a century ago, Westerners described China as a “sleeping lion”; today, it is the West that has fallen asleep. As an independent writer and a Christian member of a “house church,” I have the responsibility to tell the truth: The Chinese Communist Party is still a man-eating tiger.

Chinese Fascism's Global Consequences

Roland Farris wrote in Truthout: “While Chinese rarely express an open desire for imperialist expansion, an ideological sense of the inevitability of such expansion is a hidden part of national political consciousness. Rather than being self-admitted expansionists, Chinese expansion is instead expressed by characterizing foreign nations as "part of China" which must one day be reconquered and brought into the fold of the motherland to redress the historic injustices of foreign domination by restoring territorial integrity. The fact that these Asian nations are not part of the People's Republic of China (PRC), as they are supposed to be, is yet further ammunition for a sense of national grievance and humiliation. Press university students on the matter and one will quite easily be told that not only Taiwan and Tibet, but Mongolia, the Koreas, much or all of South-East Asia, Japan and most of the Philippines are somehow "part of China." The argument relies on obscure racial and cultural connections that somehow make these independent nations part of a larger Han empire that - while never having existed in the past as a national entity and, even on a cultural level, has no basis in linguistic and genetic links - must one day be re-established for Chinese dignity and territorial integrity. So, while Chinese will say that China is a "peaceful country" which does not have imperialist aims, such peace and nonaggression is contingent upon the restoration of the territorial integrity of an imagined (Han) Chinese empire that would consume a significant amount of the nations surrounding the PRC. I learned of this while discussing Chinese history with some students, who, after vigorously extolling the truth of what they were taught, then insisted they were "not nationalists," since such desire for "reintegration" is a return to an (imagined) historic norm rather than a national expansion into new territory. [Source: Roland Farris, Truthout, February 5, 2012]

Fascist states have long relied upon their competitive advantage in attracting foreign investment. Authoritarian control of the labor force and national policymaking makes good business sense. Such was the case with Italy and Germany during the inter-war period and such is the case with China's dizzyingly rapid rise today. The ability of a totalitarian fascist state to control the labor force, suppress dissent and put investment over social welfare makes such states highly attractive to businesses. Such is the case today with China. Coca-Cola's CEO inadvertently demonstrated the fascist nature of the Chinese state when he lauded the "one-stop shop in terms of the Chinese foreign investment agency," wherein the federal and local Chinese government agencies are competing for investment, with their population paying the cost in terms of reduced labor rights and environmental protections.

Chinese will often accept this as a necessary part of their national development, a development which seems increasingly to benefit only those with power and connections and to increasingly marginalize the common people. One need not look merely at the statements of business leaders, but much mainstream media attention has praised the "efficiency" of the Chinese fascist regime while deriding the clumsiness and inconvenience of states which remain nominal liberal democracies.

The issue of Chinese fascism is one which the people of the world must pay much greater attention than they have to date. Too much emphasis is placed on the economic power of China without thought to the origins of this power and the long-term sociopolitical consequences it may have for the globe. The very effective media and information control mechanisms of the CCP, yet another indicator of a fascist state, exacerbates this issue. Only those such as myself, who operate in the education system and other front-line social roles, have the contact with life in China to see through the smoke and mirrors deployed by the government against any legitimate mainstream information-collection system, be it journalists or business people. Both of these groups are carefully watched and have their information pre-packaged, with stringent and well-documented efforts to prevent access to undesirable information and coercive measures to discourage its dissemination where it is found. Only those teachers, students and volunteers unimportant enough to go under the radar, such as myself, are able to get the real story and get it out without significant danger to ourselves. It is high time the world started paying attention to these stories below the gloss and sheen of state-sponsored and state-monitored mainstream media outlets which, for various reasons, are unable or unwilling to suffer the consequences of getting and reporting the truth about the Chinese state.

If the Chinese fascist regime is permitted by the international community to continue its rise to prominence, then the consequences will be borne by the people of democratic nations and we have already seen the early stages of this global trend. A powerful fascist state of such maturity and size in the world will increasingly come to determine political debate in nominally democratic countries as the economic advantages of such a regime draws more and more financial resources away from less "efficient" political systems. If China continues to be able to use its fascist state apparatus to attract investment at the cost of liberal democratic nations, then the characteristics of these nations will tend toward increasing fascism in an imitative defensive response.

This trend is already far advanced and if it remains unchecked by the active engagement and protest of constituent peoples in the form of actively entrenching our essential social and political norms of individual rights and egalitarian application of the rule of law, then we will witness the slow erosion of the democratic freedoms that were fought for nearly 70 years ago. It is no longer adequate to harp on about "human rights." The necessity of economically isolating regimes which fail to meet certain normative political and legal standards is of paramount importance to the long-term survival of the idea of pluralist government which protects a measure of individual freedom.

Failure to do so will result in an inevitable process of socio-cultural decline which will prove hard to reverse in the short to medium term. Democracy is messy and individual freedoms are inconvenient for the operation of the socioeconomic system we use to organize the globe. That we recognize this does not logically lead to the conclusion that we should submit to the dilution of those freedoms out of a misplaced desire for expediency. The reason we pursued increasing market freedoms in the past 70 years was ostensibly to spread democratic and individual freedoms. If we now find that the means have come into conflict with the end, it is time to come back to the drawing board, lest in our pursuit of the material well-being that underpins a society which can afford educated, independent individual life, we end up creating the conditions for subsuming all individual freedom and development to fascist ideals of national power and undo all the achievements of 70 years of struggle and sacrifice.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2012

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