China Shouldn't Be Inscrutable
To say that this new China is the same as the old is to be utterly
ignorant or ideological—perhaps both.
Updated: 1:09 PM ET Aug 2, 2008
With the Beijing Olympics starting at the end of this week, you might
think this would be an occasion for serious analysis and reflection
about China—how to understand the country and its changing society,
how to handle the regime. Instead, we've mostly heard a familiar
recitation of clichés. Conservatives rail against a "rising autocracy"
and exaggerate China's military strength. Republican Sen. Sam
Brownback went to Beijing and discovered—surprise!—that the Chinese
government engaged in espionage. He fumed to CNN that the authorities
could "listen to anybody and everybody and their communications and
their recordings." One month earlier the senator had enthusiastically
voted for the FISA Amendments Act, which allows the U.S. government to
do pretty much the same thing.
China bashing is not just a right-wing phenomenon. The New Republic,
mostly left of center, ran a cover story last month with the headline,
MEET THE NEW CHINA (SAME AS THE OLD). Inside, the magazine thundered
that "our ultimate solidarity" should lie not with the "odious
government" in Beijing but "the billion long-suffering men and women
of the world's largest dictatorship."
Except that Chinese people (who, by the way, number 1.3 billion, not 1
billion) seem to disagree. About the same time as The New Republic hit
the stands, the Pew Research Center released the findings of its 2008
Global Attitudes Survey. Of the 24 countries surveyed, the Chinese
people expressed the highest level of support for the direction in
which their country was heading, 86 percent. Nearly two out of three
said that the Beijing government was doing a good job on issues that
mattered to them. The survey questioned more than 3,212 Chinese, face
to face, in 16 dialects across the country. And while Chinese might
not always speak freely to pollsters, several indications suggest that
these numbers express something real. Such polls have been done for
years and the numbers approving of the Chinese government have risen
as the economy has grown (which should be expected). Those polled did
complain about corruption, environmental degradation and inflation.
And these attitudes—general approval of the country's direction
coupled with many specific criticisms—are also the ones reported by
most scholars and journalists who have traveled in China.
China is a complicated country. It has a closed political system but
an open economy and an increasingly vibrant society. It is building up
weapons systems at a fast clip, yet is not directly competing against
American military power. It has been helpful in the negotiations with
North Korea but callous in shielding Robert Mugabe and the Sudanese
regime. Capturing these realities is difficult, but still we have to
try. To say that this new China is the same as the old (meaning Mao's
totalitarian state) is to be ignorant or ideological, or both. It is
not an accident that many ferocious China bashers have rarely visited
This ignorance of today's China has serious policy consequences. We
don't understand how the country works. We don't know what to make of
the views of the Chinese people ("our true allies" The New Republic
tells us), who are more aggressive than their government on many
issues, including Taiwan and Tibet, and who often seem more anti-
American. A recent essay in The New Yorker by Evan Osnos brilliantly
captures the complexity of the rise of nationalism in China—
simultaneously Western and anti-Western—through the eyes of one
intellectual, an expert in Western philosophy, who is also the creator
of a wildly popular nationalist Web video.
The collapse of the Doha trade round—the first breakdown of global
trade talks since the 1930s—is vivid evidence that we have not found a
way to partner with newly rising powers like China and India. If this
pattern of misunderstandings, disunity and stalemate continues, there
will be little progress on all kinds of urgent global issues—energy,
food, environment, human rights, security.
There is enough blame to go around for the collapse of Doha. The
Indians, Chinese and Americans were too obstinate in protecting their
farmers. But the United States and Europe have not adjusted to the new
balance of power. The last set of trade talks, in Cancún, was derailed
by Brazil. These were blocked largely by India. (Dealing with these
democracies has often proved as complex as with the Chinese
dictatorship.) Our impulse is to criticize these countries for all
their shortcomings, but in fact our goal should be the opposite. We
should be making them feel empowered so they see themselves as rule
makers, not free riders on the global system.
The greatest failure of Western foreign policy since the cold war
ended has been a sin of omission. We have not pursued a foreign policy
toward the world's newly rising powers that aims to create new and
enduring relations with them, integrate them into existing structures
of power and lay out new rules of the road to secure peace and
prosperity. If the emerging countries grow strong outside the old
order, they will freelance and be unwilling to help build a new one.
The new world might well be the same as the old—the 19th-century
world, that is, marked by economic globalization, political
nationalism and war.