James Mann: Behold China: Repressive at Home, Aggressive Abroad, Driving Obama Nuts





[James Mann has written three books on America’s relationship with China. He is an author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.]

...China has gone through periods of internal crackdown in the past without concurrent changes in its foreign relations. This time, however, the tough line on domestic dissent has gone hand-in-hand with a distinct hardening of its positions on a series of international issues. At the U.N. Security Council, China has emerged as the principal obstacle to multilateral efforts to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. China has pursued essentially mercantilist policies by maintaining an undervalued currency, despite repeated appeals from the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. By most accounts, China helped lead the way in preventing any serious action against climate change in Copenhagen last December. After tightly circumscribing Barack Obama’s visit last November, China has taken tougher positions than it had in the past toward U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and a visit to Washington by the Dalai Lama. But it isn’t just the United States: The Europeans, the British, and the Indians have all run up against what seems like a new Chinese assertiveness, too.

What accounts for the regime’s recent behavior? The most obvious explanation, and the one most frequently put forward, is that China has finally recognized its own growing power. Particularly since the financial crisis of 2008 and the spiral of U.S. budget deficits, the Chinese leadership has--so this theory goes--realized it has the economic clout to be more demanding, to insist on changes in the status quo, and, generally, to tell everyone to buzz off. And so, we are said to be witnessing China’s retaliation against the West for humiliations dating back to the Opium Wars.

The problem is that this explanation doesn’t quite add up. Yes, China has a recent, well-founded perception of its own economic strength compared to other countries--but it doesn’t necessarily follow that this should lead to the sort of edgy obstreperousness the regime has recently displayed. In fact, there have been occasions in the past when a sense of strength produced in Chinese leaders a very different reaction--an august serenity toward the outside world. (This attitude was epitomized by the Emperor Qianlong’s famous riposte to the British emissary Lord Macartney’s entreaties to open up China to trade: “We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures.”) The most powerful of Chinese leaders have displayed a sense of humility, however artificial, in dealing with outsiders. When Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong for the first time, he told Mao his writings had moved China and changed the world. Mao demurred: “I haven’t been able to change it,” he said. “I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Beijing.” Flaunting power, in other words, is hardly a consistent and unbroken Chinese tradition....

Meanwhile, the Chinese leadership struggles with a domestic political problem from a different direction, one of its own making: an ever more strident Chinese nationalism. The regime has stoked this nationalism as a replacement for the old Communist values that few in China believe in anymore. Indeed, more than 60 years after Chiang Kai-shek fled the Chinese mainland for Taiwan, the Communist regime that defeated him is managing to produce its own new Nationalist China, with a good deal of the corruption of the old one. But the more the leadership encourages nationalism, the more it has to worry about being itself accused of caving to foreigners. It allowed anti-American demonstrations to swell after U.S. bombs hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. It allowed anti-Japanese protests a few years later. In both cases, the regime had to rein in what was happening on the streets after the protests threatened to spin out of control. The ultimate fear is that, some day, nationalism could turn against the leadership itself.

In short, China is on its way to becoming a durable authoritarian regime. However, it’s not quite there yet. There is still, for now, the worry about nascent opposition at home, whether it might develop on the streets or online. The consequences seem clear: China isn’t opening up its political system to far-reaching reform in the way that outsiders have for years hoped and predicted, and it is ever less willing to do anything overseas that might make it look weak....



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