China Rising I
The Quest for Stability
Respect for Territorial Integrity
Today the New York Times reported that our intelligence knew of China's plans to test an antisatellite weapon before the fact. But we did nothing. Our inaction reflected an internal victory of our China “hawks,” who decline to approach China on sensitive issues unless we possess real power to “punish” China, over “doves” who believe in active engagement on all issues.
In a deeper sense, our inaction reflected our continuing inability to come to grips with an emerging probability. Some time during this century, China is likely to become the world’s next leading power. So far, our response to that likelihood has been equal parts fear, panic and stupidity. Our failure to engage China on anti-satellite weaponry was just one more blind step in darkness of our own making.
As Americans, we pride ourselves on being open-minded and rational. Yet we view China’s ascendancy with all the intelligence of our historical xenophobia. Sometimes it seems as if the old fear of “Yellow Hordes” still governs our subconscious. We seem astonished at the very thought that we, with one twentieth of the world’s population, might not lead humanity forever.
This is the first in a series of three essays, which try to provide a sober and rational assessment of the likely consequences of China’s rise. This first essay focuses on the much-neglected positive aspects of China’s entry into the ranks of great modern powers. The second examines the dangers of China’s ascendancy, primarily relating to global resources and environmental protection. The final essay examines factors internal to China that might hold back its rise or affect the world adversely. One of them is something I have never seen discussed seriously in any public forum.
As we consider a future with China ascendant, we should acknowledge China’s most attractive and consistent feature: pragmatism. China is largely unencumbered by religion—at least the muscular, proselytizing variety now creating so much trouble in the West and the Islamic world. The absence of a religious factor suggests that China’s policies and actions will flow from rational assessments of its current self-interest, not unpredictable interpretations of ancient scriptures.
Thirty years ago, one might have concluded that Communist ideology played much the same role in China that religions do in the United States and the Islamic world today. That is, Communist ideology governed policy and practice in China without regard to factual evidence, accurate observation, or rational conclusions derived from either.
Yet today China appears to have abandoned Communist ideology as a basis for both policy and practice. To the extent it remains in power, the Communist party is merely the apparatus of a bureaucratic, authoritarian state, similar to the Mandarin bureaucracy that existed in imperial China.
Under these circumstances it is possible to describe modern China as a state unencumbered by religion or ideology. Its principal objectives are practical ones: security, stability, managed growth, and trade.
That sort of pragmatism appears to be a part of Chinese culture. The “overseas Chinese” who settled in America valued getting a good education, making money, achieving success, and garnering wealth and status far more than any religion or ideology. They worked at doing so quietly, without fuss. Perhaps for these reasons, they have been far less active politically to date than any similarly disadvantaged immigrant group, with the possible exception of Japanese-Americans. From laborers on the transcontinental railway, to Chinese laundries in San Francisco, to Wang Electronics and the corridors of Silicon Valley, our Chinese-Americans have followed the American dream in as straight a line as any immigrant ethnic group, often overcoming terrible discrimination in the process. They did so without the crutch of religious or ideological extremism and largely without political activism.
China’s thirty-year flirtation with Communist ideology was as stark a departure from pragmatism as one could imagine. It was so recent that its specter still haunts rational discussion of China’s future. Yet that episode of Chinese history appears finished.
In retrospect, the flirtation seems an historical aberration. Mao was not so much a Communist as China’s most recent emperor, and (one hopes) the last. He rode the Communist horse as far as necessary to unify and strengthen China and begin to build a modern industrial nation. Then he then became living proof of the Western proverb that absolute power corrupts absolutely. As he aged, his rule degenerated into impractical capriciousness worthy of a Nero or other later Roman emperor.
Yet Mao’s death freed China to become practical again. As soon as Deng Xiaoping mouthed his famous slogan—“I don’t care if the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”—China’s economic miracle began. Mao’s successors put the Communist horse out to pasture and built a modern, industrial state on the foundation that Mao had created but, in his dotage, had nearly destroyed. The Party’s bureaucracy became a successor to the time-honored Mandarins, and the notion of imperial rule by one man evolved into a form of modern bureaucratic state, independent of ideology and increasingly controlled by well-educated technocrats.
Any sober assessment of China must acknowledge that its distance from muscular ideology and religion is a good thing. Practiced on a broad scale, ideology and religion have been among humanity’s most destructive forces. The last century’s “isms”—Fascism, Nazism, Japanese militarism, and Communism—made gravestones for tens of millions and paupers of many times more.
From the Spanish Inquisition, through the Crusades, to Northern Ireland and the world’s present difficulties (which reflect Muslims’ long memories of the Crusades), religion has built a mound of skulls just as high as ideology’s. The muscular, proselytizing religions—principally Christianity and Islam—may yet cause the nuclear holocaust that ideology nearly perpetrated in 1962.
Viewed against this background, Chinese history is remarkable. Except for its brief flirtation with Communism, it has never been an ideological nation. Instead, it has relied on authoritarian rule aided by a strong and well-educated bureaucracy, not ideas. When its leaders and its bureaucracy were weak, unwise or corrupt, China was weak and divided. When they were strong and wise, China was unified and thrived.
As for religions, China’s have been pale shadows of the muscular, proselytizing juggernauts that Christianity and Islam are today. Buddhism is a passive, pacifist and non-proselytizing religion. Confucianism and Taoism are more philosophies than religions. Stripped to its essence, Confucianism is an exhortation to respect one’s ancestors and authority, including one’s parents and local, regional, and national leaders. It is little more than a practical prescription for stability and order in large, diverse and sometimes ungovernable society.
When you think of the oceans of blood spilled in the name of ideology in the last century, and in the name of religion throughout human history, Chinese pragmatism should be downright comforting. Moreover, China’s pragmatism is only increasing as it exchanges an imperial form of government—which appears to have ended with Mao’s death—for a cautious and prudent bureaucratic state. China’s disregard of religion and abandonment of Communist ideology offer hope, not fear, to a world once again threatened by conflicting illusions of absolute truth.
For an individual, the adjective “self-centered” is pejorative. For a nation, it need not be so. If self-centered means constantly striving to improve yourself, and not striving to conquer or disturb others, then self-centeredness may not be a bad quality for nations to have.
China is the quintessentially self-centered nation. The two Chinese characters that spell “China” mean “central” and “kingdom” or “nation.” Some translate them as “Middle Kingdom,” but that translation misses the point. The first character is not simply geographical: during much of Chinese history there was nothing of note to its north and west but uncivilized tribes and the vast emptiness of what is now the Mongolian and Russian steppe. Rather, the first character is best understood as figurative and metaphorical, i.e., meaning “central” in all the English nuance of that word. China often viewed itself as the center of human civilization and perhaps still does today.
Often that view was justified. China is the oldest large-scale civilization and by far the longest-running empire. It had magnificent governance, literature, art, science, and astronomy when Europe, the Middle East and the rest of Eurasia were little more than warring tribes living in huts dispersed around the occasional warlord’s castle.
As for imperialism, China’s history is unique. Every other empire, including ancient Rome, Persia under Alexander the great, Genghis Khan’s and his descendents’ empires, the British empire and Nazi Germany, expanded like a balloon that eventually popped. Sometimes, as in the case of Rome and the Khans, the balloon took hundreds of years to pop. Sometimes, as in the case of Persia and the Nazis, the deflation was much quicker. In contrast, the Chinese have been content to occupy much the same territory for several thousand years. Dreams of global conquest do not appear to be part of their national ethos.
There was a time, during our Middle Ages, when China was more expansionist. It dabbled with conquest in what is now Japan and Korea. In Kubilai Khan’s time the Chinese sent two great armadas against Japan, both of which perished in violent storms that the Japanese called the “divine wind.” But Kubilai Khan was a Mongol foreigner, not a Han Chinese, and the Chinese gave up dreams of world conquest after his empire faded.
China’s practical approach and disinterest in conquest for glory’s sake continued in the last century. In the aftermath of World War II, with its most dangerous enemy (Japan) defeated and occupied, a re-armed and unified China could have striven for regional hegemony. It could have made short work of the soft underbelly of Southeast Asia. But did it? No. Its only major conflicts were with us in the Korean War and, indirectly, with the French (and later us), supporting Vietnam in its struggle against Western colonization.
The reasons for these choices now seem clear. China sought to protect itself, through buffer states, from the Western ideas, technology and weapons that had caused it to be colonized for most of the previous century and to be brutalized and partially conquered by Japan only a few years before. Far from dreaming of world conquest and starting with its weakest neighbors (like Poland, in Hitler’s case), Mao took rational and practical responses to what China reasonably viewed, in light of its recent history, as its most serious foreign threat.
Tibet requires more explanation. From a Western perspective, the conquest of a peaceful, defenseless, entirely innocent and culturally elegant people was practically unnecessary and morally outrageous. But the move had its practical side. The conquest was easy and virtually bloodless. It gave China more territory for its expanding population. But more important, it allowed China to secure its frontier up to the natural barrier of the Himalayas. With India having freed itself from British domination, and with minor border skirmishes with India recurring, China may have been trying simply to make sure that potential enemies did not get there first. Morally repugnant its action certainly was. But evidence of impractical and dangerous dreams of world conquest it was not.
Self-centeredness has its yin and yang. It can cause China to take morally outrageous acts, such as occupying Tibet. It might cause China to overreach, as it did in encouraging North Korea to invade the South in the Korean War, causing massive casualties on all sides and, in the end, accomplishing nothing. It can lead China to neglect important crises, light Kim Jong Il’s quest for nuclear weapons, until late in the game.
But wide conquest has never been in China’s character. China’s consistent self-centeredness make it about as likely that China will morph into Hitler’s Germany or Imperial Japan and set out to conquer its neighbors as a moon-sized meteor hitting the Earth and extinguishing humanity. We might as well worry about one as the other.
The Quest for Stability
Another salient characteristic of China’s history is its continual quest for stability. The reason is simple. China is the world’s oldest, longest lived, and most populous multi-ethnic society. Even today it has over fifty recognized ethic groups, each with its own language and many with their own culture.
Until the advent of the United States, the Soviet Union, and modern, unified India, there was nothing on Earth like China. Now the Soviet Union is history, and the United States and unified India are still young in historical terms. Multiethnic empires like Rome, Persia, and the Khanates came and went in a relative blink of the eye, but China’s multi-ethnic empire persisted for millennia.
To assess the magnitude of that achievement, think of Europe. Until recently, it had been in turmoil for several centuries. The last century saw history’s two most destructive wars begin in Europe. Had the second not ended at the dawn of the nuclear age, it might well have extinguished humanity. Even today, Europe is still struggling for unity. Yet Europe today has a population of about 350 million, while China has a population of 1.3 billion, nearly four times as large.
During the last two centuries, the West imported its own primitive instability into China. During the nineteenth century the West emasculated and humiliated China by colonization amounting to conquest. Then it gave Japan—at the time a model of stability—modern technology and weapons and the idea of “modern” international relations, i.e., colonization and conquest. The result was the part of World War II that took place in Asia, probably the most violent period in China’s history after its conquest by Kubilai Khan in the thirteenth century.
This is not to say that Americans and other Westerners should suffer moral guilt for China’s recent history. Nor is it to say that science and technology are bad things, or that the world ought to revert to the stability of Tokugawa Japan, which outlawed innovation for the sake of social stability. It is, however, to suggest that the world (including us Americans) may have something to learn from China when it comes to the politics of stability, i.e., achieving peaceful, stable growth and avoiding war.
In its remarkable history of stability, China did not often rely on superior weapons or technology. Nor did it rely often on the passion (usually evanescent) of ideology or religion. It did occasionally rely on military superiority by virtue of its large population and its generally higher level of civilization, as compared to its neighbors. But mostly it relied on the assiduous application of intelligent diplomacy and power politics. Despite bad times and instability under weak or unwise rulers, China’s successful and lengthy history of stability suggests that, in the long sweep of history, it is a master of this trade.
Henry Kissinger—himself no amateur diplomat—thought as much. As he prepared his staff to work with the Red Chinese in the early seventies, he told them not to lie. His reason was instructive. The Chinese, he said, were probably smarter than their American counterparts and would recognize a lie instantly.
Kissinger did not mean that the Chinese had better scientists or engineers or better ideas about government generally. What he meant was that China, with its millennial history of successful diplomacy and power politics, had experience and expertise to be respected and reckoned with. And that was in the dark days of China’s subjugation to Mao’s ideological and often nonsensical Little Red Book. How much truer is Kissinger’s advice today, when China’s technocrats have restored and probably surpassed the old, highly educated and expert Mandarin bureaucracy?
In retrospect, China’s behavior for most of the postwar period (except for some of Mao’s bizarre excesses, such as the Great Leap Forward) can be seen as a self-centered quest for stable progress. China bought the Communist horse in order to get financial and military help from the Soviet Union. That helped keep Western meddling at bay while China completed its “Communist revolution,” unifying and stabilizing the brutalized nation. Almost as soon as Mao died, China changed course and left the Soviet Union (now Russia) holding the ideological bag.
Maybe Mao actually believed the Communist lie. More likely, he saw it as a useful myth to maintain his status as an imperial demigod. But it is clear that the vast majority of high and mid-level Chinese officials understood that Communism was nothing more than a useful but meaningless temporary mantra to secure needed help from a powerful neighbor and keep the West at bay (and in a state of paranoia!), in order to give China time to recoup, rebuild and rearm. As soon as the time came to rebuild its economy in earnest, China dumped Communism for its present authoritarian form of capitalism with breathtaking speed.
Now China is in the process of leapfrogging the West in science and technology. It is building world-class factories, universities and government institutions, financed in large measure by Western businesses and consumers. China has left its erstwhile mentor, Russia, in the dust, in part because many Russians, especially ordinary citizens, still cleave to ideology rather than pragmatism.
Yet all this rapid progress would not have been possible in an atmosphere of fear, insecurity and militarism like that which now prevails in most of the Middle East. Maybe China’s perpetual quest for stability—authoritarian and heavy-handed though it often seems—offers a lesson for the rest of the world.
Respect for Territorial Integrity
In the diplomatic arena, China’s quest for stability manifests itself in consistent support for the principles of territorial integrity and national sovereignty. Our leaders, especially neoconservatives, scoff. They point to the hypocrisy of China occupying Tibet. They accuse China of hiding its own woeful human-rights record behind these high-sounding principles.
There is truth to both charges of hypocrisy and hiding. But does that mean the principles themselves are bad? Does it mean that China’s support for them is cynical and insincere? The answers to both these questions is an emphatic “no.”
In another context this writer has pointed out the uniformly dismal record of ground invasions. For the last two centuries, from Napoleon’s two invasions of Russia to our own recent invasion of Iraq, ground invasions have produced no lasting benefit to the invader and everything from chaos to utter devastation of the invaded. Sometimes, as in the cases of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, they have produced utter devastation of the invader as well.
If the West and Middle East had simply obeyed China’s two rules, about 100 million people who died in agony from violence, disease or starvation would have lived natural and productive lives, and the world would be incomparable richer, better off and more advanced in both technology and government. Just think of what our world might be like without the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War, the two World Wars, the Soviet conquest of its so-called “near abroad” and Eastern Europe, and more recent wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq.
As for China’s sincerity, it’s easy to forget its recent history. For nearly a century, the West dismembered it in colonial conquest for profit. Then Japan, armed with Western technology, industry and ideas, raped it for most of a decade. The Japanese occupation of China was as bad as the Nazi rape of Eastern Europe and much worse, for example, than the Nazis’ treatment of Vichy France.
So when China speaks of the importance of territorial integrity and national sovereignty, it has the right to be heard, on grounds of both morality and historical accuracy, notwithstanding its own abhorrent behavior in Tibet and its own sorry human-rights record.
The simple truth is that territorial integrity and national sovereignty are good principles for achieving peace and stability. If a nation’s actions so threaten peace as to justify preemptive action, modern air power and precision weapons in limited air strikes are infinitely preferable to land invasions on both practical and moral ground. We in the West have much to learn from China’s multi-millennial experience in geopolitics.
If patience is a personal virtue, it is especially so in international relations. The view that China has that virtue is now practically a cliché. Like China’s other virtues discussed above, its patience should inspire hope, not fear.
The proof of Chinese patience is Taiwan. From the Chinese perspective, that island’s status is probably the most important and most rankling foreign-policy dilemma. Yet for nearly half a century, the formidable Chinese have been content to wait.
China’s patience should not be confused with weakness or cowardice. Does anyone doubt that China could take the island if it wanted to? We haven’t the money or the will to pacify disorganized and pathetic Iraq, for God’s sake. Surely we could not defend Taiwan successfully from a full-scale assault by China’s Red Army. And just as surely we would not risk a nuclear holocaust to keep Taiwan free.
China’s development of antisatellite weapons underscores these points. As our own intelligence services appear to recognize, those weapons are aimed not at global conquest or hegemony, but at preserving the status quo in Taiwan. They are intended, by blinding our space-age spying and communications, to enhance China’s natural advantages of size, manpower, and propinquity in any contest over Taiwan. True, the weapons are threatening, but only if we make the first move by trying to take Taiwan, or by supporting what the Chinese see as an “insurrection” there. They are a pragmatic response to what the Chinese see as a potential weakness on their home turf.
But does China itself invade? No. It knows that Taiwan would defend itself vigorously with our weapons and advanced technology. It knows that, even with only half-hearted help on our part, any attempt to invade the island would be a bloody, disastrous affair. In the meantime, it enjoys good trade relations with its estranged brothers, who speak the same language, enjoy much the same culture, and are helping the mainland develop and succeed.
China’s patience is thus part of its general pragmatism. Although it may have to wait another half century before the mainland is sufficient wealthy, stable and democratic to attract Taiwan back to the fold voluntarily, it appears willing to do so. Even the symbolism of what many Chinese view as the last vestige of brutal Western colonialism lying just off China’s shores is not enough to move China from its practical path.
With such people we can deal.
We Americans like to claim the moral high ground. We like to think that, since our motives are pure, our actions are good. But often we ignore two important principles in human and international relations: “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” and “The ends do not justify the means.”
Our Framers founded our nation on pragmatism. Checks and balances and respect for human rights derive from practical notions of human fallibility. We have checks and balances because we know that power corrupts. We protect human rights in law because we know that fallible men and women would violate them without legal restraint. We also know that human individuals are happier and more productive when free from fear. When we have maintained this pragmatism, we have succeeded; when we have abandoned it for utopian goals, ideology, or religion, we have failed.
In both Vietnam and Iraq, we lost our way because we were arrogant and stopped being practical. In Vietnam we ignored the experience of the French and the message of anti-colonialism that had resounded worldwide for two decades, from India to the Congo. We thought we could install democracy by military force. We thought we could conquer where others had failed. We were wrong.
In Iraq we made a similar mistake. We thought that deposing a vicious tyrant would create democracy where none had ever existed. We failed to consider that “democracy” to many Iraqis sounds like “Western imperialism.”
In both cases, support for democracy—a fine value—left the realm of the practical and became ideological. President Bush’s insistence that freedom and democracy are God given was the touchstone. With that approach, he converted our practical national agenda into a weird kind of ideological jihad. The result in Iraq, like that in Vietnam, is likely to be consistent with the outcome of most ideological and religious wars: many casualties and little progress.
Contrast these unfortunate circumstances with the Chinese handling of our spy-plane crisis. A hotshot Chinese pilot, attempting to intimidate one of our spy planes, flew too close, collided with the spy plane, crashed and died. Although damaged, our spy plane managed to land safely at a Chinese airport.
If the Chinese had been Nazis, our crew would have been shot as spies. If they had been Soviets, the crew would now be languishing in a gulag. If they had been Islamic terrorists, videos of the crew’s beheadings would be circulating on the Web. Instead, China sent the crew safely home, demanding only an apology as a condition for their release.
In so doing, China left us with two unstated but unmistakable messages. First, it implied, “we’re not going anywhere, and you’re going to have to learn to live with us.” Second, China seemed to say, “there will be times when you’ll need us, as your crew needed our landing strip.” We learned this second lesson again, more recently, when we had to rely heavily on China in trying to discipline Kim Jong Il after his nuclear test.
In their response to the spy-plane crisis the Chinese were practical, subtle, and smart. Luckily, so were we, with Colin Powell at the helm of our diplomatic ship of state.
China may be behind us in science and technology, but it has a several-millennium head start in diplomacy and geopolitics. Furthermore, it is back in form after a two-century slump. It is rapidly re-establishing the sort of meritocracy that it had in its best imperial days, and perhaps something far better and more powerful. With a population of 1.3 billion from which to draw, China’s bureaucracy—if based on education and merit—is likely to be the best in the world.
All this suggests that China is a force to be reckoned with, but not feared. It has seldom, if ever, had dreams of world conquest and appears to have none now. Its government is cautious, prudent, conservative (in the old, true sense of that word) and practical. It is not driven by ideology or religion. In its recent history, China has hurt others only when paranoia reinforced its own self-centeredness (as in Tibet, Korea and Vietnam). Therefore its actions should be predictable, if only we can be as smart as its leaders.
This is not to say that there will be no disagreement or conflict. Yet it is far better to have a rising power that is practical and prudent than one driven by religion, ideology, or dreams of global conquest.
Far from evoking fear, China’s ancient and recent history offer hope. With intelligent leadership, China and we can build a safer and more prosperous world, even if we end up being the junior partner.
All we have to do is realize that China’s motives and actions are invariably practical. We must also acknowledge—as Kissinger predicted—that China’s leaders will usually be two steps ahead of us, just as they are today in so cleverly exploiting our self-interested technological and financial assistance.
In the end, China may well succeed in completing what we have begun: building a world in which peaceful commerce, economic development and scientific advancement overtake war as the primary occupation of humanity. That would be a very practical objective, and one on which both we and China could agree.