Why do nations distrust/dislike China? 6 July 2014
Some people and nations appear to be suspicious of, or actually to dislike, China’s rise. I am wondering why. There are historical reasons: China was the major, unchallenged power in its region for thousands of years to which ‘lesser’ nations near and far—indeed, as far away as Hunza (now in northern Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir)—had to submit and pay tribute. China’s superiority and other kingdoms’ palpable inferiority entrenched two factors. First, strongly-held Chinese certainty—or arrogance, if you prefer—that the divinely-sanctioned Middle Kingdom should be paramount regionally and beyond. This was the natural order. Second, some of China’s neighbours have bad memories of being under Chinese suzerainty, which brought stability, but not necessarily freedom, mutual endearment or fraternity.
Things have changed dramatically since a popular revolution overthrew the Imperial Qing/Manchu dynasty in 1911. Thereafter, a divided China endured political, social and economic turmoil—and was weak. From the 1920s, Nationalists and Communists fought; in the early 1930s, Japan invaded Manchuria and created ‘Manchukuo’; from 1937, Chinese forces fought with the Allies in World War II. Following its 1949 victory, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) consolidated its control of China, often brutally. This included Mao Zedong-inspired actions such as the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution—which were diabolical, not great. For non-Chinese, such destabilising actions beneficially kept China politically unstable, internally focused and economically weak. Even so, the CCP’s concurrently-held belief that Communism would inevitably triumph worldwide, plus the export of revolution to help this process, did not endear China to others. And, while nations like Vietnam benefitted from Chinese (and Soviet) support against the United States, the 1979 China-Vietnam war showed that, ultimately, national interests always trump ideology. Equally, as China’s neighbour, Vietnam has long sought to avoid Chinese domination.
Matters started to change with, and for, China in the 1970s. The United Nations recognised the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the official government of China, after which the PRC obtained the General Assembly and permanent Security Council seats. In 1979, following Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking 1972 trip to ‘mainland’ China, the United States established full diplomatic relations with the PRC and severed relations with the Taiwan-based Republic of China. Most importantly, from 1978, led by the tenacious twice-purged Deng Xiaoping, China pursued a ‘socialist market economy’ that allowed capitalist practices and activities to flourish. China’s economic progress admirably has lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty, with China now being the world’s second largest economy (although in GDP per capita terms, it lags). Arguably, ‘CCP’ now stands for the ‘Chinese Capitalist Party’.
In recent years, a rising China has been seeking to convert its economic strengths into strategic and foreign policy gains. Most analysts consider that China has ambitions to become a great power, an aspiration that reflects China’s history, self-perception and its so-called ‘Middle Kingdom’ syndrome. Certainly, many Chinese want their nation to be able to resist actions by Western ‘imperialists’, many of whom formerly obtained concessions or took significant portions of Chinese territory when China was weak. Contemporaneously, China also dislikes being encircled by aggressors or enemies, actual or potential, and is trying to break out, and free itself, from this military and maritime containment. Equally, the need to secure economic resources is a driving factor.
While China is emulating the actions of other rising powers that have sought to change or enhance their geo-strategic situation, it is the way that Beijing is going about instigating these changes that worries others. China’s economic rise is clear but its strategic ambitions are not. This situation relates to a significant Chinese strength and weakness: authoritarian rule. Since 1949, various CCP and PRC organs have controlled, manipulated or suppressed all Chinese citizens, not just Tibetans and Uighurs. Since 1978, this has allowed China to advance economically, a happy development for most Chinese. Politically, however, there has been no genuine or inclusive political debate, while dissent has been suppressed. While China has other political parties, they are weak, controlled and ineffectual. According to a friend of mine, ‘it’s easy to be a martyr in China—just publicly criticise the CCP’. The most publicised and negative example of China’s authoritarian rule was the harshly suppressed 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. Other examples of state heavy-handedness apparently have gone unreported.
The weakness of China’s authoritarian rule is that, because the regime itself needs to concentrate and retain power, it is excessively secretive, self-seeking, non-consultative, extensive, and often brutal. China’s rulers paternalistically pursue policies and national interests determined by them in camera and without broad consultation or genuine or popular agreement. Elite CCP rule is difficult to influence or bend, unless it chooses to bend itself—as China pragmatically did economically in 1978. Before 1978, such ‘about turns’ were difficult to anticipate and endure.
China’s inability to tolerate dissent stifles its citizens, their creativity and China’s greatness. This authoritarianism also appears to be a major reason why China currently is mistrusted. Nations of the world, particularly those used to the rough and tumble of consultative democracy—which now comprises many of China’s near and far neighbours—want to engage in a discussion or dialogue, and not be told, or compelled, to do things China’s (authoritarian) way or not at all. China’s current excessively aggressive stance to regain, as Beijing sees it (which is partially correct in relation to its dispute with Japan), sovereignty over disputed territories in the South China Sea is antagonising Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and others.
Ultimately, China’s authoritarianism makes China look like an oppressive, self-interested regime lacking altruism that domestically dominates its people and which internationally is aggressively trying to bully other nations. This hardline approach is not endearing China to others. Conversely, it is bringing nations together and inspiring them to strategically encourage the US to stay militarily engaged with Asia—factors clearly not in China’s interests. Given its past, its size, and its one-party dominated state, it will be exceedingly difficult for China to genuinely change this way of operating.
The opinions in this blog are mine. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any organisations, professional or otherwise, with which I am involved or associated.
6 July 2014