After Deng: On China's Transformation
China’s economic growth and the West’s economic stagnation have clearly emboldened policy-makers in Beijing. Despite often paying homage to Deng, Chinese leaders increasingly have ignored his maxim that China should play a relatively low-profile role in global affairs until it is a wealthy nation. “Chinese leaders used to come here and want to learn from us,” a senior Thai official told me. “Now it’s like they don’t have anything left to learn…. They have no interest in listening to us.” Whereas Deng cut military budgets, the government now gives China’s armed forces annual budget increases of as much as 15 percent, and the military is rushing to develop major weapons systems like an aircraft carrier. Beyond the South China Sea, other Asian nations have had brushes with an emboldened China. During the 2000s China courted India, and the two nations enjoyed increasingly close economic ties, yet in 2009 China seemed ready to go back to war with its southwestern neighbor. That spring, after having agreed to resolve its old border disputes with India, China publicly claimed that it owned some 90,000 square kilometers of disputed territory in the vicinity of Tibet. The following year China lashed out at the world when the Nobel committee awarded the Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, jailed in 2009 for organizing Charter 08, an online petition calling for democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Beijing condemned Norway and other European nations, and applied intense pressure on leaders from Asian and European nations not to attend the Peace Prize ceremony. Many complied.
Though China’s military lags behind that of the United States, its economic power and its status as America’s main creditor have made it more aggressive in dealing with Washington as well, shocking some American diplomats not accustomed to having a bona fide peer. Beijing has taken to chiding American politicians for their fiscal recklessness; after Congress barely eked out a temporary agreement on the debt limit, the Chinese state news agency Xinhua warned American politicians to overcome their “debt addiction.” When the Dalai Lama, viewed (unjustifiably) by Chinese leaders as a separatist extremist, wanted to visit Washington in the fall of 2009, Chinese officials applied intense pressure on the Obama administration not to have the president meet him, even in a private capacity. Facing an enfeebled American economy and demands from its largest creditor, the White House complied. Obama allowed the Dalai Lama to visit the United States without a stop at the White House, the first time an American president had ignored the Tibetan in two decades.
In some ways, China’s newfound confidence is not exceptional. After all, for two millenniums China was one of the most powerful nations in the world. As Kissinger explains in some detail, Chinese emperors became accustomed to foreign leaders traveling to Beijing as supplicants; this overconfidence was a main reason the last imperial dynasty did not understand how badly China had lost ground economically to Britain and other Western nations in the nineteenth century. In the long view, the return of China—and other nations like India—to the center of global commerce and politics is in many ways more normal than dominance by a small number of Western countries.
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Nevertheless, like American leaders in the early nineteenth century who claimed the entire Western Hemisphere as US sphere of influence, China does not yet possess the international influence and respect to make good on its increasingly assertive behavior—a gap some Chinese leaders do not seem to understand. Rapid growth has pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty but has also created massive economic inequality in what is a nominally socialist country. Economic inequality in China is more severe than in nearly every other nation in Asia. One-party rule has abetted massive graft, costing as much as $90 billion in economic growth each year and tainting politics. Outer regions like Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia have become increasingly restive, and in rural China, where growth has not filtered down, tens of thousands of protests erupt each year, with many turning violent. (Domestic unrest partly explains why Beijing has tried to ignore the Arab uprisings, even going so far as to implement filtering measures that, for a time, prevented users from searching for the word “Egypt” on search engines and social networking sites.) The Chinese leadership’s laserlike focus on growth has created looming environmental catastrophes that will make the ecological degradation sanctioned by the administration of George W. Bush look like the work of John Muir. And, as several demographers have noted, China, whose one-child policy has skewed the social welfare system, will be the first developing country to grow old before it grows rich. This anomaly will be a disaster for an economy that, as Kissinger notes, has benefited enormously from a large, unskilled, young workforce willing to toil untold hours for minimal wages.
Though American prestige has suffered badly in the past decade, and Washington can hardly be held up as a model of idealistic foreign policy, foreign leaders still generally trust America more than China to uphold international institutions, to patrol the sea lanes and to defend common global interests. China has no blue water navy; in trade relations Beijing has pursued narrow, almost mercantilist policies; at the United Nations, China has rarely proved willing to condemn even the most abusive of its allies, such as North Korea or Burma. This may change—if the United States continues to abrogate global influence and allow its economic system to disintegrate, and also if China becomes more experienced and responsible. But for now, the old order has not been toppled.
By acting more assertively in places like the South China Sea without yet being ready to assume the mantle of global leadership, without an idea that can truly appeal to and inspire other nations, Beijing’s leaders have unwittingly pushed countries—including many with long histories of anti-Americanism—into the hands of the United States, the only remaining global power. China’s model of development is drawing interest in many developing nations; but while leaders and average citizens are often willing to abandon the neoliberal economic element of the Washington Consensus, few want to adopt the repressive, authoritarian and insular politics of the Beijing Consensus. Over the past year, Hillary Clinton has become the most sought-after diplomat at Southeast Asian meetings, primarily because nations are looking to Washington for reassurance that it will not abandon Asia to a China-centric order. The Philippines, which tossed US forces from its bases in the archipelago two decades ago, is desperately trying to stockpile American military hardware and persuade US troops to pay frequent visits. Hanoi now welcomes American port calls, sends its savviest officials to study in the United States and has signed an agreement to cooperate with its former enemy on high-level nuclear technology.
Kissinger sees a brighter future for the Middle Kingdom. He lauds China’s current leadership for putting “forward to its people a catalog of tasks to be accomplished,” as if leadership entailed simply listing your plans; he praises China for promising a “peaceful rise,” as if politicians’ promises can always be taken at face value. Perhaps Kissinger, like so many before him, has allowed himself to be captured by Chinese myths.
In a country facing such vast challenges, domestically and internationally, it’s not at all clear than even Deng, who at times enjoyed the respect of average people as well as the country’s most powerful institutions, could have overseen a Chinese transition to democracy. The one top Chinese leader who has the public’s respect and also seems committed to liberalization, Premier Wen Jiabao, is an increasingly lonely voice, ignored by many of his colleagues. When he steps down in the next two years, there will be no one with Wen’s authority among the public to replace him. Many Chinese officials, who have forgotten Deng’s warning that “if one day China should seek to claim hegemony in the world, then the people of the world should…fight against it,” seem shocked at how badly Beijing has muddled its relations with other countries in the past two years. They are also recognizing how far China actually remains from global leadership.