After Deng: On China's Transformation
The South China Sea is vast, encompassing around 1.4 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, and its islands are so minuscule that most can barely accommodate an airplane runway and a few houses. Just several dozen permanent residents live on an atoll named Pagasa. Yet this past year, Pagasa and the other tiny islets have been drawn into one of the hottest military flash points in the world. China has treated nearly the entire South China Sea as its domain, even though five other nations claim part of it, and has increasingly harassed and even threatened to sink Vietnamese and Philippine boats passing through the area. At the same time, Chinese officials once known for their smooth, charming embrace of their neighbors seem to have flipped a switch, turning angry, demanding and intimidating. At a meeting with representatives of Southeast Asian nations last year, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi exploded, according to several reports, launching into a thirty-minute diatribe about China’s vast claims to the South China Sea, a vital shipping route and supposedly the site of significant petroleum deposits. Topping off his performance, Yang mocked his Vietnamese hosts, implicitly warning them not to defy Beijing. China’s state media have echoed Yang’s belligerent rhetoric, and this past spring some hawkish Chinese strategists and officials privately talked of the need for a “limited war” with Vietnam, to show their southern neighbor who is the real power in Asia.
To many observers in Asia, and some American officials, the scene of Chinese officials berating their Asian peers over bragging rights to the South China Sea was a taste of threats to come from an increasingly powerful nation. Their fear is that China, fortified by a roaring economy and renewed military might, will abandon niceties and brusquely reclaim the influence it had enjoyed for millenniums, until the combination of Western technological advancement and the feebleness of China’s last imperial court brought down the Middle Kingdom in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “No one will say it openly, but what drives every meeting in Southeast Asia now is fear of what the region will be like with China dominating,” one Vietnamese diplomat told me.
But despite outsiders’ view of China, some Chinese scholars—and even, in private, a few Chinese officials—admit that, contrary to the image of a rising colossus, China’s recent aggressive behavior suggests something different. They think that the country’s leadership has become more divided and weaker than in the recent past and is unable to control hawks in the military or the Communist Party, or state companies and Beijing’s officials. The People’s Liberation Army has increasingly been promoting its opinions through its own publications and its domestic networks of civilian think tanks. At times, the PLA appears to have initiated or escalated international disputes—against the wishes of the top leadership in Beijing—in order to push Chinese policy in a more hawkish direction. Like the military-industrial complex in the United States, the PLA appears to have formed a tentative alliance with powerful Chinese energy companies, which have embarked on a global hunt for natural resources.
Ever since the Communist Party came to power in 1949, forceful, unifying figures have dominated the political arena and the PLA. The first was Mao Zedong, who used his unparalleled charisma and political genius to pit rivals against one another, to create a cult of personality and to exert ruthless control over the country’s political system. After Mao came Deng Xiaoping, whose photo should be plastered above Tiananmen Square instead of his predecessor’s, as he used his vast political savvy and dominance of the party and military to wrench China from the abyss of the Cultural Revolution and set in place the most breathtaking economic development in modern history.
Lacking a unifying figure like Deng or Mao, China’s leadership today is a mostly faceless group of longtime party engineers who have scaled the ranks not by fighting in wars or developing political and economic ideologies but rather by cultivating higher-ranking bureaucrats and divulging as little as possible about their ideas and plans. The current Chinese president, Hu Jintao, epitomizes the cipher-as-strategy approach. Before assuming power in 2004, Hu had said so little on any topic of importance that both conservatives and liberals in China claimed him as one of their own. Since then, Hu has displayed minimal public emotion and avoids even the most scripted interactions with the media and most party outsiders. Hu’s presumed successor, who will assume power in 2012–13, is Vice President Xi Jinping; though he has slightly more charisma than the wooden Hu, he will not remind anyone of Mao or Deng. When Xi has displayed any public sentiment, it has been a sour, aggrieved nationalism that resonates with many Chinese elites who believe their nation’s time has come yet chafe at the continued power of the United States in China’s backyard. “There are a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country,” Xi complained, in one of his few public speeches, during a visit to Mexico in 2009.
As China’s leadership fragments, many American officials and think-tank experts who once condemned Deng for overseeing the brutal crackdown in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, have begun to look back fondly on his time. Their position is that although Deng was not a democrat, in many ways it was easier to understand, and work with, the motivations and actions of a Chinese leadership dominated by one man rather than by a collective dictatorship. What they fear most about China is the absence of a genuine autocrat.
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Deng Xiaoping frowned upon the cult of Mao and shunned the showy diplomatic games of Communist China’s first premier, Zhuo Enlai. Perhaps because of his down-to-earth style and his disinterest in grand ceremony, Deng has attracted few serious biographies outside China. Certainly, Ezra Vogel’s encyclopedic Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China is the most exhaustive English retelling of Deng’s life. Vogel, an emeritus professor at Harvard, seems to have interviewed or found the memoirs of nearly every person who spoke with Deng, and has painstakingly re-created a detailed and intimate chronology of Deng’s roller-coaster career. Unfortunately, Vogel too often allows detailed chronology to stand in for storytelling and minutiae to overwhelm theme; he does manage to convey why Deng was so influential, and how China has missed him since his death more than a decade ago, but finding this message is not always easy amid so many reports of Deng’s endless meetings, memos and musings.
Still, Vogel’s reporting does reveal the core of Deng’s character and vision. Like most of the first- and second-generation party members who became senior leaders after the Communists prevailed in the Chinese civil war in 1949, Deng had a revolutionary background. He served in the Communist underground in Shanghai and other cities in the 1920s, and then joined the Long March to the party’s Shaanxi stronghold, all the while growing close to Mao, who valued Deng’s organizational skills and ability to connect to average people with his direct speaking style. In the civil war, Deng served as military leader and political commissar, leading sizable battles and at one point overseeing some half-million men. After the war he served Mao for nearly two decades in the leadership, gaining insight into politics, economics and governing. When he was responsible for the party’s relations with communist parties in other nations, he used his connections to bring new technology to China. Deng, who had studied in France in the ’20s, also saw that, despite Mao’s campaigns of industrialization and collectivization, China was lagging behind other communist states in economic development.
But whatever revolutionary ideology Deng may have espoused was purged, along with his career, during the Cultural Revolution. Many top leaders suffered during the Cultural Revolution, in which Mao turned the party against itself in what scholars have called the Chairman’s “last revolution,” but few could have suffered more than Deng. Always fearful of potential rivals and wary of Deng’s inherent pragmatism, which had led Deng to quietly critique some of Mao’s most disastrous campaigns, Mao started attacking Deng in 1966 for allegedly “pursuing the capitalist road.” Day after day China’s state media lashed Deng with criticisms. The next year Mao placed him under house arrest, and in 1969 Deng and his wife, Zhou Lin, were sent to Jiangxi province for “re-education” and forced to perform hard labor.
Red Guards harassed Deng’s five children in Beijing, eventually sending them to the countryside and hard labor as well. Vogel explains that before Deng was sent away for re-education, one of his children, 24-year-old Deng Pufang, was treated so harshly by Red Guards that he fell from a high window and broke his spine. (Other sources suggest that Deng’s son was defenestrated.) Because Deng had been ostracized politically, doctors at the Beijing hospital refused to perform surgery on his son. Deng Pufang was kept alive, but he remained paralyzed from the chest down; as Vogel notes, when Deng learned of his son’s fate, he sat in silence, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Deng would eventually take responsibility for the bathing and care of Deng Pufang.
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Deng never forgot the pain of the Cultural Revolution. During his time in the country he reflected on the party’s failures, and in later conversations with foreigners, Vogel writes, he would passionately describe the period as a disaster for China. When Mao, aging and sick, restored Deng to Beijing in the early 1970s, Deng was determined that the party overcome its obsession with internal purity and political revolutions, and instead devote itself to implementing China’s modernization. The party’s legitimacy would rest not only on ideas but also on providing a better life for Chinese citizens. This might seem an obvious idea, but after decades of Mao’s perpetual campaigns, and his derision of peasants’ lives—Mao famously said that he would sacrifice half of mankind to win a nuclear war—pragmatism and modernization were revolutionary in China. Deng’s visits to Japan, Europe and the United States in the mid- and late 1970s, where he witnessed highly automated manufacturing, high-speed trains and other state-of-the-art technology, further convinced him of China’s benighted state. Unlike Mao, he was willing to admit that China had fallen behind economically, as even other poor Asian nations like South Korea had begun to take off, and that to modernize, China needed help from abroad and the rule of law (at least in economic areas). “Chinese scientists had to learn foreign languages so they could read foreign reports…China should cherish its experts. It needed to introduce automation into its factories and to support talented scientists,” Deng insisted at party meetings, according to Vogel. In a country just emerging from the Cultural Revolution, during which a tyranny of the mind mocked expertise and punished or crushed those who possessed it, and where leaders had for millenniums believed that China was the center of the world, these, too, were shocking ideas.
Deng had always been a relatively pragmatic person, but his pragmatism became a secular religion as he ascended to the top of the leadership. “Practice is the Sole Criterion for Judging Truth,” read one article championed by Deng. Results, not ideology, would determine policies. (Today Chinese students study Deng Xiaoping Theory alongside Mao’s life and maxims, but Deng’s theories consist mostly of common-sense maxims on governance and economic management.) Following Mao’s death in 1976, Deng used his political skills and popularity among senior leaders and the public to outflank Mao’s appointed successor, Hua Guofeng, and the Gang of Four. Deng maneuvered Hua into the background but did not have him murdered or jailed, setting the stage for future peaceful transitions.
Nor did Deng try to completely erase his predecessors, as Mao had attempted to banish all of China’s traditions, leading to vast cultural devastation. Deng maintained Mao as a father figure of the party, keeping his portrait atop Tiananmen and mostly whitewashing Mao’s grievous crimes. Yet he recognized that much of Mao’s thinking on political and economic development had been wrong. Deng also removed the poison from the idea of learning from the West and even from hated Japan. When visiting the United States, Deng told his aides that the one place he wanted to see was Wall Street, a symbol of American economic might, the wellspring, more than tanks or aircraft carriers, of US power. “China must catch up with the most advanced countries in the world,” he warned. He allowed universities to open again and met with Chinese-American Nobel laureates to understand how China could improve its basic sciences. He oversaw growing state funding of basic research and fostered a new atmosphere of respect for learning. Deng even supported the idea that Chinese graduate students should study abroad, another implicit admission of how far behind China had fallen.
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In foreign policy, too, Deng adopted a humble approach, one that would be followed until recently by successive Chinese leaders. During the 1970s and ’80s, Deng slashed government spending on the military and declared that China must quietly build its strength while maintaining a low profile in international affairs. As Deng told one visiting African leader in 1985, “Please don’t copy our model. If there is any experience on our part, it is to formulate policies in light of one’s own national conditions.”
Most important, beginning in the late ’70s Deng relaxed economic and social rules, unleashing pent-up entrepreneurship and allowing average people to live their lives without fearing that the party would be lurking in their bedrooms and kitchens. Journals, fiction publishing houses and cinemas were reopened. Foreign investment was welcomed, particularly in the new special economic zones in southern China, where investors were given tax incentives and largely insulated from China’s laws, or lack thereof. The government allowed farmers to start selling their crops, began cutting state subsidies and promoted town- and village-level enterprises. Perhaps more significantly, Deng, the most visible figure in China, purportedly said that “to get rich is glorious,” signaling that, unlike in previous decades, the state would support capitalists instead of punishing them.
But contrary to the beliefs of many Americans who met Deng, his focus on modernization and his abandonment of radical Maoist social and political engineering did not make him a democrat. After Nixon’s breakthrough visit to China in 1972, Washington and Beijing strengthened their relationship; facing a common enemy in Moscow, American policy-makers wanted to see only the best characteristics in their Chinese peers. And upon meeting Deng, they found it easy to think of him as a reformer. He talked in terms that Americans eager to befriend China as an ally could understand, and he used the kind of casual, direct language common to American politicians. In 1978 Time named Deng “Man of the Year” for launching China’s modernization; Chinese state media, in return, portrayed Deng’s 1979 trip to the United States in a positive light, spreading images of American life that helped to inspire Chinese desires for growth, entrepreneurship and Western consumer goods. Deng told an audience at Temple University that he respected the college’s commitment to academic freedom; at other stops he praised the openness of American society.
But he didn’t honor the values he praised. In late 1978, thinking that Deng would promote not only economic but also political reforms, activists began posting demands for greater freedom on a wall near Tiananmen Square. Sprinkled among them were implicit criticisms of Mao. The movement would become known as Democracy Wall, and the postings attracted wide attention. Rumors spread that Deng supported the activists. Thousands of people, and then hundreds of thousands, came daily to read the wall and to write essays and personal accounts about their suffering during the Cultural Revolution. In January 1979 some wall supporters launched a march to the party’s leadership compound near Tiananmen Square. But as the Democracy Wall movement grew, Deng began issuing warnings, Vogel writes, “that some postings were not conducive to stability….When protestors attracted huge crowds and resisted basic rule by the Communist leadership, Deng moved decisively to suppress the challenge.” By March, Beijing city officials had banned posters, books and other writings that challenged the leadership; soon, the security forces arrested the leaders of Democracy Wall.
Deng believed, above all, in the Communist Party. He was a pragmatist, and in theory he accepted freedoms, but not if they threatened the party. He had spent his entire adult life in party politics; he saw no vehicle other than the party for uniting and leading the country; and, especially as other communist states began to reform, in the late 1980s he became convinced that the party could not accept liberalization if it was to survive. If the party was to save itself, only it could be the savior of the people. The only form of democracy acceptable to Deng was “inner-party democracy.” Party members could debate issues in private, but once a decision was reached, it had to be carried out in public by a united front. Because of his crackdown on Democracy Wall, it was Deng, more than any other party leader, who set the stage for China’s economic modernization without political modernization—a process that for decades has defied conventional modernization theory, articulated by political scientists such as Seymour Martin Lipset and Samuel Huntington, which holds that economic reform inexorably creates pressure for political reform, particularly among those in the educated middle classes who will not stand for authoritarian government.
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In the spring of 1989, Deng’s philosophy faced its greatest test. Anger across China at rising corruption, inflation and slowing economic growth sparked demonstrations for greater freedom across the country, and particularly in Beijing. As conveyed by contemporary accounts of debate within the party, Deng clearly believed that, if necessary, the government should use force to maintain power. He was convinced that consenting to political reform would lead to chaos in such a large and, at times, unmanageable country, and would undermine China’s economic progress. Other communist nations that pursued political reforms before economic ones would face similar crises, he believed, and their leaders would be deposed before they could fix their nations’ vast economic problems, causing massive unrest.
Given Deng’s history of resorting to tough, even brutal decision-making when necessary, the Tiananmen denouement was not surprising. Despite having elevated reformers in the party to promote his brand of economic modernization, Deng, working behind the scenes as the protests escalated because he was no longer China’s titular ruler, sidelined and ultimately placed under house arrest his number two, the pro-reform leader Zhao Ziyang. Deng sided with Li Peng, a top hardliner, issuing stern warnings to the protesters to clear the square. Finally, on June 3 and 4, Deng oversaw a bloody crackdown on unarmed civilians, with the PLA declaring martial law and clearing Tiananmen Square but killing as many as several thousand people. “Westerners would forget” China’s tough tactics in time, Deng promised other party leaders. Deng himself, Vogel reports, apparently never doubted that he had made the right decision to violently suppress the demonstrators.
Shortly after Tiananmen, China faced its worst period of international isolation since the depredations of Mao’s regime. The United States levied sanctions, and many other Western nations cut off business ties. At the time, many foreign observers and Chinese intellectuals were convinced that the Communist Party could not last, at least not in its current form. Foreign leaders’ predictions of the party’s imminent collapse would become a staple of global diplomacy, with Bill Clinton and others warning Beijing that if it did not embrace serious reform the party would not survive. Books like Gordon Chang’s The Coming Collapse of China (2001) became bestsellers in the United States. As recently as this past spring, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was sounding the same theme: she told reporters from The Atlantic that Beijing is “trying to stop history [i.e., prevent democratization], which is a fool’s errand.”
Henry Kissinger, one of the architects of the United States’ modern relationship with China, certainly thought that Deng’s decisions in 1989 were palatable. The consummate American realist, Kissinger saw in Deng a kindred soul, the opposite of the often mercurial, unpredictable Mao. In his latest book, On China, a reflection on the history of Chinese foreign policy and on his own relationships with Chinese leaders, Kissinger fawns over Deng. “China as the present day economic superpower is the legacy of Deng Xiaoping,” he writes. Deng “fulfilled the ultimate task of a leader—of taking his society from where it is to where it has never been.”
There is truth in this assessment, but Kissinger broadens it to include nearly the entire Chinese leadership, few of whom have matched Deng’s high standard of statecraft. In fact, like many less knowledgeable China watchers, Kissinger seems wedded to an old stereotype, viewing China’s leaders as naturally skilled diplomats possessed of a wisdom unattainable by Westerners. In the most laughable instance of this stereotype, some China watchers have claimed for years that Zhou Enlai once said it was “too early to say” whether the French Revolution was a success, a story often cited as proof of Chinese diplomats’ sage farsightedness. But as longtime China hand Chas Freeman revealed during a recent symposium to mark the publication of Kissinger’s book, Zhou had simply confused the French Revolution of 1789 with the Paris demonstrations in 1968.
Still, Kissinger accepts the idea of Chinese wisdom eclipsing the shortsighted political maneuvers of Western democracies. “China’s strategy generally exhibits three characteristics: meticulous analysis of long-term trends, careful study of tactical options, and detached exploration of operational decisions,” Kissinger gushes in a typical passage. One can almost hear the senior statesman grinding his teeth over American foreign policy, which by contrast is often affected by politicians’ ideas and the will of voters, and is usually not the work of a small group of mandarins. Kissinger even seems to implicitly blame the protesters for the Tiananmen crackdown, for trying to “demonstrate the impotence of the government, to weaken it, and to tempt it into rash acts.” This remark is consistent with Kissinger’s view that Tiananmen was a blip in US-China relations: it was a diplomatic nuisance caused by protesters making nuisances of themselves. One of the first prominent American visitors to China after Tiananmen, Kissinger personally helped smooth ties by urging Beijing to show some “presentational aspects” of reform that would allow Tiananmen to blow over.
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Despite predictions by American diplomats, China seems to have defied history, affirming Deng’s decision not to allow political reform, even in 1989. Many of China’s Asian neighbors, such as Thailand and the Philippines, seemed to make transitions to democracy in the ’90s, only to revert to semiauthoritarian rule in the following decade, dragged down by economic stagnation and incompetent and corrupt leadership. Japan has endured two lost decades of stasis and increasing poverty. Russia flirted with democracy in the ’90s but soon devolved into a kind of mafia state, its industries crumbling and its international power ebbing. Even the West, which had lectured China for years about privatization and embracing political reform, has over the past three years used considerable state resources to assist industries from autos to banking.
China, meanwhile, seems to be going from strength to strength. Many authoritarian states have tried to modernize without opening up their political systems, and while few have succeeded, none compare with China. China’s economy grew by nearly 9 percent in 2009, while Japan’s shrank by more than 5 percent, and the American economy contracted by 2.6 percent. China now holds nearly $1.2 trillion in US government debt. Moreover, defying Western demands for privatization and the neoliberal Washington Consensus, the Chinese government has reasserted control over many strategic economic sectors in the past decade. Of the forty-four biggest companies in China today, only three are privately owned.
Until two or three years ago, the “Beijing Consensus” appealed mostly to the world’s most repressive autocrats—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan—all eager to learn how China has modernized its authoritarianism. But in recent years it is not just autocrats who have sought to learn from Beijing. Increasingly, leaders and even average citizens of young democracies like Indonesia, Thailand, Senegal, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia—countries where popular support for democracy has weakened and where leaders are looking for new models of growth after the failure of the Washington Consensus—have taken an interest in China’s model. Studying the ten countries of Southeast Asia, Indonesian scholar Ignatius Wibowo found that with only a few exceptions, each country has moved in the direction of China and away from liberal democracy over the past decade, largely because these nations had watched China’s successes and contrasted them with the West’s economic troubles.
Contrary to the predictions of scholars like Huntington and Lipset, China’s middle classes have displayed little inclination to rise up, even as revolutions sweep across the Middle East. In fact, the city dwellers among China’s middle classes have become an increasingly conservative barrier to change. In the wake of Tiananmen, the Communist Party all but abandoned its traditional ideology and instead based its legitimacy on improving economic performance and instilling a new, muscular and sometimes nasty nationalism through media campaigns, revised textbooks and public events. In study after study, the majority of China’s urban middle class, who have prospered enormously since the reform period began in the late ’70s, do not seem to want to change the government. A young generation of wealthy urban self-identified “neoconservatives” pressures the government to take tougher action toward Taiwan, Tibet, Japan, the United States and other perceived enemies. Party membership, now thrown open to private businesspeople, has become as coveted as elite country club memberships are in the West. One comprehensive analysis of Chinese citizens, by the US-based East-West Center, found that “as China’s economic reform and growth have progressed, public interest in promoting liberal democracy seems to have diminished.” Because growth has benefited urban areas the most, urbanites especially think that political liberalization might transfer economic and political power to poorer, rural areas. A poll released last year by the Pew research organization focusing mostly on urban areas found that nine in ten Chinese are happy with the current conditions in their country. Only 30 percent of Americans, normally among the more optimistic people in the world, were satisfied with the direction of the United States.
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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.