A re-emerging Red Giant

In 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a group of American foreign policy analysts put together this book, China – The Emerging Red Giant (ed. Devere Pentony, Chandler Publishing). But re-reading those essays last week, it struck me that they could have – almost – been written yesterday.

Beijing accuses Washington of having a “Cold War mentality”, but it is Mao Zedong’s portrait which hangs high over Tiananmen Square, like an albatross pendant around the neck of the state. Mao, the anti-imperialist guerilla fighter, laid down the Party’s central dogma, that ‘the socialist system will replace the capitalist system’. He believed that the imperialist powers – the US as primus inter alles - were “paper tigers”, primed to collapse. And if they didn’t fall of their own intrinsic contradictions, then, to Khrushchev’s consternation, he was more than happy for the Cold War states to exchange nukes. More Red Chinese would survive.

Mao’s thoughts are still cannon law in China; and the current Party Secretary is clearly a fan. So why shouldn’t China’s foreign policy today run in continuity with then, Cold War-style, despite all those years? Same Party, same families, same institutions, same geographical position, same bursting paranoia about the West. The 1980-90s appear now more as an ebb, when foreign adventures gave way to much-needed economic reconstruction at home. Now that’s done, we flow back into world-order changing overseas ambitions.

As I read the essays, the continuities between then and now were clear. Four jumped out at me.

1. The need for an external enemy

The logic of external hostility is intrinsic to the PRC system. It can be dialed up or back but can never be shut fully off. It is best explained by Robert North: “Communist states cannot tolerate any kind of controversy that questions the system, and it is therefore essential for them to maintain scapegoats or “enemies”, both internal and external, against which all dangerous discontent and hostilities can be diverted.”

In multi-party democracies you can divert attention and blame the last government, or if it’s too late for that, the obstructionism of the opposition, or if they’re incompetent, ‘liberal’ judges. In a one-party state, you do not have such luxuries. So, you have to create ‘enemies of the people’ at home and abroad. North even goes so far as to write that in China “even an epidemic can be blamed upon the ‘imperialist’ and his domestic agents.” Wow. Cue the Foreign Ministry sending out their talking points to embassies and spokespeople worldwide; the source of SARS-CoV-2 is not necessarily China, nod nod, wink wink. It’s still a One Party state, unable to tolerate any dissent, so the incentives can’t have changed much.

And this dynamic is especially worrying since it suggests that the worse the problems Xi Jinping faces at home, the worse the frustration and ‘the more powerful the urge to strike out’ will be. This is not a choice; it is the logic of the system.

2. China as the Middle Kingdom

Those 1960s analysts believed that the way that Beijing views itself had not changed much from imperial times. Here’s the great Harvard historian John Fairbank to explain: China’s Emperor is the ultimate representative of human civilization, solely able to bring heaven and earth (Tianxia) into harmony, while barbarians come “to be transformed (laihua)”. Their kowtowing signals deference. (And if that all goes well, they get to be “a friend of China”; if they decline to kowtow, they are enemies who do not understand China.)

Now, one can take this kind of thing too far – but as the United States has a founding myth which colors a lot of its foreign policy, so does China.

Nadège Rolland has an excellent section on the varying shades of the concept of ‘Tianxia’ in contemporary Mainland international relations theory in her recent essay on China’s (murky) vision for a new world order (here). It is very much worth a read.

Scholars today are still debating its utility, but all agree the concept needs to be ‘softened’ away from an imperial Centre and supplicant, rest-of-the-world Periphery. (That said, the intellectually braver are happy to go straight to ‘China should lead a new world empire’ line, as Jiang Shigong argued recently here). But that exercise is mostly rhetorical or ends up in an unpersuasive “trust us, we’re superior and moral and will do the right thing”.

Xi Jinping endlessly talks a lot about ‘humanity’s community of shared destiny (‘renlei mingyun gongtoangti’). Who knows what that means apart from he thinks he should be leading it. I have a horrible feeling about that ‘renlei’ (humanity), though; it reminds me too much of what Communists do to the concept of ‘renmin’ (people).

Mao had a less-guarded, realist view on China’s near abroad. Here he is writing in 1939: “The imperialist powers took away many of China’s dependent states and a part of her territories… Japan took Korea, Taiwan and the Ryukyu islands [which flow up from Taiwan to Japan, and include Okinawa], the Pescadores islands [Penghu, off mainland Taiwan’s west coast], Port Arthur [in today’s Liaoning province]; England took Burma, Bhutan, Nepal and Hong Kong; France occupied Annam [central Vietnam], and even an insignificant country like Portugal took Macau.” (In later editions of Mao’s writings, Korea, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal and Annam were deleted from this passage.)

Do some in Beijing today view these areas as rightfully China’s still? Who knows. Our US analyst friends argue that Mao’s official Marxist “ideology” was a flimsy wrapper for hard realist interests. Whatever concept of ‘Tianxia’ or ‘common community’ Beijing decides to go with, today’s analysts will look right through them too.

3. Always-pressure, always-look-to-advance a little

Mao believed that always keeping the pressure up was ‘good politics’. (Maybe that’s the political genius that Mao would recognize in Trump.) But anyway, you can see the constant pressure in Beijing’s Asian strategy; always visiting, always hosting meetings, always signing agreements, always sending in the fishing boats, always flying over planes to test others’ air defenses.

And that pressure is combined with a fluid, dynamic view of relations with others. Here’s Doak Barnett: “China’s communists…think in terms of constant change and developing processes; rather than static situations…they don’t want to stabilize a situation or solve a problem; they look to further change.” Beijing’s strategy is subtle; always nibbling to get a small shift towards the ultimate end.

Our analysts also looked to Mao’s theory of guerilla warfare, which the great man describes as ‘The enemy advances, we retreat; enemy entrenched, we harass; enemy exhausted, we attack; enemy retreating, we pursue” (Mao on the Strategic Problem of China’s Revolutionary War). It’s a doctrine of constant pressure, flexibility and always seeking small gains.

In part, I think this is what so discombobulated Beijing about Trump’s trade negotiating strategy. It upended the usual “inch pleasantly towards an agreement” western approach, which Beijing knows so well how to neutralize with delay, unending pressure on all the small points and then viewing a final agreement as something to build on. Instead, Trump front-loaded the costs and waited for actual results based on his original baselines. Now, I think Trump ultimately folded but his approach is definitely something we should learn from.

4. Jekyll and Hyde, Zhou and Zhao

Not many Chinese diplomats graduate from the Zhou Enlai Institute of Winning Friends and Influencing People these days. When he was doubling as Foreign Minister & Premier in 1965, Zhou wowed the crowds at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, an event for non-aligned nations. Guy Wint observes that Zhou ‘breathed conciliation’, that ‘he would not be provoked into recriminations’.

Together with India’s Nehru, he signed off on the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’. These, Guy Wint notes, portrayed China as always-peaceful, always-non-interfering; and by default, the imperialist West as ever the interfering bully. The combination of Zhou’s emollient personality and these principles was extremely powerful; they backed up each other. Who could possibly think China a threat?

Of course, before and after Bandung, Mao ordered quiet military incursions into Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Vietnam, Burma, and Thailand. None of this has been officially repudiated. Instead, as Julia Lovell recently laid out splendidly (reviewed here), that has all been swept under the carpet. Non-interference, my ass.

This reveals a Jekyll and Hyde character to the regime – “friends” should be dealt with one way, “enemies” the other. And sometimes, when Beijing’s not sure, both tactics are deployed.

Zipping forward to today, programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative are clearly positioned as gifts for its friends, apolitical win-win economic development! And at the same time, there’s today’s Foreign Ministry, an organization with all the charm of the White Walkers. Spokesman Zhao Lijian is the anti-Zhou; a smug, brittle nationalist. The upside is at least he’s a gift for those who worry about the rise of China’s soft-power.

Rolland quotes Xi as saying that ‘in China’s blood, there is no DNA for aggression’. Though there is a short genome for bombing the hell out of Taiwan if they ever sought formal independence. Jekyll and Hyde – and our job is to figure out which is which.

I’m going to leave you with the concluding thought of the book. From 1962 remember…