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Unveiling Hidden China

Nadav Kander
Sunday picnic, Chongqing, 2006; photograph by Nadav Kander from his book Yangtze—The Long River, which collects his images of life along the Yangtze from its mouth near Shanghai to its source on the Tibetan Plateau. It has just been published by Hatje Cantz.

Napoleon famously described China as a sleeping giant that would shake the world when it finally awoke. Well, now the giant is up and about, and the rest of us can’t help but notice. 2010, indeed, could well end up being remembered as the year when China started throwing its weight around.

Why this should be happening now, in precisely this way, is not immediately obvious. For years Chinese leaders seized every opportunity to assert that their country’s growing power posed no threat to the international status quo. Talk of the “peaceful rise” was all the rage. Chinese diplomats deftly disarmed the concerns of their neighbors in the region, reassuring anyone who would listen that Beijing would never stoop to the sorry unilateralism of those imperialists in Washington. Journalists spoke of China’s “charm offensive.”

China Rising, a 2007 book by the University of Southern California’s David Kang, began by approvingly citing a speech a year earlier by Chan Heng Chee, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States. “Dynastic China’s relations with Southeast Asia were to a large extent based on ‘soft power,’” she declared. “It was China’s economic power and cultural superiority that drew these countries into its orbit and was the magnet for their cultivation of relations.” Chan concluded her remarks by saying that “there is much optimism in Southeast Asia” about China’s growing international heft.

That optimism now seems distinctly historical. In March of this year China startled the rest of East Asia by announcing that it would henceforth regard the territories in the resource-rich South China Sea as being an area of “vital national interest,” on a par with Tibet and Taiwan. Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan all claim various islands within the region as their own, but for the past few years China had succeeded in defusing the potential for conflict by pledging to resolve these disputes through negotiation, demonstrating its seriousness by joining a nonaggression pact under the aegis of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Now, by contrast, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is aggressively patrolling the disputed waters. Chinese naval ships have seized dozens of Vietnamese fishing boats and arrested their crews.

In September the Japanese Coast Guard arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler after his boat collided with two Japanese vessels in waters off the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which are also claimed by both Beijing and Taipei as their own. (In Chinese they are known as the Diaoyu Islands.) The Chinese thereupon threatened the Japanese with unspecified reprisals unless the captain was released, and a wave of anti- Japanese demonstrations—the one sort of mass gathering allowed by the Communist government in Beijing—swept over the country. Tokyo backed down and released the man without putting him on trial as originally announced, thus granting the Chinese a dubious diplomatic victory.

Some analysts speculate that the Japanese caved because the Chinese chose the same moment to curtail their exports of rare earth elements (REEs), raw materials that are crucial to the manufacture of much high-end gadgetry. (Japan is the leading consumer of REEs but has almost no supplies of its own.) Yet even after Tokyo’s concessions Beijing has kept up its bluster, insisting, for example, on compensation for damage to the Chinese ship. Then, at an East Asian summit in Hanoi on October 29, it canceled at the last minute the first official meeting between Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan since the dispute began, after accusing Japan once again of “violating Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The timing of these episodes is especially mysterious when you consider that China may have actually done considerable damage to its own interests. Its conflict with the ASEAN countries has almost certainly undone years of patient diplomatic work to bolster Beijing’s reputation. The dispute was immediately seized upon by the United States, which offered its services as an arbiter. For years Washington’s focus on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contributed to what some saw as its creeping marginalization in the region. Now, suddenly, the uncertainty over China’s intentions is encouraging Japan, South Korea, India, and several Southeast Asian countries—including, most bemusingly, Vietnam—to reassert their desire for cooperation with the Americans. The Singaporeans are now urging the US to get more involved in the region’s affairs.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s increasingly stentorian defense of its mercantilist trade policies, especially its insistence on holding down the value of its currency, is alienating its trading partners in Europe as well as the US. In July the German companies Siemens and BASF made a remarkably frank public complaint to Premier Wen about Chinese treatment of foreign investors—and those fears about China’s reliability as a business partner were exacerbated by China’s de facto ban on the export of REEs, which was lifted abruptly (and inexplicably) on October 28. Finally, the extraordinary stream of official invective that greeted the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the dissident Liu Xiaobo in October certainly hasn’t helped. I haven’t seen polling data yet, but I would not be surprised to discover that China’s international reputation has reached a new low.

Why the sudden turnaround? One reason could be a surfeit of self- confidence. 2010, after all, may well prove to be the year in which the People’s Republic surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy; Chinese growth has continued apace during a period when the world’s established economies were slogging through a deep recession. Yet China, as its own leaders acknowledge, still has a long way to go. At $6,600, its per capita GDP remains that of a developing country—just above Namibia’s in the world rankings.

Another answer might involve China’s internal politics. As Ian Johnson recently noted in these pages,1 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been trying to negotiate its most complicated leadership transition since, arguably, the reform period began, and this—or so one theory goes—has encouraged rivals for power within the political establishment to spare no effort in demonstrating their credentials as defenders of Chinese national pride. This makes sense. And yet all the recent muscle-flexing has also taken place at a time when some Chinese leaders—above all Premier Wen—have hinted about the need for political reform. Which trend should we take more seriously? The inner workings of the Party determine economic and every other kind of national policy and, as the books under review show by default, they remain as secret as ever. How do we figure out a place as big, and as complicated, as modern-day China?

There is certainly no shortage of people willing to give it a try. Yet it was not so long ago that China-watching was an occupation limited to a select and frustrated few. A small band of Western academics and intelligence officers who could only dream of gaining access to the People’s Republic struggled to make sense of the place from afar. They spent their days poring over newspapers in the Universities Service Center in Hong Kong (a mostly American-financed repository of all things Chinese) or doggedly interviewing the émigrés who managed to find their way out through tightly closed borders. In his vivacious memoir China Watcher, leading American Sinologist Richard Baum recalls a time when just getting your hands on an internal Party document was enough to launch a career—not that many people outside academia really cared that much. The relative marginality of China studies reflected the profound isolation and impoverishment of Mao’s Middle Kingdom. Compared with the all-defining struggle between the Soviet Union and the West, China was something of a sideshow.

These days, of course, the dilemma facing would-be Sinologists is exactly the opposite. The trickle has become a deluge. You can interview tycoons and peasants, or crunch the statistics gushing from government offices or stock markets. The inner workings of the Communist Party may remain the proverbial black box, but overall access to virtually every other part of society has improved immeasurably. Mandarin-speaking foreigners poke around in some of the country’s darkest corners. Ironically, the opening of China’s borders has coincided with the rise of the Internet, meaning that physical presence is no longer quite as important as it used to be. Nowadays, you can track public developments in China from the comfort of your home office—and not only from the ever-proliferating array of foreign websites and forums devoted to scrutinizing the country. The Chinese themselves, needless to say, are the best source. China’s population of Web users, at 384 million, already exceeds the population of the United States, and many of them are bloggers, engaging in passionate discussions that will never find their way into the Party-controlled press.

Today, in short, just about anyone can become a China hand. Combine this with the centrality of China’s new position on the world stage, and it is easy to see why so many are tempted to try to make sense of the place. The results, as one might expect, are uneven. Recent books range from travelogues and journalistic grab bags to intensely serious academic studies. Very few of the many guides on business and economics rise above the usual bromides. China’s Megatrends, by John and Doris Naisbitt, represents the low point of the genre: studded with fawning tributes to the government and generalizations so grand as to be useless, it exults in the platitude: “We wished some of the journalists who criticize China so self-righteously and condescendingly would also write about the cosmopolitanism and savoir-vivre of some top-ranking Chinese politicians.”

The other extreme is represented by Yasheng Huang’s Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, a brilliant examination of economic policy since the start of the reform era that builds on meticulously mined data to arrive at some provocative insights into the broader pattern of Chinese Communist Party decision-making. Huang argues that during the post-Tiananmen period China has in fact backtracked from genuinely market-oriented economic reform, giving priority instead to a top-heavy and increasingly inefficient brand of state capitalism.

James Fallows’s collection of China essays, originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, uses old-fashioned reporting and pointed anecdote to illuminate topics ranging from renminbi valuation to environmental policy. Particularly disquieting, for example, are his visits to the Chinese towns that both mine coal and use it to fire the kilns that produce cement. In these “coal-and-cement towns,” he writes, “people and buildings are colored black by the coal dust swirling around them, and coated gray and white by the cement dust that leaks from the kilns and…pours from the exhaust stacks.”

Common to many of these books is the assumption that modern China cannot be properly understood without reference to its historical and cultural sources. The British journalist Martin Jacques and the American political analyst Christopher Ford both seek to explain how China will behave on the world stage by exploring China’s intellectual traditions. Jacques argues that culture is the key. It is of utmost importance, he says, that we understand that China is not a “nation-state” in the usual Western understanding of the term, but rather a “civilization-state” founded on the Confucian legacy of “emphasis on moral virtue, on the supreme importance of government in human affairs, and on the overriding priority of stability and unity….” This is a worldview that emphasizes respect for hierarchical relationships; it privileges the collective over the individual, and regards opposition to the state not only as dangerous to the established social order but as downright immoral to boot.

  1. 1

    See ” The Party: Impenetrable, All-Powerful,” The New York Review, September 30, 2010. 

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