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How China Gets Its Way

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Ding Lin/Xinhua/Corbis
The new members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee arriving to meet with the press, Beijing, November 15, 2012. From left: Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli.

In 1955, when I began my graduate studies of China and its language, one of my fellow students at Columbia asked our professor, Nathaniel Pfeffer, whether the United States would ever recognize Beijing instead of Taipei as the capital of China. Pfeffer memorably replied that it would take a vehement anti-Communist, because only such a person could escape being called a Communist. He then caused hilarity in the class by suggesting that then Vice President Nixon could be such a man. In October 1967, five years before his presidential trip to China, remembered for his observation that the Great Wall certainly was great, Nixon wrote:

We simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.

In their exceptionally interesting, articulate, and sometimes surprising study of the aims and conduct of China’s foreign affairs, Columbia’s Andrew Nathan and Rand’s Andrew Scobell write, “Every American president since then [1972] has stated that the prosperity and stability of China are in the interest of the United States.” Recalling Nixon’s remarks in 1967, they note that wishes can lead to something unintended. Once Beijing joined with other nations to deal with international issues, it regarded the United States as its most dangerous threat. The authors suggest—but only in passing—that a Sino-American war is possible, and emphasize that while Beijing often behaves in ways acceptable to other countries,

the world as seen from Beijing is a terrain of hazards, stretching from the streets outside the policymaker’s window to land borders and sea lanes thousands of miles to the north, east, south, and west and beyond to the mines and oilfields of distant continents.

A terrain, in short, often under the control of other powers to which Beijing is determined not to kowtow.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the authors highlight Chinese nationalism, which is based largely on never-to-be-forgotten humiliations at the hands of imperialists, and a determination never to be a victim again. Nathan and Scobell rightly insist that “nationalism remains the party’s most reliable claim to the people’s loyalty…. Nationalism unites all Chinese of all walks of life no matter how uninterested they are in other aspects of politics.” Indeed. Some time ago at Oxford I saw several hundred of China’s elite students picketing the visiting Dalai Lama as a “criminal.”

The authors note that dissenters rarely venture into foreign policy. But—and this is one of their surprising insights—they see Chinese nationalism as built on contradictions: “If the nation’s problems are perceived as coming from the outside, so are all the possible solutions.” More insightful still is their proposition that the main ideas and ideologies that shaped China throughout the twentieth century—Marxism-Leninism, science, Christianity, liberal democracy, authoritarianism, even the rule of law—came from abroad: “Now the creative forces in China got their power from reacting against while also absorbing elements from a more powerful outside culture.”

Nathan and Scobell have achieved a notable success. It follows from an earlier book, The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress (1997) coauthored by Nathan with Robert S. Ross, in which they forecast that China “may join the international regimes that govern trade, human rights, weapons proliferation, and other interactions as much in order to change them as to obey them.” This new book explains how that happened. The authors’ intention is to show how the world looks from Beijing. I think even the most ardent Communist Party members will find how they do this, topic-by-topic, fair. Until, as I contend below, they reach the end.

Inevitably, there are a few slips in favor of Beijing, like calling what happened in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989 an “incident,” which is the Party’s minimizing locution, or writing that Xi Jinping, just selected to succeed Hu Jintao as Party general secretary and due to become president next March, is tough but fair, and washes his own clothes. This is nothing but the Communist “plain-living” formula traditionally applied to the top leaders: Mao was a man of simple peasant habits; Deng Xiaoping used a spittoon, loved croissants, and was an ardent bridge player never so happy as when he was home with his family.

The opposite of plain living is the occasional vilification of men doomed not to be elevated. This is the fate of Bo Xilai, who, despite being the princeling son of a revolutionary hero, has been denied entrance to the Politburo for reasons involving the kind of corruption that could be attached to many past, present, and future laders. Such blackening is often accompanied by a smear of the disgraced official’s wife, who until that moment has been a high-flier. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, and his former chief of police, Wang Lijun, have confessed to Neil Heywood’s murder in orchestrated show trials that are wholly unconvincing to thousands of sarcastic writers on China’s vast Internet. Wang testified that he had extracted a sliver of Heywood’s body containing traces of the cyanide that Gu confessed she had forced down the man’s throat. No autopsy was performed and the British vice-consul who attended the cremation did not see a body. It is clear from the relative lightness of the sentences handed down on Gu and Wang that they were rewarded for voicing exactly what was expected of them when they read from their prepared scripts in the brief glimpses we had of their trials.

Now Bo Xilai has been expelled from the Party and accused of corruption, sexual misconduct, and perhaps complicity in Heywood’s murder. Among his accusers are new leaders who once loudly praised him. Chief among these is Xi Jinping. Xi is also a princeling, a son of a close ally of Mao. In his first speeches he railed against official corruption, as had then Premier Li Peng years ago when he said that corruption could destroy the Party. These recent speeches of Xi’s have already been derided on the Internet because of recent disclosures by Bloomberg of his family’s enormous wealth. (Similar disclosures were made by The New York Times of the wealth of Premier Wen Jiabao.) Official sources have denounced these allegations, but did not deny them.

The new leadership in every respect confirms the accuracy of Nathan and Scobell’s description: “A small, authoritarian, party-state-army elite that has the advantages of compactness and insulation from other government institutions, media, and civil society.” It is a mark of this insulation that during the conclaves that unveiled the new Politburo Standing Committee, Beijing cab drivers were ordered to removed the winding handles of their back windows so that no dissenting leaflets could be thrown from them, and pigeon fanciers were ordered to keep their birds secluded, also to prevent the spread of leaflets.

In Mao’s time, write Nathan and Scobell, and especially during the Cultural Revolution with all but one ambassador recalled, the Chairman made foreign policy, with Zhou Enlai looking after all arrangements, great and small. Nowadays, committees oversee foreign affairs and which leader at the very top makes the decisions is usually unknown. As they approach the making of China’s foreign policy, the authors provide a potted but clear picture of the supreme leaders:

[They] are well-vetted and long-experienced cadres of the Communist system…promoted through career tracks that have socialized them well to the rules of the system…. They suffer from information overload and selective analysis.

We learn the nuts and bolts of the policymaking establishment. There is the important-sounding Party Central Committee, with several hundred members; it meets perhaps twice a year. Above it, the Politburo, also important-sounding and numbering twenty or so leaders, meets monthly. But the real power lies in the Politburo Standing Committee, just replaced, consisting of seven members—“always an odd number”—that meets weekly and approves or makes the most important decisions.

One cannot state too clearly how little is known about the Standing Committee members, which explains this book’s bare accounts of their ages, previous posts, and anodyne personalities. Mostly men of a similar age, with dyed black hair, they operate in an atmosphere of secrecy, in which even wives are rarely glimpsed. Premier Wen Jiabao, who will be replaced next March together with other state leaders (top Party posts were changed in November), is the one encouraged to show a bit of personality. The official media call him “Grandpa Wen” because of his benevolent smile, and words of sympathy when he visits a train crash or earthquake survivors. But it was Wen who ordered that a much-touted high-speed train be buried almost at once after a recent crash, so that no inquest could be held or made public, and few if any of the Sichuan earthquake victims have received compensation while loud complainers have risked and sometimes suffered detention.

Nathan and Scobell set out the main elements of Chinese foreign policy. Some sound similar to those of all significant powers, others are sui generis. They observe that China has thousands of miles of sea and land borders with many close neighbors. With most of these, Burma and North Korea apart, it has, at best, wary relationships. It has fought short wars with some of them. Beijing aims to restore territorial integrity; Taiwan is the key goal, together with tiny specks in the South China Sea, below which lie the oil and gas reserves that China always seeks to secure, and valuable fishing grounds.

Another implacable aim is to frustrate, and if necessary crush, separatist moments in Tibet—the book’s Tibet section is especially well written and comprehensive; Xinjiang, home to a discontented Muslim population that Beijing has partially persuaded the US should be regarded as international terrorists; and the Mongolian Autonomous Region. To thwart any other country wishing to dominate Asia, Beijing flourishes its economic might, the threats of its military, and diplomatic blandishments. It seeks also, say Nathan and Scobell, to arrange the international order so that China’s policies are given due weight.

As the authors emphasize, China is strong in that it is large, has a big economy, and can insist on its voice being heard as a major power. But it badly needs the energy reserves of countries to which others, principally the US, also demand access. It opposes trading blocs and works to insure open markets and energy sources, regardless of the political arrangements in the target countries. This means insisting, for example, as in Syria, that only very rarely should the major countries interfere in what Beijing sees as the sovereign rights of others. Nathan and Scobell say as well that “China remains vulnerable to international criticism over the regime’s violations of human rights, which reveal the illegitimacy of the Chinese political model to many of the country’s own people.”

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