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 …

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