China’s Manifest Destiny

Recent events have demonstrated a trend that has been sweeping across China since the Spy Plane Incident of 2001. China has finally, following the traumatic events of 2008, shaken off what little awe they may have had for foreigners. This truly is the end of the Western Age and the Dawn of the Chinese century. 

For a few China Watchers, the Chinese century provided the possibility of a new, perhaps Third Way in world politics that would utilize soft power and multi-lateral discussions instead of hard power and unilateral decision making, exemplified by the late Bush Administration. Alas, the truth is that China will most likely behave as most superpowers have throughout history: arrogant and self-serving, drunk on this new power — Superpower. 

Three things in particular are indicative of China’s increasing power, confidence and method in the years to come. The first is the sentencing of Liu Xiaobo, a co-architect of the Charter 08, published late last year as a plea to enlightened reason in the People’s Republic. I mentioned the constitution last year in my blog, as I happened across a link to the charter provided by "Perry Link". At the time, I thought that such a document could be a catalyst for a nationwide soul search at best, or internal Party discussions at least. Unfortunately, all that followed was the prompt arrest of Mr. Liu and now, a year later, his sentencing to 11 years in jail. 

Human rights groups, literary figures and heads of state from across the globe are protesting Mr. Liu’s sentence, but China’s favorite spokeswoman Jiang Yu’s response that any protests are a "gross interference into China’s internal affairs" is not only expected, but this time final. There will be no soul searching in China now. 

In a related case, an Englishman on death row in China has one more week to live, according to Chinese law. Although his family have repeatedly asked that Akmal Shaikh be considered mentally incompetent, up untill now the CHinese have been adamant about having respected his rights and, more importantly, about his having violated Chinese law. Any CHinese national caught with 4kg of heroin would be summarily shot in the head. If China does go through with the execution, the first such in more than 50 years, then there can be no doubt that the world has changed forever, from the perspective of the West. 

The second is the reported behavior of the Chinese delegation to the Copenhagen talks on climate change. As reported in the Guardian, the Chinese effectively scuttled the talks. The Europeans reacted with indignation and began pointing fingers. China remains unperturbed. The PRC has extensive national security issues riding on any agreement concerning climate change. Just as the developed nations a century ago, China relies on dirty coal and basically zero enforcement of environmental regulations to keep the economy humming. If the economy stutters, so does China’s rise; if China’s rise stutters, so does the Party’s grip on power. 

What should be blamed, if anything, in the failure of the Copenhagen talks on climate change to produce a lasting treaty is the naivete of the Western nations. Can anyone rightly blame China or India for scuttling talks that would effectively halt the onset of an Asian Century? Think back to Bush’s refusal to give weight to the Kyoto Protocol — is it any wonder that the next superpower takes lessons from the last? 

The third "recent event" is reported on in detail by the Asia Times‘ MK Bhadrakumar: China’s unassailable power in Central Asia. In this article, China’s successes in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are attributed to "15 years of patient, painstaking diplomacy" that have finally reaped rewards in the form of increased energy security for an energy starved nation. The key here is that China’s energy security comes at the expense of Russia’s traditional dominance and America’s more recent foray into the Great Game. Most striking of all is the gross miscalculation by US strategists that Central Asian countries would be wary of China and feel safer striking deals with the US. Where they got this idea is beyond me: America and Russia have bombed Afghanistan into bits and pieces and the US is about to increase their troop presence to at least 30,000 and we are supposed to be a safer option than China? 

What is more likely is the outbreak of a deeper, wider conflict in Central Asia as Obama’s War drags on into failure and China’s successes provoke a reactionary response from an embittered, partisan Congress. 

For years Western thinkers have been predicting the coming collapse of China, and they can be forgiven such predictions given China’s domestic problems: shoddy products, massive corruption, life-threatening pollution, stifling oppression. But what they did not take into account is the power of nationalism. For the nationalist, all things are tolerable in the name of progress for the nation. This, above all things, is what has kept China’s drive for superpower status alive for so long: call it China’s Manifest Destiny. 

A Long Time Coming 
Since April Fool’s Day 2001, the Communist Party has actively cultivated its most potent weapon: people power. Over the years, as China’s economy grew and so did America’s problems at home and abroad, Chinese patriotic fervor slowly grew into a pillar of support for the government, in any form. I often heard criticism of the Party followed quickly by heartfelt support for the country, which by necessity included the Party. 

Last year was the breakthrough year for China. The snowstorm followed quickly by protests in Tibet followed quickly by a devastating earthquake followed quickly by the Olympics was traumatic and emotional for all Chinese. The vital part of this story is, not only did China survive, but it flourished. The snowstorm barely put a dent in China’s travel plans, the Tibetans were put in their place, the whole world admired China’s response to the quake, and Chinese athletes won the most medals of any nation. 

A few days ago, I sat with a respected engineer who has been working in China for more than 30 years and he lamented the recent reluctance of his Chinese partners and subordinates to listen to anything he had to say. 

"Ever since the Western financial institutions collapsed, the Chinese don’t believe they have anything more to learn from us," he said. "This will come back and bite them in the future, because without an open door their economy will stagnate." 

He also added that he is working on a project in China of which the likes have not been seen anywhere in the world: the biggest bridges, longest tunnels, fastest construction, and most money spent ever. The problem for him was not just that the work is being done too fast, with too much corruption, and with dubious materials and safety precautions, but that no one outside of China has any access to the work being done here. 

And this is the rub: Chinese are taught (and believe) that until very recently, anything of worth was already being made here in China. They are taught that in the past, China was the greatest nation on earth and needed nothing from the West. Stories about the Dutch trade representative kowtowing 24 times just to be denied an audience are not just fodder for a weak nation, but reminders of a glorious past and hints at an even more glorious future. 

And until recently, Western leaders tolerated this worldview because it had not yet arrived, but recent events show that China’s Manifest Destiny has indeed reached the other shore and the days when China waited in vain for an apology over the accidental downing of its plane are over.