There are contradictions between China’s overt national confidence, its growing domestic repression, and its paranoia, both internal and external. Perhaps there is an understanding that, despite China’s impressive rise, time actually may not be on its side
The problem posed by the rise of China has been a prominent theme in Australian national security considerations for over a decade. The sheer scale and multi-dimensional nature of the challenges posed by China, however, are more often commented upon than explained. The China debate in Australia often tends towards simplification or euphemism, with China’s supposed ascent to regional dominance viewed by many as inevitable. Not only does such a view potentially overstate the extent of China’s national prowess, it also presumes a linear inevitability to China’s progress towards superpower status. It is important not to seek out some semi-mythical middle ground of non-illuminating diplomatic nuance, but rather to identify the underlying nature of the China problem and the challenges posed by it.
First, we must deal with the China that exists, not the China of an optimistic imagination or of the dissembling habits of diplomatic practice. How best, then, to describe the political character of today’s China? Is it, as some might have it, only mildly authoritarian, on a track towards a more liberal sensibility, as the economic aspirations and freedoms of a large and growing middle class inevitably build pressure for political reforms? Or should it be understood as an unreconstructed totalitarian regime with unique Chinese characteristics?
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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While China suffers under the political monopoly of the Communist Party of China (CPC), it is no longer meaningfully communist, as its economy is run on a capitalist rather than socialist basis. It is state-directed capitalism, however, rather than the liberal, free-market or social-democratic varieties more familiar to the West. The Chinese economy is deeply mercantilist, with a consequent danger of generating conflict with other major powers. In his history of realist thought, No Virtue Like Necessity (2002), Jonathan Haslam describes the mercantilism of Colbert, Louis XIV’s leading minister from 1661, in terms that equally could apply to China today: “The emphasis was on manufactures as a means to wealth as a path to power.” Modern Chinese mercantilism protects domestic industry from foreign competition, provides subsidised finance to export industries, and allegedly manipulates its currency to benefit those export sectors. China has sought to gain global control of particular market sectors by exporting at below-cost prices to drive out competition, and increasingly seeks to dominate important technology sectors. And it either coerces foreign companies to hand over intellectual property as a condition for market access, or just steals it. Beijing can grant access as a reward for approved behaviour, but also restricts market access when it seeks to punish states for behaviour inimical to Chinese interests, as it did, for example, to the Philippines when the dispute over the otherwise insignificant Scarborough Shoal flared up in 2012.
CPC rule is repressive, in the traditions of absolutist Leninist political control. There exist no meaningful freedoms of speech, religion, association, access to information (including an open internet) or rule of law. Dissenting views can be quickly dealt with by political purges, and professional and financial ruin for dissenters. After the shock delivered by 1989’s Tiananmen Square protests, an implicit post-massacre “deal with the devil” was concluded between the CPC and the aspiring middle class: the Party agreed that those citizens could pursue greater prosperity with little hindrance from the state, but the citizenry must refrain from political activities or any other pursuit that could harm the Party.
Paranoia has nevertheless persisted since 1989 that survival of the Party, and thus the CPC leaders’ own political survival and consequent paths to wealth, is constantly endangered. This fear, not uncommon in authoritarian regimes, may in part account for the fact that economic freedoms remain heavily circumscribed. No CPC leadership team has been prepared to run the risk of allowing too much personal economic freedom, lest it lead to growing expectations of greater political freedoms. The Party has thus created a dilemma for itself. On the one hand, it must try to keep its end of the post-Tiananmen bargain to allow the people to satisfy their economic aspirations. On the other, it must ensure that those aspirations are constrained to maintain political control. It is a tricky balancing act, all the more so because the prime motivation for rapid economic development is not the betterment of individual citizens, but the revival of a once-great nation. The great mass of the Han Chinese majority are largely pawns to that end, although often willing ones in an era of centrally promoted nationalism. Beijing remains paranoid about retaining control of the most distant parts of its continental empire, home to ethnic and cultural minority groups long resistant to domination by Han Chinese. Regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang are subjugated by ever harsher repression, including recent revelations that perhaps over 8 per cent of Xinjiang’s Uighur population is currently imprisoned in political “re-education” camps.
The corporatist, consensus model of governing practised by the tiny coterie of elites who dominate the most important CPC decision-making bodies has evolved into an even more centralised system of political control. These changes have resulted in the further concentration of power in a small number of committees and so-called leading small groups dominated by the current leader, Xi Jinping. The removal of presidential term limits in March 2018 to allow Xi to remain leader indefinitely symbolises a new era of strongman dictatorship. However, a broad continuity in Beijing’s international policies and ambitions has persisted over time despite several leadership transitions.
The consolidation of a new absolutism nonetheless may have conveniently provided an opportunity for the West to adopt a more considered, sceptical approach towards Beijing. China has pursued a consistent path to national aggrandisement for decades, even if those ambitions and the Party-state’s political-cultural immunity to Western liberal influences were not initially well understood by the outside world. Yet the nature, character and scope of the China threat have been readily apparent to those familiar with the actual evidence of its actions and statements since at least 1995-96, when Beijing attempted to coerce Taiwan’s surrender by ballistic missile blockade and coercive military exercises; a symbolic event unappreciated by many in the West due to widespread political, strategic and moral ambiguity with respect to Taiwan’s status. A decade later, in 2005, when the US Deputy Secretary of State, Bob Zoellick, famously queried “Whither China?” in a speech in which he challenged China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, the question might as well have been rhetorical, in the negative.
While China’s global impact may often have been beneficial, especially in trade and, particularly, economic opportunities for developing countries, the overwhelming evidence of the negative strategic implications for the global liberal order were already apparent in 2005. Moreover, favourable treatment of China to encourage it to become a responsible stakeholder, such as its membership of the World Trade Organisation and the Paris Agreement on climate change, has often been self-defeating, enabling Beijing to make strategic gains relative to the West, largely funded by the West.
The China of successive leaders Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, thus has consistently been highly nationalistic, deeply resentful of the humiliations commonly perceived to have been visited upon it from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth, and seeks the restoration of Chinese power, glory and recognised status as, at the very least, the leading power of Asia. The reach and scale of Chinese designs for international economic penetration and influence under Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, however, suggest that Beijing’s ambitions are increasingly global. The China of the last forty-five years has been geopolitically expansionist: occupying and physically expanding disputed territories in the South China Sea, coveting territories occupied or claimed by other governments throughout littoral East Asia, and seeking to control related sea areas. It continues to press, militarily, against disputed land borders, particularly with its rival Asian land power, India; and demographically and economically, into Russia’s sparsely populated Far Eastern territories.
The theme of national renewal was a central tenet of Chinese nationalists throughout the twentieth century. National development was a focus even of Mao Zedong’s regime, which exhibited strong nationalist tendencies despite its Marxist-Leninist roots. As communism waned, Deng Xiaoping and his successors turned to an increasingly strident nationalism as the Party’s legitimising ideology. Like the nationalism that permeated the Maoist revolution, today’s variant has its roots in Sun Yat-sen’s early-twentieth-century revolutionary nationalism. But as Jacqueline Newmyer Deal has argued, whereas Mao adopted only some of the ideas of Sun and his fellow early nationalists, in post-Maoist China “the original Chinese nationalism has come back to the fore”. This is a nationalism which was heavily influenced by late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century ideas of “nation, race and social Darwinism” imported from Europe, often via Japan.
Today, national rejuvenation is promoted as the “Chinese Dream” by President (and General Secretary) Xi. Setting out the ambition in a 2012 speech, Xi employed a historical continuum to explicitly link the Chinese Dream to past suffering in the era of foreign depredations and the struggles to overcome those humiliations, including during the recent reform period. Launching the future of a revitalised China as a third stage of the continuum, Xi said, “Imbued with the national spirit of patriotism … we have finally embarked on the right path to achieve the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, further noting that while “backwardness left us vulnerable to attack … only development makes us strong”. With a worldview that understands international relations largely in zero-sum, conflict-prone terms, Xi’s Chinese Dream is strongly reminiscent of late-nineteenth-century thinking.
These characteristics—Leninist political control; a capitalist, mercantilist economy controlled by the state primarily for national aggrandisement rather than the wellbeing of the people; the semi-mythological quest to restore China’s greatness and international leadership; and expansionist claims to territory and waters far beyond those ever integral to previous iterations of the Chinese polity—result in an admixture suggestive of a significant political transition during the reform years. The reform period can be viewed as one in which the Chinese polity transformed from a Maoist communist order into a form of fascism. Thus the contemporary polity may be characterised as a form of distinctly Chinese neo-fascist totalitarianism.
The Search for Neofascism (2006), an important study by leading fascism expert A. James Gregor, concluded that “post-Maoist China shares more properties with paradigmatic fascism” than any other candidate polity, where “the unmistakable features of a generic fascism seem evident”. Consistent with Newmyer Deal’s observations regarding the return to a revolutionary nationalism redolent of Sun Yat-sen, Gregor further noted that Guomindang (nationalist) rule under Chiang Kai-shek exhibited many similarities with the rule of the Fascists of Mussolini’s Italy. It is a great historical irony then, that the fascistic Guomindang order governed by martial law on Taiwan gave way to democratic governance at the very time that the political order on mainland China was transitioning to a neo-fascism that in certain respects approximates that previously imposed by the mainland Chinese nationalists exiled on Taiwan since 1949.
Importantly, application of the neo-fascist label should be considered as an attempt to accurately describe China’s current political character, not simplistically as a term of disapprobation. Despite the dominant mythologies of the political Left, there is nothing inherently worse or more dangerous about fascism than communism. The horrific crimes committed by the regimes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and other communist revolutionaries, collectively accounting for the deaths of perhaps 100 million or more, provide ample grisly evidence for the deadly totalitarian psychopathy of twentieth-century communism. In practice, all totalitarian regimes, whether fascist, communist or otherwise identified, have been distinct, but share more in common with each other than with any other form of government; rather than representing opposites on a Left-Right political spectrum. While it has become commonplace for the term fascist to be employed as a generic label of abuse, particularly by those on the Left, this cannot disqualify its genuine political-theoretical application to identifiably fascistic regimes. Nor should the term be avoided due to its association with the Nazis, who were a very particular brand of hateful lunatics, and truly atypical fascists.
Nonetheless, to characterise China in this way is potentially controversial. Even the term totalitarian is usually eschewed for the use of authoritarian, as if this may cause less offence. Often comparisons with other totalitarian regimes may be rejected on the basis that this represents a form of “Cold War thinking”—a term frequently employed pejoratively in Chinese government parlance. This type of rhetorical subterfuge should be rejected. The refrain of some contemporary apologists for the current Chinese empire, such as “China is not the Soviet Union”, is merely a statement of the obvious. True, the current Chinese empire is not a fortress state. The Chinese people are free to travel and study abroad, for example, and are even encouraged by their government to pursue overseas business interests, while China is open to foreigners and foreign businesses, albeit in a rigidly controlled manner.
But an acknowledgment of such differences misses the point for policy-makers and framers of strategy. All states are, in detail, unique. Chinese totalitarianism simply takes on a different form from that of the Soviet Union or other totalitarian regimes; although the strategic-cultural ghosts of dynastic China are also increasingly evident in the rhetoric and behaviour of the contemporary state. It is only once this particular character of post-Maoist China is fully appreciated, though, that appropriate China policy can be formulated.
The problem posed by China’s re-emergence is not so much that it seeks to re-establish itself via domestic renewal as the leading Asian power. That would be challenging enough for its near neighbours and the world at large. The greater dilemma is that Beijing seemingly seeks to expand its empire not just to encompass the farthest reaches of territory which may have been under even the nominal control of any previous Chinese empire, but to covet all such territories collectively, across all time. Beijing has even set its sights on expansion into areas never before incorporated into its realm by trying to exert control over disputed island territories in the East and South China Seas and adjacent waters. These waters encompass globally significant economic and strategic thoroughfares, as well as important marine resources for the littoral states, where Australia maintains either direct or indirect interests.
As with other great continental empires, China’s borders historically have been ill-defined and fluid, at least until the modern nationalist era. Adjacent states formerly under Chinese suzerainty in any of the dynastic eras can once again be expected to be treated as vassals. Indeed, it seems ever more apparent that Chinese thinking about international politics has instinctively reverted to traditionalist worldviews which place China at the centre of the political universe, as the “Middle Kingdom”. In earlier times this was meant both in a literal, geographical sense, with Chinese control and influence slowly diminishing the further one strayed from the imperial capital, and also in a metaphorical one, with the emperor perched atop an international geopolitical hierarchy; reflecting both China’s one-time material and scientific eminence and its self-belief in Chinese cultural superiority. The American China hand Michael Pillsbury, who has advised numerous US administrations since the early 1970s, argues in The Hundred-Year Marathon (2015) that China has been working for decades to supplant the United States as the world’s leading power, while avoiding war, in order to return China to its “rightful” place at the head of the international hierarchy by 2049—the centenary of the CPC victory in the civil war.
There was a time when such conceptions seemed little more than clichés; anachronistic political-cultural stereotypes imported and applied from a long-gone era. What we are witnessing, however, is not simply a return to a traditional Chinese worldview, but one infused with the modernist impulses of Chinese nationalism, heavily imbued with myth, fuelled by Party propaganda. Take China’s controversial maritime disputes. The typical official Chinese refrain is that disputed territorial features have been Chinese territory “since ancient times”. This is nonsensical both in terms of historical fact and international law, including with respect to Taiwan. Unoccupied islands, rocks and reefs literally were beneath the contempt of the imperial court. It was only in the period of modern Chinese nationalism that interest grew in trivial offshore territories, with claims made in the post-war era. Chinese covetousness over the actual waters of the East and South China Seas evolved only slowly in this period, with the extent of its maritime geographical horizons growing steadily since the early 1970s. China’s precise claims always have been vague, expanding the scope of its ambitions as its strategic position improves. China’s expansive sovereignty aspirations at sea have been matched by attempts to similarly control areas of international airspace above those seas, and threats to freedoms in the other global commons of cyberspace and outer space.
Contrary to China’s own foreign policy doctrine, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, Beijing has demonstrated little regard for the sovereignty of other states, has increasingly behaved aggressively, especially at sea and in cyberspace, has interfered in the internal affairs of other states, and scoffed at the idea of equality between states. The then foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, infamously admonished ASEAN foreign ministers in July 2010: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact”; an eerie if less dramatic echo of Thucydides’s Melian Dialogue during the Peloponnesian War, in which Thucydides had the Athenians demand in 416 BC that the people of Melos recognise Athenian power and submit or reap the consequences: “since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.
Australia has hardly been immune from China’s posturing or the consequences of its strategic expansion. Canberra’s response, at least publicly, had been typically reactive to individual incidents or short-term political issues rather than resting on a realistic long-term strategic appraisal of the China problem; at least until the Rudd government’s 2009 defence white paper. That document identified the larger geopolitical questions more or less accurately, but achieved instant notoriety among those for whom offending Beijing is an anathema, whether for diplomatic or commercial reasons, or simply due to a lack of moral courage. Predictably, in response to the objections of Beijing and its Australian apologists, the next white paper of 2013 was obsequious and untruthful in how it dealt with the China challenge, while the current white paper is somewhat inconsistent in its messaging. Nonetheless, the maritime-oriented force structure first identified in 2009 for the future Australian Defence Force (ADF) has been supported consistently by both major political parties when in government irrespective of Chinese criticisms, even if the Gillard government regrettably de-funded its own policy. And, diplomacy aside, that force structure, centred on a doubling of the future submarine fleet, undoubtedly is driven primarily by expectations of a looming China threat.
However, much of the China-focused heat generated by the national security analytical communities, whether government, think-tank or academic, has, until very recently, been driven too much by materialist concerns rather than by acknowledgment of broader political-strategic challenges. An anecdote from twenty years ago illustrates the point. A senior Department of Defence official stated baldly in a public seminar that China was not a threat. This was arguably untrue even in 1998, but it was only to be expected that a public servant follow the official policy of the day. He subsequently undermined his argument, however, by stating that Canberra was deeply concerned about China’s submarine programs. While it is possible in the (near) future that artificial-intelligence-driven fully autonomous robotic vehicles will roam and fight in various battle spaces, it is not currently the case, and certainly was not the case in 1998, that Chinese or other countries’ submarines prowl the oceans autonomously creating havoc. Submarines, as with other weapons, remain for the time being instruments of the polities which control them. Thus, if China’s submarines were deemed to be a problem, then this truly reflected the fact that China itself constituted a strategic danger, even back then.
Nevertheless, the episode is indicative of the materialist strain in Australian defence thinking; that changes in such material characteristics of foreign states as economic power or military might alone should somehow be inherently meaningful for Australian policy. Rather, it is the political intent, policies, strategies and actions of foreign states, in the contexts of their political character and geopolitical status, that should inform our thinking. It is not that material factors are unimportant, particularly in respect of the tactical and operational concerns of defence planners and the ADF, but material factors alone cannot be determinative of sound policy. Another former Defence bureaucrat, Hugh White, in his controversial The China Choice (2012), also takes a materialist approach, stressing that changes in relative power between China and the United States require some sort of accommodation to China’s rise if conflict is to be avoided. White’s argument treats state power in rather abstract terms in which it is assumed to be both relatively easily assessed, and translated into intended strategic outcomes. The focus on the inevitability of particular geopolitical outcomes is an inherent error in such approaches, which pays no heed to matters of contingency or fortune or political, cultural or individual agency.
Another fundamental shortcoming with many Australian policy-makers’ conceptions of the China challenge is to characterise the central problem as the deteriorating relationship between Beijing and Washington, as reflected in the 2016 Defence and 2017 Foreign Policy white papers. No doubt, there are alliance implications for Canberra should actual conflict break out between China and America, and there can be diplomatic rationales for such official sleight of phrase. But such phraseology needs to be better understood as a euphemism for the China threat: Sino-US relations are not the central problem.
This sometimes intentional confusion may be viewed as a continuation of a long-standing tradition in Australian political and strategic thought, and national myth-making, which has tended to mischaracterise the leading threat of the day as largely incidental to Australia’s national interests, and rather a consequence of the great power relationships of our primary ally-protector. Following such egregiously “astrategic” lines of thought, imperial Germany didn’t pose a real threat to Australia, and we had no business fighting in other people’s conflicts in the Great War; the more immediate and proximate problem of imperial Japan, and not Nazi Germany, was the main game in the Second World War; and in the Cold War following belated Western recognition of the dissolution of monolithic communism with the Sino-Soviet split, East Asian communism and not the Soviet Union posed the greater danger. Even in the latter Cold War years the Soviet threat was often viewed as more incidental to an outbreak of central nuclear war than as a direct one to Australia’s fundamental interests. These characterisations reflect a strategic myopia due in part to parochialism in foreign-policy thinking and lack of geopolitical understanding. Each era in fact posed an existential threat to Australia’s survival as a culturally Anglo-Saxon liberal democracy. Australia has never had viable neutrality options, even if one disregards the moral implications of doing so, which would have allowed us to retain our Western liberal democratic values and political culture against the pressure of overwhelming external anti-liberal threats.
So it is also today with the mischaracterisation of the China threat as merely the consequences of deteriorating Sino-US relations. While Beijing arguably may not yet pose the level of global existential menace once generated by imperial Germany, Nazi Germany and its Axis allies, or the Soviet Russians, the underlying problems posed by China internationally nonetheless all threaten Australian national security interests: including threats against, and coercion of, fellow democracies and friendly nations throughout Asia, geostrategic expansionism, centrally directed intellectual property theft, mercantilist economic policies, interference in other countries’ (including Australia’s) domestic affairs, threats to freedom in the global commons, and a rejection of the existing international order in general. These problems are not a function solely, or even primarily, of our alliance with the United States. The danger of repetitively restating the euphemism, though, even for diplomatic purposes, is that national decision-makers, policy communities, the media and the public, may eventually accept the official mantra at face value.
Others come to this euphemistic view as a pre-conceived worldview. Former foreign minister Bob Carr provides an exemplar of this position throughout Diary of a Foreign Minister (2014), in which he made clear his preference to create distance between Australian and US policy. He reflects a mistaken belief that we can pretend that China’s multi-faceted threats to our security can be avoided, or at least ameliorated, if only we can extract ourselves from the ANZUS embrace. Recently, in response to US Vice-President Mike Pence’s important China speech of October 4, Carr urged Canberra to avoid being dragged into an alleged Trump administration ideological anti-China “cold war”; but he misses the obvious point that China has been pursuing a cold war of sorts against the political West for decades, contrary to the vain hope that it would become a “responsible stakeholder”. Following the stutter of the second Obama administration, when Washington fudged its own re-balance to Asia, US moves under Trump may signify not just a realisation of the unwelcome reality of the China challenge, but the first real tangible signs of pushback.
So it is too with Australian policy, such as the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act 2018, as well as planned ADF enhancements. While Australia may have developed an unhealthy but unavoidable export dependence on the Chinese market in some industry sectors, in the overall economic relationship there is a growing recognition that national security must trump short-term commercial considerations. This is particularly so with inward investment not just by Chinese state-owned enterprises but also “private” companies from any industry deemed to be strategically important by Beijing, such as those in the telecommunications sector, which simply cannot operate independently of Party-state control. Other information-gathering and influence-building methods related to universities, former politicians, the media and both public and private sectors are increasingly well understood and reported. In a 2013 speech Xi Jinping, in promoting such complications, exhorted Chinese students studying abroad to “adhere to patriotism”; in 2014 he impressed upon ethnic Chinese living abroad, irrespective of how many generations separated these “overseas Chinese” from the putative motherland, that they all had a role to play in realising the Chinese Dream.
There are contradictions between China’s overt national confidence, its growing domestic repression, and its paranoia, both internal and external. Perhaps there is an understanding that, despite China’s impressive rise, time actually may not be on its side. China’s domestic difficulties are manifold, from protests and riots to debt, corruption, environmental concerns, and a looming demographic crunch, while internationally, Chinese actions and threats are slowly generating countervailing coalitions of worried states. Such concerns may help to explain a growing sense of urgency to realise the Chinese Dream, as reflected in Xi’s opening speech to the 19th CPC National Congress in October 2017. If China’s long-term future is plausibly to be one of decline or, at least, stagnation, rather than further strategic expansion, the current era (say 1995 to 2040) may be the most dangerous one for Australia, our allies and regional friends. In such a scenario, it is essential that we are prepared to cope with great danger in the near to medium term, rather than simply planning for longer-term horizons. But in either case, it is only prudent that we get to grips as soon as possible with the true nature and character of the China which confronts us, even if that might make us somewhat uncomfortable.
Chris Rahman is Principal Research Fellow and Associate Professor, Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, University of Wollongong.