How does China see itself in the current and future world order? Three China experts, at a May 7, 2008, event sponsored by the Asia Program, agreed that while China is changing rapidly and there was no simple answer, China’s international posture must be seen through the filter of its domestic scene and the leadership’s ability to control and shape expectations.
Susan L. Shirk, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, asserted that China’s current behavior exhibits a kind of split personality. On the one hand, China is striving to be a responsible power. She said that overall she was “very impressed” with China’s constructive involvement in world affairs, as illustrated by China’s hosting the Six-Party Talks to resolve the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, its improvement of relations with India, and its hosting of a meeting of major powers to discuss Iran. Additionally, especially within China’s foreign ministry, there has been a sensitivity that China’s rise has produced anxiety, especially among its neighbors. China is trying to counter this perception with positive action, for example through engagement in regional multilateral organizations.
On the other hand, there is a side to China’s personality that Shirk likens to a “national id.” This involves hot-button issues such as Taiwan and Tibet. These issues are not handled by experts within the Foreign Ministry, but rather by the Chinese Communist Party and the nation’s leaders. They are at core domestic issues, involving patriotism and nationalism; e.g., the Party has decreed that Taiwan will never be allowed to go independent, and is thus the guarantor of China’s sovereign integrity. The danger, notes Shirk, is that if things go wrong, it can backfire on the Party, raising discontent. If the Party stakes out a position, it then feels it cannot back down, lest it be seen as weak. This happened in the recent imbroglio over Tibet, where the Internet wires burned hot with criticism from Chinese citizens that the government’s initial reaction was too weak. Chinese leaders are so insecure and so jittery, observed Shirk, that they feel they have to react to such criticism—whatever the international cost.
Jeffrey W. Legro, professor of world politics at the University of Virginia, noted that China’s present intentions are clear, but the future is difficult to predict. He observed that power theorists posit that as a country’s power grows, so does its appetite. Thus, it is inevitable, according to this school, that there will be conflict between China and the West. On the other side, there is the optimistic school: increasing democracy and trade will lead to China’s continuing cooperation with the dominant values that characterize the West. Legro’s argument, in parallel to that of Shirk, is that China’s behavior is contingent on future events as filtered through China’s domestic politics. Today, stated Legro, China wants two things: economic development, and sovereignty and security over its traditional areas. As to the means for these goals, China has currently embraced cooperation with the international order.
The question is whether this cooperation will endure. According to the power theorists, China is simply biding its time, and eventually will “want more.” To date, however, China’s power has been growing, but its ambitions have remained restrained. According to Legro, the danger of China’s behavior deviating from the present is not when China is rising, but at the time of an abrupt downturn in that rise, when expectations are not actualized. Currently, the expectations are for an eight percent annual economic growth rate, and for national unity, in such areas as Taiwan and Tibet. It is when these expectations are not met that critics will arise and the regime will feel threatened.
William A. Callahan, Woodrow Wilson Fellow and professor of international politics, University of Manchester (UK), stated that while the West thinks of China’s rise in terms of its convergence to or divergence from international norms of free trade, human rights, and environmental protection, China’s elites are framing their country’s proper role in the world in terms of identity politics, asking “Who is China?” This shifts our attention from what the officials in Beijing say to how different Chinese voices understand their country’s past, present and future. For the purpose of the current discussion, Callahan examined the views of four Chinese public intellectuals—a philosopher, two film-directors, and an artist—who are neither state intellectuals nor dissidents. By taking a wide view of China, Callahan stated, we can better interrogate official slogans like “One World, One Dream” by asking which world, and which dream?
His conclusion was not very encouraging: the public intellectuals examined generally had a zero-sum view of China’s relations with the West that re-deploys stark cold war-style divisions. They also show a fascination with power as the exercise of control and violence, where unity is the goal and diversity is seen as a security threat. Living abroad does not necessarily temper these views: the work of the diasporic Chinese artist analyzed here also celebrated violence and conflict. Beijing’s current foreign policy narrative tells us that China is a “peacefully rising” great power that is working for a “harmonious world”—but Callahan’s presentation showed how this narrative faces serious challenges from opinion-makers within China.
Drafted by Mark Mohr, Program Associate, Asia Program
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program. Ph: (202) 691-4020