Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The China Shadow boxer

In 1703 Lord Macartney was sent on an official mission to China. The purpose was to open the Middle Kingdom to trade  and to lure the Chinese with the latest technological “ know  how “ originated in the British Empire. The outcome of this first tentative approach  was a total failure. The Emperor Qianlong showed an almost insulting disinterest for the British and their ware.
A second attempt by Lord Armherst in 1816 led to the opium war, after the British Envoy received an even frostier reception.
Today similar attempts would have the opposite effect. The wares would be scrutinized in detail, copied, while the visitors would be anesthesied  by endless speeches, recriminations and banquets, which the Chinese  like to use to tire their guests. The WTO would have its hands full,attempting to penalize the infractions against intellectual property rules.
China is a problematic country. It is often seen as a homogeneous  land mass , inhabited  by Han Chinese , with little consideration for the Mongolian, Hui , Uigur , Kazakh and other various minorities.  Besides, the bright lights of coastal China hide a Hinterland where    economical  , environmental, political and religious problems abound. Tibet is a “sui generis” case which requires   a separate study , given the complexities which mark China’s sovereignty claim.

The Chinese leadership   remains basically an inward looking system which is obsessed by its staying power. The interest in the outside world is mostly opportunistic  , often neo- colonialistic  in its exploitative embrace. Foreign policy in the far abroad is amoral, practical and colorblind. Only the near abroad counts and there lies the lure of the dragon. It plays offended   by the “cordon sanitaire” which the Americans have conceived to contain its ambitions in the Pacific, the Yellow sea or the South China sea.  It is currently   elaborating its own” blue sea policy “ to counter this encirclement paranoia. Likewise it mobilizes its population in times of crisis, playing on the undercurrent of nationalism and historical hurt.
China does not want to get too involved in external “adventures”  ,where  the Americans  spend their money and  loose lives with no dividend in sight. They  use their ”soft power” to entice countries to sell them raw materials and energy on the cheap, but they are not inclined to indulge in esoteric nation building or the spread of democracy.
The close abroad (North Korea, Taiwan, Tibet ,S.E .Asia) becomes  a “chasse gardee” where any intrusion, primary from the USA, is seen as a potential hostile posturing. There the “motherland”  shows  its teeth.
The games Beijing plays in monetary and trade matters are unorthodox. It is surprising that this   scourge continues unabated.
It would be unfair not to mention the more positive aspects which derive  from  Deng Xiaoping’s ambitions. In the second world’s economy there is a slow bottom up increase in legal and political transparency. Citizens have already or can expect better standards of life and education. China expands its influence but doesn’t wage wars. It builds up its armed forces,but why should it be deprived of having an air carrier, like the French or the British have ?
 The Chinese have a DNA which sets them apart from Western historical models. They have adopted a Western Marxist theory but the latter is slowly retroceding  its intellectual territory to  classical Confucianism which fits the regime.
The Chinese are delighted to see the post Bretton  Woods  world order crumble and make room for “Asian values” or the empty  “Harmonious Society” slogan. The universal model which is so important for the advocacy of human rights, climate change etc. is slowly retreating in favour of ad hoc , BRIC type of formations ,debilitating a consensual world governance.
We have to learn to live with the world as it is. Fukuyama’s former ideas were already antiquated before the ink was dry. China will certainly evolve and when needed concede but it will never forget the past humiliations of the treaty ports ,unequal  treaties , the Boxer Protocol  or the looting of the Yuan Ming Yuan. Loss of face is for the Chinese loss of Self.
 In the collective memory of the Han Chinese  ,the leadership has a firewall which can be activated at any given time. China is a world player but it has turned its back to the internationalism from the Bandung days. This player is a reluctant one who puts self interest above Utopia. Left on its own devices it might concur, pressured it might bite.
The West and its allies in Asia should   learn from Lord Macartney  who advanced that nothing was more erroneous than to judge China by European conceptions. I am fully aware that this can also be applied to other countries, the difference being that  there is no” other”  for China  .We will have to compose with this partner/competitor who will never play by our rules, and why should  he ? We were the architects of a world structure that mainly served our own interests. Bygones are bygones. Policy rooted in nostalgia is D.O.A. It is time to redistribute responsibilities and concepts if we don’t want to end up in the Chapter of missed opportunities. Card games have to go on, even with a cheater in our midst. This  might even boost some creativity in  Western thinking, which is cruelly lacking lately.

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