Friday, May 15, 2015


It is becoming hard to find a country nowadays which gathers interest rather than a yawn.
The EU, Russia or the Middle East are a deja vu which puts people off. Only China (and to a lesser degree India) appeals to a deregulated curiosity. In this mindset the fascination differs from the awe created by Silicon Valley, for instance. The former appeases, the latter disturbs.
The latest issue of Foreign Affairs "China Now"  (Volume 94, Number 3) is a good example of the China "rage".

Hence the Chinese tidal wave which can no longer be contained and which does not fit the usual analytical models. Whatever China does is seen and analyzed through a looking-glass. The Chinese moves in the South China Sea (which need to be dealt with in a multilateral forum), the currency policy, the energy deal with Russia, the visibility of its military projection are the talk of the day.  However, Chinese actions remain mostly ambiguous, more about reappropriation than conquest, more about "face" than Putin-like aggression. The Chinese prefer to "project" historical or economic claims rather than resort to force. The Pacific powers have a difficult task, needing to protect the freedom of navigation, trade benefis, without antagonizing a power which might retaliate out of pique, in Taiwan, the Diaoyutais or Hong Kong.  ASEAN needs more to fear Chinese wrath than what it can expect from the US umbrella. America is being marginalized, hence the White House panic about the Trans Pacific Partnership (no China there) which is seen as a buffer against Chinese overreach.

Regarding China, everything gets exaggerated, inflated or magnified. The problem is that too many commentators take the short view as if they had suddenly discovered some destabilizing hybrid. The lack of any cultural/historical perspective falsifies the reality. China is seen as some aberration, while it should be seen in a continuity. The French Revolution or the Cromwell "interlude" in England did not finish off French or English history. The horrors of the Nazi  aberration or the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution did not stop Germany or Russia from returning to their historical path. Observers were always willing to consider events in the long run.

With China, things are different. Many comments discuss its growth as if there were nothing before, as if an emerging country suddenly, by miracle, had been able to make an unexpected giant leap forward. They forget that China was a major power, culture and laboratory for innovation, spanning an arc from the successive dynastic orders to Sun yat-sen. Beijing is reclaiming its due. That Mao inflicted a Dr. Mabuse-type of therapy on the Chinese does not diminish the resistance manifested by the besieged DNA in the psyche of the Chinese who felt betrayed by their own, after having been humiliated by the West.

Since Tiananmen, the Chinese have slowly rebuilt pride and can now project power. Certain China watchers, like Gordon Chan, see this house of cards collapsing in the near future. It is one thing to pretend that the Communist hold on power is there to stay forever, it is another to imagine that the Chinese will forego their might without guarantees for the future. China is here to stay and is taking over the narrative for the new millennium.

The major threat is less one of aggression than of soft-power manipulation.  Today, China has become the repository of fantasies, like America and Europe were before. This image overhaul will still require time to become overall effective. The man in the street is still more the result of the former Cultural Revolution debacle than of current Shanghai "sophistication". The former needs still to gain traction before it can compete with other's models. There is too much money and not enough manners. There is an inequality of wealth, housing and opportunity which remains often unattended for reasons of corruption and size. Nevertheless, progress happens, often uneven (Xinjiang or Gansu). The Chinese entered purgatory after their season in hell.

China has become a creative powerhouse and slowly but steadily it is able to "brand" its own competitive manufactured goods, fashion and culture. The old days of overall intellectual property transgressions are being overtaken by better behaviour. The undesirable cyber-spy rings continue to raid mostlt the United States and need also to be targeted by Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign. 
Seen in historical terms, China's rise could have been forecast, although the pace of the change surprised all.  

Voltaire's assessment regarding China sounds more accurate today than Edgar Snow's Mao sycophancy. In the end I prefer to bow to Andre Rijckmans (Simon Leys), who sorted out both the culture and the evil. Still, in the end China has appropriated his pen and is writing its own chapter.

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