One of the few certainties about the imminent 19th Party Congress due to be held in Beijing later this year is that, whatever discussion about its meaning and outcome happens inside and outside China, we won’t see much of a well-informed debate about the ideas being championed for China’s future development. English language coverage, as it did in 2012, when the last major Congress happened, will largely focus on personnel issues, evidence about President Xi Jinping’s people being promoted or demoted, and statements about how this or that faction will emerge as winners or losers.
This is a huge anomaly. Even a campaign as visceral and brutal as that between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the United States last year did involve at least some clash of different attitudes and ideas – broadly a less interventionist state model (Trump) and a more engaged one (Clinton). The U.K. June election boiled down to the same kind of question – continuing austerity (Theresa May) versus ramping up the role of the state (Jeremy Corbyn).
China might still be under a one-party system. But it is hard to believe that at the heart of government these massive questions of the boundary of the state are not as passionately argued over as anywhere else. There is one very good reason for believing this: these debates in China were certainly there in the past. Throughout the 1980s, for instance, even in the first heady days of reform and opening up, figures like Deng Liqun argued fiercely against over-liberalization, whereas leaders like Hu Yaobang and then Zhao Ziyang occupied the opposing side. Even in the Maoist era, that argument, in a very particular form, was present. The leftists wanted an almost transcendent, utopian state. The few brave opponents argued for something less complete. The Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 was, in the end, a clash between one set of ideas (Maoist, class struggle, utopian ones) and another (pragmatic, more market-based approaches).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
When we look at scholarship on the long sweep in imperial Chinese history, we find out quite quickly that ideas always did matter, even in what is seen as a highly hierarchical, centralized, bureaucratic state. The late historian F. W. Mote, in his magisterial account of this history from the tenth century, made clear that throughout the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing eras, debates about neo-Confucianism, the spread of Buddhism, the rise of Western modernity, and the response to it in China all had profound impact. There was never a period in which tensions between competing thought systems were not present. This syncretic nature of Chinese political history is very striking.
It is still present. The Communist Party since the 1990s has presented itself as a learning organization, one that puts huge resources into training its cadres at all levels, and still sends endless delegations abroad to observe and study what others are doing. Why is it therefore that the understanding and appreciation of idea and policy debate in China is so undeveloped? And why is it that despite all of this, the 19th Party Congress this year is very unlikely to be seen in terms of how it gives evidence of the victory of some ideas over others, but will rather be interpreted for the way it is seen as consolidating the power of one figure – Xi Jinping?
Part of this can be blamed on the Party itself, and its strict management of the nature of debate in China, rather than its content. Policy argument is meant to happen out of sight, in closed spaces and hidden rooms. Publicly, the onus is on harmony and unity. So opacity means the wider world is often misled into thinking no argument has taken place at all. But partly it is also down to the very particular discourse of debate in contemporary China, where a political sheen that doesn’t exist elsewhere is put on terms like market, democracy, and economic development. Lurking behind this is the one point of consensus – that all debate, no matter what, must not threaten the legitimacy of the party-state to have a monopoly on organized political activity. A matter that would be absolutely viable for debate and contestation in most other places – the right of the current elite to continue occupying their privileged position – is off the agenda in the People’s Republic currently.
That shouldn’t mislead us. Ideas matter in China, probably more than ever. As Wang Hui, one of the country’s most prominent public intellectuals, stated a few years ago, every major clash in Chinese politics in the last few decades has had, at its heart, some fundamental policy difference. The way this has so often been communicated in the West, however, is through focusing on personnel, factions, and human agency, rather than on the more abstract, elusive issues of what ideas matter, and which are becoming more dominant.
This is a pity. In the past, perhaps, we overprivileged the role of ideas in ancient Chinese development. These days, we don’t give it any real space at all. We’ll talk about the victory, or defeat, of Xi later this year when we know the outcome of the 19th Party Congress. But we won’t hear much about the victory or defeat of particular ideas. And yet it is ideas, not people, that will matter much more later this year, and which will shape the development and success or failure of China in the coming years.
WITHIN Asia, it is Chinese activity, not Chinese inactivity, that has people worried, and their concern is understandable. Perhaps most provocative is China’s devotion to the “nine-dash line”, an ill-defined swish of the pen around the South China Sea. Within this perimeter, China claims all the dry land and, it appears, all the water and seabed too; by way of contrast, the rules of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would tend to see quite a lot of those things as subject to claims from other countries. Speaking in June at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional-security shindig in Singapore, Wang Guanzhong, a Chinese general, made it clear that although China respected UNCLOS, the convention could not apply retroactively: the nine-dash line was instituted in the 1940s and the islands of the South China Sea have been Chinese for 2,000 years.
Others in China have been blunter. Wu Shicun, head of the National Institute for South China Seas Studies, based on the southern Chinese island of Hainan, recently pointed out that UNCLOS was developed under Western guidance and that, looking to the long term, “we should rebuild through various methods of regional co-operation a more reasonable, fairer and more just international maritime order that is guided by us.” Not surprisingly, this has caused concern in Washington. “How much of the temple do they actually want to tear down?” asks Douglas Paal, a former American official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Probably not all that much, for now. But “China gets it that being a great power is messy, and involves trampling on a few flowers,” says Lyle Goldstein of America’s Naval War College. “It is a price the Chinese are willing to pay.” Rules such as those which say the nine-dash line must be respected might be acceptable for the small fry. But as China’s then foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, vocally pointed out at a meeting of regional powers in Hanoi in 2010, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is a fact.”
Militarily, this is indeed the case. China’s armed forces are, if not technologically first-rate, certainly large and impressive, not least because they include a nuclear-missile force. But some of Mr Yang’s small countries have a big friend. With troops and bases in Japan and South Korea, America has been the dominant power of the western Pacific for 70 years. Its regional presence has not declined much since it won the cold war a quarter of a century ago. On a trip to Asia in 2011 Barack Obama announced a “pivot” of his country’s policy away from the Middle East and towards Asia.
China’s leaders are convinced that America is determined to prevent their country from increasing its strategic and military influence in Asia—that it is trying to contain China as it once sought to contain and eventually crush the Soviet Union. The irony is that China is the only country that really believes the pivot is happening. South-East Asian nations express a fair amount of scepticism at the idea that America’s attention has been newly fixed on their region, and his opponents in America claim Mr Obama has done far too little to follow through on what he said in 2011.
That said, the recent Shangri-La Dialogue did nothing to dispel China’s fears. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, offered to assist China’s neighbours with military hardware, and has been pushing, within the constraints of Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution, for a more robust defence policy in the region. In his first year in office Mr Abe visited every member of the Association of South-East Asian Nations. America’s secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, endorsed Mr Abe’s ideas at Shangri-La, accusing China of “destabilising unilateral actions”.
China has been assertive in the South China Sea for decades, but there has been a distinct hardening of its position since Mr Xi came to power. Recent moves to dominate the seas within the “first island chain” that runs from Okinawa through Taiwan to the Spratlys (see map) have alienated almost all the country’s neighbours. “It would be hard to construct a foreign policy better designed to undermine China’s long-term interests,” argues Brad Glosserman of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a think-tank.
The moves are undoubtedly motivated in part by a desire to control the resources of the sea bed. But China itself does not see them as straightforward territorial expansionism. Chinese leaders believe their own rhetoric about the islands of the East and South China Seas having always been part of their territory–a territory that, since the death of Mao, they have chosen to define as almost the empire’s maximum extent under the Qing dynasty, rather than its more modest earlier size. And if they are expressing this territorial interest aggressively, they are behaving no worse—in their eyes, better—than the only other power they see as their match. The Chinese note that America is hardly an unsullied protector of that temple of the global international order; it enjoys the great-power prerogatives and dispensations they seek for their own nation. Disliking the restraints of international treaties perhaps even more than China does, America has not itself ratified UNCLOS. With a handful of allies it rode roughshod over the international legal system to invade Iraq.
China might also note parallels between its ambitions and those of America’s in days gone by. Although America waited until the early 20th century to take on a global role, it defined an ambitious regional role a hundred years earlier. In 1823 James Monroe laid out as policy a refusal to countenance any interference in the Western hemisphere by European nations; all incursions would be treated as acts of aggression. Conceptually, what China wants in East Asia seems akin to a Monroe Doctrine: a decrease in the influence of external powers that would allow it untroubled regional dominance. The difference is that the 19th-century Americas did not have any home-grown powers to challenge the United States, and most of its nations were quite content with the idea of keeping European great powers out of the area. At least in its early years, they were the doctrine’s beneficiaries, not its subjects.
China is not completely uncompromising. Along its land borders it has let some disputes fade away and offered a bit of give and take. But this is in part because the South and East China Seas are seen as more strategically important. A key part of this strategic importance is the possibility that, eventually, the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty will come to a head; it is in effect protecting its flanks in case of a future clash with America on the matter. The ever-volatile situation in North Korea could also create a flashpoint between the two states.
When Mr Xi said, at his 2013 California summit with Mr Obama, that “the vast Pacific has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China,” it was an expression not so much of the possibility of peaceful coexistence that must surely come from being separated by 10,000km of water, as of the idea that the western Pacific was a legitimate Chinese sphere of influence.
And if Mr Xi’s words, repeated to America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, in Beijing in July, seemed to imply a symmetry between the countries, China knows that, in fact, it enjoys various asymmetric advantages. For one, it is a unitary actor. It can drive wedges between America and its allies in the region. Hugh White, an Australian academic, argued in a recent article that, by threatening other Asian countries with force, “China confronts America with the choice between deserting its friends and fighting China.”
China’s armed forces are much less proficient than America’s. But China enjoys the advantage of playing at home. America can dominate these seas only through naval and air operations. If Chinese anti-ship missiles present a serious threat to such operations they can greatly reduce America’s ability to project power, without putting China to the expense of developing a navy of its own remotely so capable. Thus the military forces of the two sides are not as unbalanced as one might think by simply counting carrier groups (of which China is building its first, whereas America has ten, four of them in the Pacific).
China also thinks there is an asymmetry of will. It sees a war-weary America as unlikely to spend blood and treasure defending uninhabited rocks of no direct strategic importance. America may speak loudly, but its big stick will remain unwielded. China’s people, on the other hand, their views shaped not just by propaganda but also by a nationalism that needs scant encouragement, look on the projection of power in the China seas very favourably. And its military-industrial complex yearns to be paid to build bigger, better sticks of its own. Even if party leaders wanted to succeed in their stated desire for a peaceful rise and to remain within international law, the way they have shaped the spirit of their country would not necessarily let them.
This is especially true when it comes to Japan, the country which took on the role of regional power in Asia when China was laid low in the 19th century, and with which relations would always be most vexed. The vitriolic propaganda against the Japanese in Chinese media scarcely needs official prompting; Chinese suffering under Japan’s cruel occupation is well remembered. Japan is a useful whipping boy to distract attention from the party’s inadequacies. China’s leaders have legitimate security concerns and a right to seek a larger international role for their nation but, obsessed with their own narrative of victimhood, they do not see that they themselves are becoming Asia’s bullies.