Lots of beneficial brainwaves. Captures the acute feeling of vulnerability the Party feels. But maybe the sky isn’t falling in after all.
Gift diplomacy is intriguing. The old imperials tribute system was the exchange of gifts. The Emperor gave much better gifts than he received. The Ryukyu Kingdom became wealthy as a Ming Dynasty and later during the Qing Dynasty (despite its secret occupation by Satsuma of southern Japan) trading the gifts it received. I imagine that the PRC will be looking more at profit and loss than the emperors did back then!
Thanks to the magic of Google Translate, this fine article from the Dutch press.
INTERVIEW RANA MITTER EN NADÈGE ROLLAND
INTERVIEW RANA MITTER AND NADÈGE ROLLAND
“China is already shaping us more than we think”
Face masks and rewards for those who speak well of China; threats for those who criticize: Beijing’s attitude to the corona crisis shows what kind of world leader China can become, say sinologists Rana Mitter and Nadège Rolland. “We Westerners shouldn’t be so naive.”
Leen Vervaeke and Marije Vlaskamp May 8, 2020, 6:48 PM
If China was exhausted three months ago after the blows of Covid-19, the country is now recovering in a spectacular way. Beijing is sending face masks far and wide, urging the whole world to learn from China and those who object to it will have to deal with rude diplomats. Does China portray itself as a new world leader? And if so, what kind of superpower would it be?
Understanding the great Chinese plan for the world requires a look inside Beijing’s head. This is the daily work of sinologists Rana Mitter, professor of history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford, and Nadège Rolland, researcher of the American think tank National Bureau of Asian Research. These two top experts see themselves as “interpreters” of Chinese geopolitical thinking, Mitter from the historical context, Rolland from the political writings. “There has been a marked increase in interest in China and its role in the world,” said Rana Mitter from behind his desk in Oxford via video conference site Zoom. Nowadays he is asked almost daily to share his insights about China. “It is good to see people drawing attention to China’s influence in the world,” said Nadège Rolland from Princeton, five hours earlier. Together with the interviewers in Amsterdam and Beijing, the conversation spans four time zones.
China is emerging as the major problem-solver during this corona crisis. How is the country doing so far?
Mitter: “Chinese diplomacy has not been very successful over the past three months. Some foreign governments and institutions have been pressured to say friendly things about China (Chinese diplomats urged the German government to openly praise Beijing for its covid approach, however.). Beijing hoped that people would spontaneously say: our image of China was wrong, we should have given the country more credit. But that has hardly happened anywhere, except for a few small countries. “
Rolland: “But we have to be careful not to project our own ideas onto China too much. When we are in a crisis, we try to find a solution. But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) always feels in crisis because it is inherently paranoid. The party mainly uses the corona crisis as proof that democracy fails where the CCP succeeds. That was the tactic for covid, that is the tactic during covid, and it will still be after covid. “
The thinking of the Chinese summit is fundamentally different from that of Western capitals. To understand that Chinese thinking, a dive into history is needed. According to Mitter, Chinese leaders are burdened by the legacy of “a hundred years of national humiliation” (1839-1949) in the pre-communist era. Then Western superpowers and Japan kicked around the last few Chinese emperors. In addition, they have traumatic memories of the political chaos under Mao Zedong.
Mitter: “Four generations of leaders grew up with the idea that the system could be toppled or turned upside down at any time. That makes them nervous, surly, irritable and introverted. And that makes Chinese leaders less able to look at the world with confidence. “
Do you also see a lack of international experience among the Chinese political elite?
Mitter: “Most Chinese politicians only speak Chinese and do not make long trips outside of China, except on official trips. Then they are in five-star hotels without contact with the outside world, because they are too high for informal contacts. The group thinking about superpower that results from this is based on limited insights into the true nature of the world outside of China. “
What is the effect of this on the geopolitical thinking of the Chinese leadership?
Rolland: “When China was weak economically and politically, for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the fear complex about hostile forces turned inward. The tendency to be internally defensive has now spread to the rest of the world. The international system is based on what the CCP fears most: liberal democratic principles. So the Chinese leaders are now focusing their internal tactics on that system. They protect themselves by transforming the outside world into an environment in which they can easily defend themselves. “
Is that what they did during the Covid crisis: not helping the rest of the world, but defending themselves?
Rolland: “The Chinese leaders are currently feeling enormous external pressure. After all, the international criticism of mismanagement from the early days of Covid-19 strikes the most important myth, the mainstay of the party’s survival, namely the CCP’s competence, which achieves to make an entire country proud. That is why Chinese diplomats are on the defensive: in this existential crisis, proving that you stand up for the party is the most important thing. “
Chinese diplomats are increasingly aggressive on Twitter. For example, by spreading conspiracy theories that the virus was released by American soldiers in China. Or by suggestions, after President Trump’s slip, that some people should indeed be given an “injection of disinfectant” to end their “lies and hatred” about China.
A permanent part of the Chinese diplomatic arsenal is threats. When the Australian government called for an independent investigation into the origin of the virus, the Chinese ambassador to Canberra hinted at a consumer boycott of wine and meat from Australia. Is that a hint of what China would be like as a world leader?
Mitter: “That’s a significant difference between superpower China and the British Empire or the United States. Those superpowers managed to keep room for disagreements. That right to disagree is absent from the Chinese system. Anyone who says something negative about China risks missing out on Chinese investments. “
Doesn’t Beijing cut corners?
Mitter: “China flies masks everywhere as a gratitude diplomacy. But many Western countries see this as a distraction from the open conversation they want to have about the origin of the virus. That is how Beijing undermines itself. Suppose there is evidence that something went wrong in that market in Wuhan, no one would argue that Beijing did it intentionally. However, because China does not allow the Western world to make its own trade-offs, many aspects of China’s trade have been questioned.
“Last January, Britain had the Chinese tech company Huawei compete for contracts for 5G networks. The Chinese establishment was very satisfied with that. Four months later you see that the atmosphere in Great Britain has completely changed. Countries are beginning to wonder what price they will pay. Are they putting themselves in a position where they have to watch their words so as not to offend China? “
Is that a justified fear?
Rolland: “I think this crisis illustrates the world order we can have if China becomes a superpower. It is not about overthrowing governments or conquering territories, but about informal influence with which you encourage others to give you something back. That is more subtle than with a superpower in Western style. Those who are friendly and pay homage to Beijing will be rewarded with gifts. But those who criticize and go against Beijing’s goals are put under pressure. Look at the threats against Australia. “
Mitter: “Even my most internationally oriented Chinese interlocutors are captivated by a deeply emotional, romantic image of what China could be if given the space. No matter how they feel about political leadership, they are genuinely proud of the economy, high-speed trains and tech companies like Huawei. China yearns for recognition, respect and praise. For economic achievements, but also because they come with a completely different political system, which is nothing liberal. “
We are constantly talking here about China’s undermining of the liberal democratic model, but those who read Chinese political theories only see peaceful vague terms such as “win-win” and “a community of a shared future for humanity.” Is that a smoke screen behind which China is secretly advancing?
Rolland: “I think it is a form of manipulation. As China patiently expands its influence, it soothes the world with reassurance. You benefit from our economy, you become prosperous thanks to us and we do not challenge your political system. We even integrate into your institutions. We are doing everything so well that you don’t even see what our purpose is, which is to ensure with our power that you will have nothing more to say about us. Not about human rights, not about detaining a million civilians in Xinjiang, not about Hong Kong. If we can do that, everyone will be paralyzed, because then there will be no other options. “
One of the terms that we often comes back to is tianxia, literally: everything under heaven. This dates back to the imperial era, well before the 19th-century humiliation, when all of Asia paid respect to the Chinese ruler in exchange for trade and material gain. Is that the current Chinese ideal?
Rolland: “That is also such a concept that they do not use it because they believe in it, but because they find it useful, as a way to organize the world differently. The hierarchical order is clear: China is at the top, the rest are doing what China wants, because they are weaker and smaller. I also think that the concept of “reverence” is a lot less abstract than we think. Just saying you respect China is not enough. China wants to see that humble reverence in your behavior. It is subordinate yourself to China’s interests. “
According to the principle of tianxia, China is the center of ever-expanding rings. The more submissive a country, the closer to the bright center and the more economic benefit. But anyone who continues to struggle, such as the US or many European countries, is seen as “barbarian” and banished to a place far outside the rings. What’s up with that?
Rolland: “You cannot conquer those countries with your kindness, but it doesn’t matter. There are simpler ways. Countries like Serbia and Hungary may be happy with some assistance from China, and then you already have divisions in the democratic camp. That is enough to prevent unified resistance to your aggression. “
As far as the CCP is concerned, liberal democracies naturally languish in the barbarian periphery, while the rest of the world flourishes under Chinese leadership. Beijing is increasingly asserting itself as the leader of the “Global South”, countries that are not part of the established order of wealthy industrialized countries. The Belt and Road Initiative, the global infrastructure master plan that directs all trade straight to China, is the backbone of China’s ambition for world leadership.
Are these countries then the route along which China wants to spread its authoritarian model?
Rolland: “African and other developing countries are top priority for Beijing. Beijing shows the Global South that you don’t have to be a liberal democracy to become prosperous. It is not that China wants everyone to copy their model and that CCP clones are everywhere. But indirectly, China is undermining the international order. Because that order is based on freedom: to choose a government, to pray, to express yourself. By rejecting that, the CCP establishes itself as a counter-model. “
Beijing now has a problem with all these ambitions: the economy has been hit hard by the corona epidemic.
Mitter: “China’s enlargement model over the past ten or fifteen years has depended very much on the idea that China would become an indispensable economic factor, both in Asia and beyond. If the country can no longer provide that kind of substantiation, China’s offer will simply become less attractive. I think that is now being seriously considered in Beijing. “
Rolland: “One of the pillars of the CCP’s legitimacy has been badly damaged. I think that will mean that the party will lean more on other instruments of power: repression and control, nationalism and political struggle. The goals of the CCP will not change, only the tactics. “
Due to the Covid crisis, there is now more attention worldwide for those tactics. How can we best deal with this as European countries?
Rolland: “China wants unity for itself and division for the rest. Beijing thinks zero sum: if you live, I die. We Westerners shouldn’t be so naive. Stop thinking about the CCP’s rationale, don’t get stuck with the idea that we can shape China, because China is already shaping us more than we realize. Beijing tells us, of course: start to understand that we are strong and differ from you.
“European countries must safeguard their own interests and stand up for their values. In this competition between systems, we must counterbalance the aggressive Chinese public diplomacy. Show that our societies also function well in times of crisis! It is incredible that the EU is not for sale with the aid it gives affected countries. “
Mitter: “In the past five to ten years, the liberal world has become less certain of its liberal values. During the security conference in Munich in February, much attention was paid to the death of Western democracies. A Chinese politician who stands for the CCP’s reasonable, English-speaking sound asked, “Why do you Westerners have so little faith in your own system?”
Rolland: “Even if China presents us as incompetent, democratic advanced industrial countries have a lot that China would like. Perhaps the barbarians can realize how much advantage they have left, instead of feeling weak and divided. ”
Mitter: “I think we are sometimes too gloomy. If the US, the European Union and the United Kingdom together maintain a liberal front, the Chinese cannot do anything about it. It is up to the liberal world to be better liberals. To make sure the scenarios we sinologists describe here don’t come true. “
2014-now: principal investigator at think tank National Bureau of Asian Research, Washington DC.
2005-2007: master strategic studies, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
1994-2014: researcher and envoy to the French Ministry of Defense.
1989-1994: Mandarin and China studies, Institut National des Langues et Civilizations Orientales, Paris.
2001-now: professor of history and politics of modern China, Oxford University, researcher St Cross College.
1999-2000: History lecturer, University of Warwick.
1996-1998: professor of modern Chinese politics, Oxford University.
1988-1996: Mandarin studies and PhD in history and political science, Cambridge University.