Fact, not fantasy, must inform China narrative
Flanked by his most senior colleagues and overlooking a Tiananmen Square awash with pageantry, President Xi Jinping last month noted how much the Chinese Communist Party had achieved since its humble and dangerous beginnings in Shanghai a hundred years earlier.
The CPP was founded with just fifty members and now has a subscriber list of 95 million. It has governed China since 1949.
The first century’s goal of creating a ‘moderately prosperous society’ had been achieved, declared Xi. Now the mission was to build China into a ‘great modern socialist country’.
Those planning to stop it would find themselves on a collision course with a great wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people.
The anniversary celebrations set off a starting pistol for what former Australian Prime Minister and China specialist, Kevin Rudd, has described as a ‘decisive phase’ in the Sino-American contest, saying, ‘This will be the decade of living dangerously.’
Asian governments are finding themselves caught in the middle of what is fast becoming a cocktail of rhetoric, ideology and hard-boiled power contest about territory and influence.
In formulating policy, Asian nations need to dispel two separate myths, one originating from Washington and the other from Beijing.
Language from Western democracies is increasingly trying to separate the CPP from China and to prise Xi Jinping away from the government he runs and country of which he is head of state.
The aim is to create a mindset among voters that the Chinese people are supportive of the Western concepts of freedom while the Chinese Communist Party and its leader are not. The language echoes failed tactics used over the decades to separate Ho Chi Minh from the Vietnamese, Saddam Hussein from Iraqis and so on, all swirling around the worrying end-goal whiff of regime change.
A headline in Time magazine read: ‘At Centenary Celebrations, Xi Jinping Says China’s Success Rests on the Communist Party. But, In Reality, It’s All About Him.’
This is simply not true. Xi sits at the top of intricate structures by which China is governed. They have been tested, reformed and strengthened. They were in place as the CPP ousted the US-backed nationalist government in 1949, through to China building itself into an economic and military global power.
As Xi reminds us, the CPP was built under the ‘fundamental guiding ideology’ of Marxism, which is ‘the very soul of our Party and the banner under which it strives’.
Marxism is a red rag to an American bull. This is the evil ideology that fell apart at the end of the Cold War and was meant to have been buried for good under the rubble of the Berlin Wall. But, here we are, barely thirty years later, and Marxism is once again crowing about giving democratic capitalism a run for its money.
The thought that Xi might go and the CPP collapse, Soviet-style, with a billion-plus Chinese settling down to become model democrats is a thought for cloud cuckoo land. If those CPP structures did fail, the world would barely know what had hit it.
Asian governments living with their medley of political systems need to slap down this fantasy, and the language that accompanies it, at every level and at every opportunity.
The second myth originates in Beijing and revolves around the economic suffering it could inflict on those countries that do not adhere to China’s line. Records show that Beijing’s bark often proves to be far louder than any damage caused by its bite.
Those countries that have tested China’s wrath range from Australia, India, the Philippines and Mongolia in the Indo-Pacific, and Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom in Europe. They have been (or are being) shut into a Chinese doghouse, yet are seeing that they can emerge in far better shape than before.
For example, from 2010 to 2016, Norway experienced the doghouse after the Nobel Committee awarded its Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo. Beijing made a show of cutting imports of Norwegian seafood, but overall business mushroomed such that, by 2015, bilateral trade had reached record levels.
Each country at risk of being caught in Beijing’s vice could publish a detailed audit as to how dependent it is on Chinese trade and what benefits this brings to its citizens.
In a research paper for the Council on Geostrategy, seasoned former China diplomat Charles Parton points out that, despite much debate in Britain on how to handle Beijing, investment comprised just 0.2 per cent of all investment from abroad, with no significant creation of employment. He also concluded that most exports carry on regardless of the political storms, so long as British companies make goods China wants.
Armed with this narrative, clearer-eyed decisions could be made without worrying about a Chinese backlash. Asia, of course, is more directly entwined with China than Europe. But similar principles can apply.
One case in point is the Philippines’ hot-and-cold relationship with China, pivoting around the South China Sea dispute. If China had the influence it claims it has, the Philippines would have been subdued long ago, yet that has not happened.
There is an opportunity here for the West and the wealthier Asian countries to work together to protect the more vulnerable such as the Philippines, Bangladesh or Cambodia. A coalition of like-minded governments can do the sums, foresee damage and, if necessary, step in to fill any economic vacuum, thus helping secure the dignity and sovereignty of each nation.