Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2018.08.15

Who is making China great again?

the japan times on June 25, 2018

Last week, a major Tokyo-based international securities firm contacted and requested for me to talk, in front of dozens of their most valuable clients, about the ongoing "trade war" between the United States and China. I initially said, "It's a great honor," but instantly told the caller that he might have picked a wrong speaker on that subject.

He basically said he wanted me to discuss the future of Sino-American trade relations, its potential impact on the international market and its ramification on Japan-China economic ties. I said if he was interested in numerical figures or relevant World Trade Organization regulations on this matter, please find a prominent economist, which I am not.

Then I told the embarrassed junior representative of the well-known securities company the following:

1. What we see now between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping is not a simple trade war but rather is a newly resumed cold war not only between the world's two biggest economies, but also between the two most robust military powers in the Indo-Pacific region. The ongoing U.S.-China trade war is not about trade alone.

2. The essence of the current U.S.-China relationship is not only economic. It is more about the national security of the U.S. and its strategic competition with The People's Republic of "China 3.0," an issue that Elizabeth C. Economy correctly addresses in her new book "The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State."

3. Therefore, I will not and maybe cannot discuss the economic details of the U.S.-China trade war. If you are looking for a speaker to do so, there are many of them in the market or academia. My intellectual curiosity is not about the market but about the global rivalry among the major powers in the 21st century.

The unlucky young man then said, "No, no! That's exactly what we want you to talk about and how can we invite you?" Oh, if so, why didn't you say that from the beginning, I murmured silently. Then I told him that I would not specify the amount because my speech fee is a "market price." They declined to have me speak eventually.

The story does not stop here. This episode reminds me of the unbridgeable gap between the money makers in business and the market on the one hand, and the strategic thinkers or security policymakers in the government, on the other. Under the current security environment in East Asia, it is imperative that Tokyo fill this gap.

In her new book, Economy rightly refers to Xi's desperate efforts to make China great again as the People's Republic of China's "Third Revolution." I would rather call it the eighth Chinese attempt to make China great again since the humiliating defeat in the 1840-42 Opium War against the United Kingdom.

The past seven attempts were as follows:

1. The Taiping Rebellion: This was a massive rebellion/total civil war in China from 1850 to 1864 between the established Manchu-led Qing dynasty and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom under Hong Xiuquan.

2. The Self-Strengthening Movement: The period between 1861 and 1895 in China was one of institutional reforms initiated during the late Qing dynasty following a series of military defeats and concessions to foreign powers. The reform was unsuccessful due to strong opposition from the Empress Dowager Cixi.

3. The 100 Days' Reform: This was a 104-day (from June 11 to Sept. 22, 1898) national, cultural, political and educational reform movement in the late Qing dynasty. It was undertaken by the young emperor and his reform-minded supporters, which eventually failed after the coup of 1898 led by Cixi.

4. The Boxer Rebellion: This was a violent anti-foreign, anti-colonial and anti-Christian uprising that took place in China between 1899 and 1901, toward the end of Qing dynasty, as can be seen in the 1963 American historically based film titled "55 Days at Peking."

5. The Xinhai Revolution: This was a revolution by Nationalist Chinese groups that overthrew Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China in mainland China. After the communist revolution of 1949, however, the ROC was forced to retreat to Taiwan.

6. The Chinese Communist Revolution: After the Civil War ended in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party took control of most of mainland China. On Sept. 21 that year, Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China.

7. The Open Door Policy: A program of economic reforms termed "Socialism with Chinese characteristics" in China that started in December 1978 by reformists within the Communist Party, led by Deng Xiaoping.

And finally, there is the ongoing Xi Revolution in the 21st century. Will his dream of "making China great again" come true, especially after all the previous attempts proved either abortive or half successful? The following is my take on this important question:

A) History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. What happened seven times may happen again in a different way. Any dictatorial governance in China, from the Taiping movement to the Kuomintang government, seems to be doomed to fail.

B) We were wrong about China's economic reform. In the 1990s we believed in the socio-political transformation of the Chinese society after the "capitalismization" of its economy, which we thought would gradually but steadily change the Chinese domestic political dynamism. We were wrong.

C) You cannot be a reformer and dictator simultaneously: Xi cannot forever take advantage of his concentrated power and the globalization of free trade system from which China benefits most. Trump is wrong about the value of the free trade system, but he may be right about Xi's far-reaching ambitions.

D) Somebody must pay for the consequences: Unless any effective measures are taken, we will eventually witness one of the following two outcomes: Either China overtakes from the U.S. as the hegemon in the Indo-Pacific region, or the U.S. dramatically modifies its global security and trade policy, and remains the dominant Indo-Pacific power.