Last week The New York Times carried two great but mutually contradictory articles on China. On July 14, Steven Lee Myers and Paul Mozur wrote, “One by one, the United States has hit at the core tenets of Xi Jinping’s vision for a rising China ready to assume the mantle of superpower.” A reasonable conventional wisdom.
A few days earlier, however, Ross Douthat said, “There is another way to look at things. It’s possible that we’re nearing a peak of U.S.-China tension not because China is poised to permanently overtake the United States as a global power, but because China itself is peaking …” Possibly an equally reasonable insight.
Which one, however, is the real China? This was a question I raised two decades ago as a diplomat posted at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing. At that time, I was both mesmerized and puzzled by China. Having studied Chinese in Taiwan in the mid-1970s, that was the first and only time for me to live in the mainland.
Eventually, one of my senior colleagues gave a simple answer to my question when he said: “The threat of China is neither their military power, ideological autocracy nor political maneuvers. Make no mistakes. The real threat is the size of China itself.” My views on China remain based on this maxim.
A nation's size matters
The peoples living in the areas called the People’s Republic of China today have been more divided than united for the past few thousand years. It is also a reality that 1.4 billion humans are now ruled by one government, if not fully united under democracy. This reflects an ominous reality for China’s smaller neighbors in the region.
Simply put, this means that those neighbors, including Japan, are completely outnumbered by China. Militarily, in a war their resources would run out first. Economically, nobody can ignore the huge market China provides. Politically, the voices of smaller nations can be easily overwhelmed. This is what outnumbered really means.
Gentle or aggressive?
The year after the normalization of Japan-China and U.S.-China relations, I took Chinese as a second foreign language as a freshman at the University of Tokyo. Many Japanese started visiting Chinese cities, including Nanjing. The Chinese at that time treated people from Japan very generously.
Many Japanese veterans who fought in China visited the country in the 1970s and the early 1980s and expressed their personal remorse and apologies for the war. The Chinese hosts, however, just smiled and told the Japanese visitors, “You don’t have to apologize because the war was caused by the Imperial military of Japan.”
Things have totally changed since the 1990s. After the Tiananmen Square incident on June 4, 1989, Beijing’s policy toward Tokyo turned negative. The Chinese government resumed its criticism over history issues and Japan’s militarism. In more recent years it began sending ships into Japan’s exclusive economic zone and territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands.
All is real and false
If you are puzzled by the above, you do not know China well enough. The Chinese Communist Party’s strategy has been very consistent. Its goal is for the party to survive, period. To survive the existential threat from the Soviet Union, it needed rapprochement with Japan and the United States in the 1970s.
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s tactics of “Conceal your strengths and bide your time” worked perfectly. In 1989, when faced with a popular resistance like the one that destroyed the Soviet Union, the CCP cracked down on the students for survival. China's recent aggressive behavior vis-a-vis the West is, of course, for the party only to survive.
Why China does continue its aggression?
Hiroyuki Akita, an award-winning journalist with the Nikkei daily, has presented four hypotheses: China is either: 1) implementing what had been originally planned; 2) taking advantage of COVID-19 while the U.S. suffers; 3) diverting domestic criticism against itself; or 4) just defending its military and governmental organizations.
Each hypothesis makes a good point. Yes, the CCP’s original plan has always been its survival. Yes, China always takes advantage of the power vacuums its opponents may create. Yes, deflection always works in Chinese politics. Yes, there are bureaucratic elements involved.
Having said that, they may not be enough. My additional hypothesis is: As a second-generation leader of the Communist revolution, Xi Jinping needs to augment the party’s 70-year-old legitimacy, i.e., China’s unity and victory against Imperial Japan. What he and his predecessors found was Chinese nationalism.
Nationalism is like opium. Once you start taking it, you cannot stop. Decades of economic growth have widened the gap between the rich and poor. China's Intellectual property rights abuse infuriated its business partners of the West. Its economic and military strength has convinced the Chinese leaders that they can be more assertive.
Such aggressive policies may satisfy some patriotic supporters for a while. The more you depend on nationalism, however, the more difficult it will be for you to do without it. If you tried to stop it, xenophobic voices will start criticizing and eventually ruin you. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to Japan in the 1930s.
In autocracies’ politics, supreme leaders often depend on the domestic balance of power. They cannot reprimand extremist military officers who commit aggressive acts against the international community since they have the power to oust or damage supreme leaders such as an emperor or a party general secretary.
Making comments on China reminds me of an ancient Indian parable of “The Blind Men and the Elephant.” When asked whether China is formidable, I say China is not as powerful as you think and when asked if China is weak, I say China is not as vulnerable as you say. The truth seems to be always somewhere in between.