Many Western observers of China are familiar — perhaps too familiar — with China and the Chinese regularly complaining about foreigners meddling in its internal affairs. It was brought out for 2008′s Lhasa, Tibet riots as well as 2009′s Urumqi, Xinjiang riots, amongst a litany of other matters both large and small throughout history. It gets brought up as the standard, even obligatory, CCP government response whenever negative foreign opinion about something in or relating to China gets too loud. It’s China’s way of saying “shut up and mind your own business.”
Thanks to Richard Burger of The Peking Duck (still blocked in China), I just read Joshua Kurlantzick’s recently published “Nonstop party: The surprising persistence of Chinese communism” on The Boston Globe. It’s a lengthy article telling Americans how China and its government has thus far managed to defy the expectations and predictions of American leaders and China-watchers, by simply not imploding and still be around…arguably stronger than ever.
For example, China’s economic rise has led to the growth of a Chinese middle class, but this middle class that many Americans imagined would gradually hanker for greater political freedoms to complement their growing economic freedom has instead largely stood behind the CCP authoritarian government. Why? Because they see the Party as both the entity that gave them their economic prosperity and their best bet for safeguarding those economic gains.
Kurlantzick outlines how China has seemingly successfully managed — even co-opted — the effects of other things such as global integration, ethnic minorities, and increasing technology (in both information and communications), “forcing the world to re-evaluate the stability of authoritarian regimes”, forcing Western countries to realize that countries can “survive” (what about “thrive”?) without making a transition to democracy as they get richer.
Then, after noting (or threatening) that many countries are eying and trying to emulate this new, apparently feasible, and so-called “China model”, Kurlantzick reminds us that this model “contains some serious flaws,” or rather persistent problems: growing income disparity and wealth gap, disaffected rural masses despite economically bullish urbanites, increasingly violent mass incidents, the double-edged volatility of nationalism, and the friction between economic control and economic growth. He’s fair, however, by acknowledging that China “appears to understand its own weaknesses and is prepared to combat them”, trying to direct investment towards those being left behind and reining in excessive, counter-productive nationalism.
All of this is more or less matter-of-fact. I may not necessarily agree with the degree to which Kurlantzick attributes or frames certain things to CCP machinations and control, but overall, he’s offering a lot of clarity on a very complex but immensely important to understand conclusion that The Peking Duck summarizes as: “China is not about to collapse, democracy is not arriving in the forseeable future, censorship will continue, the CCP isn’t going away and it may still be in power generations from now.”
But then Kurlantzick offers some political advice and guidance on how America can mind China’s business:
An effective American China policy, then, should balance greater acceptance of Beijing’s rising power with a demonstration that, despite China’s rising influence, the US is not going to back off core beliefs, such as human rights advocacy. Washington also must recognize that trade and investment alone will not open up Chinese politics; the US could focus on areas where Beijing, though increasingly sure of itself, remains weak – such as providing technology for Chinese bloggers to get around Internet filters, or highlighting the vast problems of rural Chinese society (both Voice of America and Radio Free Asia have extensive Chinese broadcasts which penetrate rural China).
Washington has walked this line before. In a previous era when many academics believed the Soviet regime would last for decades, American administrations both dealt with Moscow on issues like arms control and pressured it on human rights. And the Soviet Union, perhaps like China today, had internal fissures whose extent went unappreciated. Ultimately, the USSR’s weaknesses overwhelmed it.
Emphases mine. Make no mistake, I’m personally all for freedom of information and society being aware of its problems, but this is, without a doubt, interfering with another country’s internal affairs. These are premeditated and coordinated efforts to influence and affect what goes on in another sovereign nation’s society, with its people, involving its politics.
And I say, “so what?”
Nations have been doing this to each other ever since ideology has existed as a concept. There’s no big surprise that we seek to influence each other both on an individual level and in aggregate as families, towns, cities, states, countries, and geo-political spheres. It’s just the way we function as a species in a shared, now global, society. Ideas and the will to use ideas cannot always be stopped by arbitrary and artificial lines drawn with blood, nationality, or race. We are organisms that seek to control our existence by controlling our environment, and whatever shares that environment with us.
So when China and Chinese complain that Americans (and/or Westerners) are once again trying to subvert their sovereignty or sow discord, they’re not always wrong. We can argue about specific instances and degree, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking they’re spouting nonsense. It’s true.
Likewise, when America and Americans complain that China and the Chinese are exporting their propaganda and censorship overseas, they’re not necessarily wrong either. Again, we can argue about specific accusations and extent, but let’s not pretend China doesn’t have interests it wants to protect or project.
It’s only fair.