Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in today’s Telegraph writes that the West should “treat Beijing politely but firmly..., gambling that the Confucian ethic will over time incline China to... concord.” Though he doesn’t have space to address the obvious problems with his rough analogy between China and pre-WWI Germany (to start with, the CCP has little to gain and everything to lose by invading sovereign neighbours and evinces no credible intention to do so), he makes some very worthwhile points.
In China in recent years I've been surprised by how often I've come across individuals, on the far horizon of whose world view you can glimpse the possibility (I’m tempted to say desirability) of some kind of conflict with the US. I’m going to make an exception to my unstated policy of not quoting in this blog from books I’ve written, and lift an example from The Emperor’s River:
‘ “Waiguoren hao!” he says with a big thumbs up, apropos of nothing. “Foreigners are good!” Then he adds: “Danshi wo bu xihuan Meiguoren. But I don’t like Americans. America always attacks small countries, like a bully. They wouldn’t dare to attack us. We’re a peaceful country, but if it comes to a fight with the Americans we’ll fight and beat them. It doesn’t matter how many Chinese die, there are always more. We are one billion more than them, and we’re not afraid to die.” ’
I’ve been visiting China for extended periods since the start of the 1990s, and each time I go back it seems this background hum of bellicosity gets a little louder. It’s possible to draw quite a straight line between those begrudgingly hawkish sentiments I’ve noticed on the streets and the CCP’s present need to promote rather a raw brand of nationalism as a counterbalance to the downsides of economic development: crudely put, if Lao Baixing is distracted by bogeymen overseas then he’s less likely to throw mud around at home (oddly enough, not unlike America's obsession with the threat from Islamic extremism). Of course, there’s a strong element of practicality and helplessness involved: mouthing off against the US is politically acceptable and even encouraged, while criticizing the Party is generally pointless and often dangerous. But when a regime becomes overtly nationalistic, you can be sure that it’s bound sooner or later to be riding for a fall: there’s an old saying about patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Might I then throw the question of democracy into the ring? China will not be a one-party communist state for ever. There’s not space here to rehearse the arguments for a democratic shift sometime within this or the next generation, but rest assured it will happen, peacefully or otherwise. This will change, overnight and beyond recognition, the possible spectrum of relationships that China has with the US and the rest of the world. If those two powers can keep talking until that change occurs, I see good reason to be optimistic about long-term peace. The present leadership, for all its lack of accountability on so many levels, strikes me as urbane, educated and pragmatic, not militaristic or suicidal. With what I’ve learned from twenty years of studying the languages, history and culture of China, I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that of the US and China it won’t be China that fires first.
Please feel free to quote me on this if Dongfeng ICBMs start raining down....