Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mistaking The Rise Of China As Something Other Than Imperial Restoration

Yesterday I went to the Commonwealth Club for what I expected to be a good lecture on the rise of China.  The presenter, Orville Schell, was a vaunted old China hand from the Asia Society, one of the most trusted names in the think-tank world.  The Commonwealth Club has pushed this topic before, and I'll note for the record that I have not yet read Wealth and Power.  I need to read it to understand why this coverage of China's rise leaves out a significant number of salient details.

I have no argument with the thesis that decades of humiliation at the hands of Western powers motivates Chinese nationalism, and this resurgent nationalism in turn has motivated China's strong economic growth.  My own thesis is that Western observers are once again missing other unique forces driving that nationalism.  Ignoring these forces means the West will once again misjudge future turning points in China's internal development and external strategy, just as it missed the turn to modernization after the Cultural Revolution.

The "Chinese Dream" of wealth and power that will secure China's identity is more than some belated response to 19th century colonialism.  China's governmental style has never lost its Confucian foundation despite Mao's efforts to break down traditional Chinese cultural traits.  The Chinese Communist Party simply subsumed the old patronage relationships that always characterized imperial China.  Only the images changed, and grafting the Party's authority onto a suborned governing structure does not change the Confucian nature of its authority.  Modern Chinese interpret the "mandate of heaven" as continued economic growth.  Failure to meet this expectation will cause China's emerging bourgeoisie to question the Party's legitimacy.  That question is about a decade away from becoming reality by virtue of demographics.

China's unassimilated minorities must figure into any Western analysis of that country's stability but Western analysts disappoint me by continuing to refer to China as monolithic.  This failure to see ethnic nuances is one fatal flaw that early scholars of Oriental despotism such as Karl August Wittfogel never corrected.  The PRC's own written constitution refers to the "nations of China."  China's insecurity, as expressed in its reassertion of historic claims over seemingly inconsequential islands, is the product of an unfinished nationalist attempt to reconcile some irreconcilable minorities to Han and Manchu primacy.  Nationalism as a unifying impulse is the only way China can contain restive Tibetans, Uighurs, and Mongolians when economic growth begins to falter.  China's unresolved territorial disputes with India over Arunachal Pradesh (aka South Tibet) and other areas are the perfect future rationales for more saber-rattling.  I do not expect those areas to be quiet for long once China is unable to meet its own middle class's economic expectations for a "mandate of heaven" in its standard of living.

Oh BTW, those seemingly inconsequential islands are fairly consequential after all.  Securing unchallenged basing rights to uninhabited rocks allows China to extend its exclusive economic zone under UNCLOS far beyond its coastal waters.  This provides legal precedent for regulating fishing, crabbing, and even ocean transit in a manner that reflects the tributary relationships imperial China once imposed upon its weaker Asian neighbors.  China's desire to assert an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the entire East China Sea reflects the same impulse.  The US Navy guarantees freedom of navigation through Pacific sea lanes, free of charge to all comers.  There is no assurance in Asian history that Chinese naval dominance will be as generous.  Any PLA Navy attempt to charge a tariff for transit will provoke an outcry that will demand an international response.

Chinese nationalism is not the self-deterministic expression familiar to Western scholars.  It is a resurgence of the ancient imperialist impulse that runs through much of China's pre-modern history.  The Beijing Consensus uses economic development and nationalism to restore China's self-image as an empire.  The Chinese Dream is the domestic mythos covering that policy consensus.  Faltering economic development means nationalism becomes the stronger impulse to maintain the unifying self-image.  This is why neoliberal interpreters of the Washington Consensus for economic development misapply the Beijing Consensus as a competing development model for emerging markets.  It is no such thing.  It is traditional Chinese imperialism, directed simultaneously at China's unassimilated minorities and weaker neighbors.  Western analysts can increase their understanding of Asian dynamics by updating some forgotten concepts like the hydraulic empire without Wittfogel's ideological limitations.  Himalayan hydrology has everything to do with the water-energy-food security nexus driving China's internal development and its relationship with India over contested territories.  The Asia Society and Commonwealth Club should study this Alfidi Capital thesis in more detail.  I'm available for speaking engagements in front of VIP audiences, if you know what I mean.