Sinocentrism for the Information Age

New Paradigms Forum

Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation, National Security Council

The fourth biennial Xiangshan Forum in Beijing was my first conference in the PRC, and a fascinatingly useful opportunity to get to know not only the other non-Chinese attendees but also a good many uniformed PLA officers, our gracious hosts and fellow participants.

The Forum included three breakout discussion groups, of which the one I was assigned to attend was Roundtable Three.  Our subject there was Asia-Pacific mutual trust, and indeed the discussion provided an interesting opportunity to learn about that subject.   Unfortunately, however, this was principally because our discussion – especially on the first day – did more to demonstrate or model distrust than to illuminate how to lessen or overcome it.

In general, the participants in Roundtable Three broke down into two camps.  One focused on the challenges of each side understanding and trusting the other side's strategic intentions, on the role of perceptions in conditioning such conclusions, and of how to communicate and to modulate future behavior in ways conducive to trust.  By contrast, the other camp focused upon trying to obtain agreement on specific characterizations of past behavior before any matters relating to the present (or the future) could be addressed.  The first camp, in other words, emphasized trying to achieve forward-looking insight, while the other stressed backward-looking blame-allocation and fault-finding.  The second group consisted predominantly of PLA participants.

Indeed, our discussions quickly veered off course during the first day, from the presentation of prepared papers on the subject of trust into lengthy comment-and-response cycles in which the participants sometimes seemed to inhabit parallel universes of competing facts and historical claims.  In particular, the Chinese and non-Chinese participants seemed to start from radically different starting points on surprisingly basic matters of fact (e.g., about what did or did not happen in the South China Sea in 2012, who started the Korean War, or whether or not Japanese history textbooks acknowledge that country's invasion of China in the 1930s).  In principle, these questions were objectively "knowable," yet our hosts were not interested in empirical evaluation.  Instead, our Roundtable discussions bogged down, for it was apparently central to the agenda of most PLA participants that their version of these facts – and their accompanying characterizations about fault and blame – be accepted by all others as a starting point for future-oriented discussions of "mutual trust."

Significantly, no non-Chinese participant in our Roundtable presumed to tell the Chinese participants what China's strategic intentions are.  Instead, non-Chinese participants explicitly referred to foreign concerns rooted in perceptions of Beijing's intentions, and asked about how it might be possible to lessen foreign misperceptions that might exist in this regard if indeed the PRC's rise is as benign as its leaders claim. The PLA participants, however, were quite comfortable telling non-Chinese what their various governments' intentions are.  We were told, for instance, that Japan wishes to return to imperialist adventurism of the sort that it displayed during the Second World War.  The United States, we were further told, wishes to "contain" China and obstruct its rise.  These Chinese assumptions were not depicted as mere perceptions, but instead as matters of inarguable fact that we non-Chinese must accept – and thereafter atone for – in order to make future trust possible.

For those PLA participants, therefore, achieving strategic trust required that the non-Chinese world undertake something somewhat akin to a Maoist self-criticism session.  The various presumptive malefactors who were declared to wish to harm China needed, in effect, to confess their sins and denounce themselves with sufficient intensity, consistency, and sincerity that Chinese would be willing to conclude that we had forever put aside all such deviations from proper behavior.  For this group, apparently, having trust required eliciting the other side's acceptance of one's own characterizations of history and endorsement of key elements of one's own world view.

These differences were striking.  Rather than being about adjudication between or management of competing claims in a pluralist world, the PLA participants seemed to view preventing international conflict and ensuring future "trust" as aiming principally at keeping competing claims from being conceived or asserted in the first place – specifically, by obtaining others' validation of and agreement with China's own claims, and its narrative of itself in the world.  In this essentially monist conception of order, identifying and managing differences within a framework of competing interests took a back seat to the construction of a moral hierarchy among strategic players, as a result of which interests wouldn't ultimately really have to compete at all.  (Participants did not have to be homogenized, but they had to be "harmonized" by being fit into a status-gradient within a single system of hierarchic moral order, acceptance of which was a prerequisite for "trust," and which would in fact produce peaceable and orderly behavior.)

We acquired further insight into this way of thinking near the end of the conference in its concluding plenary session, when I raised a question about something that had perplexed me in our earlier discussions.  There is a stereotype in the PRC's official discourse of America in which it is said to be the United States which spends a lot of time telling other countries what their values should be and how they should run their domestic political affairs.  China, by contrast, is depicted as scrupulously avoiding "interference" in such "internal" matters.

Intriguingly, however, in our Roundtable discussions, values-based and "internal" issues had not been brought up by any of the non-Chinese participants.  By contrast, a number of PLA participants did advance such arguments.  As requirements for eliminating regional distrust, for instance, it was declared that Japan must revise its historical education curriculum for primary and secondary education in order properly to depict the wrongs the country did to China in the past, that Japan must pass laws prohibiting honoring war criminals, and that Japan must push right-wing parties out of national politics.  They insisted that these things had to change in Japan as a prerequisite for future strategic trust.

I raised this point in the open plenary session, asking why our Chinese hosts did not consider such insistence to be "interference" in Japan's "internal" affairs.  In response, a well-known PLA general explained that it was not "interference" in another state's "internal affairs" for Beijing to make demands about how other states view and depict China and their own history in the Asia-Pacific region, because these things affect China.  (I was told, for example, that the "right deviation" in Japanese politics needs to be suppressed – and it is proper for the PRC to demand this – because right-wing politics in Japan bear upon Sino-Japanese relations.)  Such things have external effects, and therefore are not "internal" affairs; China may make demands with regard to matters that "affect China."

If this view is indeed broadly held in contemporary China – and I have no reason to believe that senior serving PLA officers, in uniform, attending a conference that they have themselves sponsored and speaking at a plenary session to which they invited Chinese media representatives with television cameras, would depart in any meaningful way from the official PRC line – it may provide an important insight into Chinese conceptions of how Beijing's imagined "harmonious world" would work.  It suggests that there is nothing at all anomalous about a range of otherwise seemingly idiosyncratic PRC demands in recent years, including calls for Western governments to prohibit "biased" coverage of the PRC in domestic Western media, the insistence that a small town in Oregon destroy a privately-painted wall mural sympathetic to the cause of Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, Beijing's angry complaints every time anyone has any dealings with the Dalai Lama or gives a prize to a Chinese whose political views are not approved by PRC authorities, its indignant reaction to  the "lack of balance" in a recent publication from the Australian National University, its harassment of Western media organizations that tell their readers about corruption in the Chinese elite, and the above-listed agenda related to Japanese domestic politics and administration.

I once assumed that most such things were simply an uncoordinated, unsystematic prickliness bespeaking merely Beijing's ongoing insecurity in the modern world and the crudely propagandistic reflexes of the Chinese Party-State.  And I had assumed that the "non-interference" theme in PRC diplomatic discourse was simply a propaganda trope intended to be alternatively invoked or ignored with opportunistic and often hypocritical cynicism.

My dealings with PLA officials at the Xiangshan Forum, however, suggest a possible (and more interesting) alternative explanation.  Beijing's various idiosyncrasies in these regards may be, in meaningful part, the relatively coherent and consistent outgrowths of a conceptual framework – an Information Age twist, if you will, on much older themes of Sinocentric moralism  – in which the emerging Chinese superpower hungers to control other peoples' narrative of China.  Even things like overseas media coverage, university publications, and small town murals thousands of miles away are all deemed appropriate subjects for PRC demands because they relate in some fashion to China, which is assumed to have a proprietary interest not only in how the rest of the world acts toward China, but also in how it depicts and understands China.

And thus we circle back to my earlier observations about the two groups' different approaches to "trust" in our Roundtable discussion at the Xiangshan Forum.  Specifically, many of the Chinese participants around our table appeared to be acting on the basis of just such an assumed proprietary interest in the rest of the world's view of China when they insisted that we accept the PRC's historical and moral characterizations of itself and its role in the world as a prerequisite for mutual "trust" and cooperation in the future.  One thus glimpses here a sort of conceptual imperialism, at least in aspiration, suggesting that it is a Chinese strategic objective to control the world's discourse about China.

It does seem to be the case that China's modern ruling elite views politico-moral discourse control as a crucial determinant of "comprehensive national power."  But this isn't just some newfound enthusiasm for constructivist international relations theory.  We may in fact see here a modern incarnation of the ancient Confucian "rectification of names," in which properlycharacterizing key actors in a system of order determines the relationships and responsibilities between them.  Through such a prism, control over "naming" is essentially the same thing as controlling the system of order itself.  Nor can there be anything purely "internal" about such characterizations, for they are in part constitutive of systemic order, and thus everybody's business.

China's fixation upon shaping others' accounts of China, then, is arguably not necessarily "just" the result of insecurity or narcissism.  Some of it may in fact grow out of a deeply-rooted conception of social order in which narrative control is inherently a strategic objective because it is assumed that status or role ascriptions and moral characterizations play a critical role in shaping the world they describe.  (It seems to be felt, for instance, that if the world understands China "properly," it will tend to behave toward China as China's rulers desire; controlling others' conceptual frameworks may be felt at least as important as more traditionally tangible aspects of international dominion.  How others view China and its role in the international system, moreover, may feed back into its regime's own legitimacy narrative at home, and thus its continued monopolization of power.)  Through this lens, my PLA counterparts' emphasis upon demanding concurrence with Beijing's characterization of the region's politico-moral backstory, as it were, was not a self-indulgent distraction from the task at hand, but in fact the game itself.

To be sure, perhaps I am reading too much into a few days' discussions.  On the other hand, perhaps these encounters at the 4th Xiangshan Forum really do offer insight into an idiosyncratic Chinese approach to global order, highlighting a sort of politico-moral imperialism that has few obvious precedents outside the historical Sinosphere.  Chinese leaders appear to be strongly invested in other countries' narratives of China – seeing this as critical terrain for international competition (i.e., advantage or vulnerability) – and they seem to claim the right to control everyone else's interpretations.  If this is so, there may be important policy implications for the United States, and for China's increasingly nervous neighbors, both about what to expect from Beijing in the years ahead, and about additional ways in which we might perhaps be able to develop effective competitive strategies vis-à-vis the PRC.

It's food for thought, anyway.