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China’s National Insecurity

John Lee

Events of the past year have put new dents in China’s claim of a “peaceful rise.” Beijing has embroiled itself in various territorial disputes with neighbors. It has also started employing coarse rhetoric against those who disagree with it. In a July Asean meeting, foreign minister Yang Jiechi ominously reminded smaller Southeast Asian counterparts who wanted American involvement to help negotiate a settlement over disputes in the South China Sea that, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.” China’s leaders have not only lashed out against Japan for the September trawler incident, but also abused those who gently disagreed with the way it handled the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo earlier this month. It even seems to have bullied some nations into not attending the award ceremony in Oslo.

Many China watchers and foreign officials were stunned that Beijing would jeopardize the gains made over 15 years of “smile diplomacy” by reacting so fiercely to the judgment of the non-governmental Nobel Prize Committee. On the one hand, China is praised globally for its economic pragmatism, having denounced communist ideology in 1978 to pick and choose from the most successful economic policies of East Asia and the West. Yet, despite thirty years of economic contact with other nations, Beijing’s frenzied response is evidence that the Chinese Communist Party remains a deeply insecure and even paranoid regime.

As a starting point, Beijing sees tension between itself and America, Japan and Western Europe as not only inevitable but also “structural.” Chinese political leaders and strategic thinkers begin from the realist premise that established powers will always seek to contain the economic and military capabilities of emerging states. This is apparent in my survey of over 100 recent articles by Chinese strategists, in which four-fifths were about responding to the ongoing “strategic containment of China” by diluting, binding, overcoming or circumventing American and allied freedom of action in Asia. Indeed, if China continues to rise and its interests expand, this provides a structural reason for greater, rather than less, insecurity as far as the Party is concerned.

Yet, for the Party, the attempt to contain China is not just about “guns, butter and alliances,” as one prominent Chinese strategist put it to me. The leadership is convinced that the United States, Europe and American allies in Asia have stumbled upon a further, more subtle, and extremely effective two-pronged strategy. The first prong is to weaken and divide China internally. The second is to deny authoritarian China the legitimacy required for it to assume its natural place as regional leader. And this is where the Nobel Peace Prize comes in.

As Chinese leaders such as Premier Wen Jiabao have repeatedly argued, “foreign devils” seek to weaken China by dividing it. Just as awarding the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama was an attempt to strike a blow against Beijing’s control over Tibet in a year when nationwide protests brought the Party to its knees, awarding this year’s prize to Liu Xiaobo is an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of China’s political system and values.

Beijing is convinced that Nobel Peace Prizes have long been used as a weapon by “foreign devils” against authoritarian regimes. Many Chinese leaders warily observed that awarding the prize to past winners like Poland’s Lech Walesa, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi and Iran’s Shirin Ebadi weakened the legitimacy of authoritarian regimes in those countries.

In some respects, the Party has a point. Established Western democracies and some Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea will find it difficult to accept that China can be a “responsible stakeholder” unless there is significant political reform in the country. President Bill Clinton justified American economic engagement with China and support for its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001 on the basis that participation in the global economic system would speed up the pace of democratic reform in China—a logic that has since been reaffirmed by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Liberal democracies believe that domestic political values significantly shape foreign policy means and ends. This means that an authoritarian China is destined to remain outside the “democratic community” that has been a hallmark of the American-led liberal order.

But is there really such a powerful conspiracy intricately designed to weaken and divide China? Beijing should itself realize the gaps in this accusation. Since the 1990s, China has benefited more from economic engagement with the West than any other country. Besides, when it comes to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident (or “criminal” as Beijing calls him) is not a product of a Western conspiracy. He is instead a Chinese citizen that has lived in China for all but one year of his life. Liu’s advocacy of political reform, constitutional restrictions on the government, and other political and social freedoms enshrined in the Charter 08 that he endorsed in December 2008 is little different to what Beijing has been promising to the West—and, more importantly, to its own people—for over two decades.

The official line has always been that these reforms will only occur “when the time is right.” In 2007, Wen provocatively suggested that China may not be ready for democracy for another 100 years. That time may be coming sooner. China’s reform period is entering its 32nd year, already having outlasted Mao Zedong’s terrible reign by five years. Its economy has doubled in size every eight years for the past three decades and is now the second largest in the world.

But as social unrest rises exponentially each year throughout China, the Communist Party remains as insecure as it has ever been. A regime that is awkward in its own skin and uncomfortable among its own people is always in danger. Lech Walesa once said that democracy is about having a conversation with your people. If Beijing doesn’t start doing that, its own paranoid backlash against the Peace Prize will end up as a backlash against the Party.

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