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Much to Admire—and Fear—about a Rising China

John Lee

In an opinion piece in the state-owned People’s Daily newspaper last month, president of China’s Foreign Affairs University Wu Jianmin argued that Western countries still hold deep prejudices against the country’s political system and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

According to Wu, there would be much less fear and prejudice if the West made greater efforts to understand the ‘real’ China.

It makes sense to make more effort to understand such a great, large and enduring country in our region. But deeper understanding will not always lead to greater agreement, and nor should it.

There is much to admire and also fear if China is to emerge as the most powerful country in the region.

First things first: we should reject the false argument that only Western countries—inflicted with their prejudices—fear a powerful China. It is well known that China has emerged as the largest trading partner of every major country in the region, including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and Australia. China is the largest trading partner of India in Asia.

Even so, all of these countries have deepened their strategic and military relations with America and each other as an insurance against China’s rise. Indeed, China has no genuine allies to speak of, with the possible exception of North Korea.

For a country of such enormous economic importance to its neighbours, there is a case to be made that China is emerging as the loneliest rising power in world history.

We should also address another prevailing myth: that it is only prejudiced Western minds that fear the rise of an authoritarian China. In fact, China is rising in an environment within which every regional great power—Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia and Australia—is also a liberal democracy.

In other words, while democracy can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks, the contemporary embrace of democracy is hardly just a Western obsession.

This leads to the question of why we should fear the rise of a powerful and still authoritarian China.

The first reason is one of transparency. All of Asia’s great liberal democracies have a comparatively free press. Debates on foreign policy are carried out in the open. And when democratic governments are suspected of deceiving the population or concealing important information from them, they are roundly criticized or even removed from office during periodic elections.

In contrast, Chinese politics and policy is still largely conducted behind closed doors—with a largely compliant state-owned media serving as a mouthpiece for the government.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not asked to explain or justify their policies before implementation. Outsiders and many even many Chinese officials remain unsure as to who actually makes the key decisions in the country, and how these are decided. In other words, how Beijing thinks and what it will do is opaque and perhaps even inherently unknowable.

The second reason is one of political character. Although China is very different to the place that was ruled by Mao Zedong from 1949-1976, the CCP still largely stands above the law.

All political and administrative posts throughout the six levels of government are appointed by party officials from the top down. Judicial officers are also appointed by the CCP and must swear allegiance to the party. All court decisions must be approved by committees staffed by CCP officials. The CCP’s Central Organization Department even directly appoints senior executives of state-owned-enterprises (SOEs), which considerably enhances the CCP’s influence in China’s state-dominated economy.

The upshot is that in such a set-up, rule-of-party will ultimately triumph rule-of-law in any conflict. These are hardly the conditions within which habits of compromise, tolerance and negotiation become learned behaviours.

These points have to be understood alongside the reality that China is the only genuinely dissatisfied great power in Asia. It has border disputes with India over a Switzerland-sized land mass in the Indian-held territory of Aranuchal Pradesh. Chinese claims over 80 per cent of the South China Sea put these at odds with counter claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

And unlike every other significant power in Asia, China feels deeply unsatisfied with relying on the American Seventh Fleet to ensure freedom of navigation and commerce through Asia’s sea-lanes. Even if the latter is understandable, the point remains that China is emerging as the only challenger to the regional status quo welcomed by every other Asian sea-trading nation.

In international affairs, there is a prudent assumption that the strong do what they can and the weak(er) countries suffer what they must. Governments in powerful democratic countries, like America, can also behave selfishly, ruthlessly and destructively. But when they do, they must answer to domestic and international critics, and can be periodically removed from office swiftly and without the spilling of blood.

In other words, democratically elected governments tend to pay for their mistakes, or must at least explain or defend them. For a powerful and authoritarian China, the same rules may not apply.

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