In other words, there is no necessary correlation between economic growth and military strength. Witness Stalin’s Russia, which made guns at the expense of butter during the 1930s, starving itself great. As Hitler and Mussolini also showed, this is a policy to which totalitarian states are particularly prone. Yet China’s leaders seem dedicated to augmenting prosperity in order to secure stability. Having been racked by internal convulsions for generations, the country evidently prefers tyranny to anarchy, even to democracy. Anything is better than a return to the bloody turmoil of the Taiping or the warlord era or to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. As Deng Xiaoping insisted, “Stability supersedes all.”
The ideal of harmony is quintessentially Confucian. The philosopher stressed that good order is the basis of prosperity and security. Violence is a last resort and will probably be ineffective. Historically, China has assimilated aggression, rolling with punches, overcoming hardness with softness. Where possible it has avoided taking the offensive. This is not to say, of course, that the Beijing government avoids coercion close to home, as became tragically clear in the suppressing of the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and the crushing of resistance in Tibet. But it is to suggest that China prefers, particularly in a nuclear age, to use “soft power” and “smile diplomacy” abroad.
THERE IS little evidence that China wishes to jeopardize its burgeoning affluence by adventurist attempts to contest American hegemony. On the contrary, the Chinese leadership is all too conscious that the Soviet Union’s endeavor to compete militarily with the United States was a major factor in its collapse. Prosperity breeds contentment. As Jonathan Swift noted in The Battle of the Books, quarrels usually stem from want rather than plenty, and “we may observe in the republic of dogs . . . that the whole state is ever in the profoundest peace after a full meal.”
Needless to say, accidents do happen, and when American bombers destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, a wave of spontaneous fury engulfed the People’s Republic. The bombing was said to be a “barbarian” act of aggression comparable to the imperialist invasion of China after the Boxer Rebellion. It was even compared to a Nazi war crime. Fearing domestic and international damage, however, the authorities did their best to calm the storm. The kept press assuaged popular passions. Television reports were emollient. Censorship of the Internet was tightened via a list of some thousand taboo words, the building blocks of the Great Firewall of China.
There was a similar response to George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq, which replaced Chinese sympathy for the United States in the wake of 9/11 with feelings of anxiety and mistrust—feelings exacerbated by President Obama’s failure to pull America out of the Afghan quagmire. Just as England’s difficulty was once Ireland’s opportunity, so America’s difficulty might have been China’s. But, no. The Chinese media tamped down outbursts of chauvinism which might have led to public protests. One result, according to Susan Shirk’s excellent book China: Fragile Superpower, was that the American abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib was condemned much more vehemently in the Great Republic than in the People’s Republic.
Perhaps nationalism has succeeded Communism as the creed of Red China, but its rulers show signs of wanting to make their country a good citizen of the world. They have signally reduced the number of land-border disputes with their fourteen neighbors. They have participated eagerly in international forums such as the World Trade Organization. They have eased relations with Japan and, horrified by the nuclear brinkmanship of Kim Jong Il, mediated with Korea. They have muted criticisms of the United States, even when Jiang Zemin’s Boeing 767 was found to contain twenty-seven sophisticated bugging devices after being refitted in Texas in 2001—a covert operation which might have been designed to demonstrate that the term “intelligence agency” is an oxymoron.
Wang Jisi articulates the official Chinese position: since Mao’s victory in 1949 the Communist elite has generally believed that America and other hostile outside forces have been intent on conquering and destabilizing China. But globalization has increased the cost of conflict and reduced the danger of war. It has also magnified many of the problems from which China suffers, such as pollution, urban overcrowding and huge disparities of wealth—100 million people live on less than a dollar a day and a quarter of the population lacks access to clean drinking water. So China’s priority is to tackle these problems. It aims to build a rich and great society, dedicated to peace, progress, harmony, sustainable development and international cooperation.
No doubt the Chinese leaders also favor motherhood and apple pie. But it is easy to be cynical about Wang Jisi’s uplifting protestations, to suspect that China is still nurturing bitter resentment toward the West for the century of humiliation, and to fear that it is only biding its time and accumulating the necessary strength before retaliating in kind. Yet the Chinese are not necessarily prisoners of their past and they have overwhelming economic reasons to seek a political modus vivendi with America. Indeed, they now talk of using history as “a mirror to look forward to the future.” Certainly it makes sense for them to look forward, rather than back, since their future is much better than it used to be. And this is what China’s 1.3 billion people may well do as they advance toward the center of the world’s stage.
Piers Brendon is a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University. His most recent book is The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781–1997, (Knopf Publishing Group, 2008).Image: Pullquote: There is little evidence that China wishes to jeopardize its burgeoning affluence by adventurist attempts to contest American hegemony. . . . Prosperity breeds contentment.Essay Types: Essay