Hegemony with Chinese Characteristics

Hegemony with Chinese Characteristics

Mini Teaser: At its core, ideology fuels the epic struggle between Washington and Beijing. Deeply insecure about its own legitimacy, the Communist Party seeks the subordination of its regional neighbors to appease the nationalist wing of its body politic.

by Author(s): Aaron L. Friedberg

But the motivation to continue CCP rule is not rooted solely in self-interest. The leadership is deeply sincere in its belief in the party’s past achievements and future indispensability. It was the CCP, after all, that rescued China from foreign invaders, delivered it from a century of oppression and humiliation, and lifted it back into the ranks of the world’s great powers. In the eyes of its leaders, and some portion of the Chinese people, these accomplishments in themselves give the CCP unique moral authority and legitimize its rule.

Looking forward, party officials believe that they are all that stands between continued stability, prosperity, progress and an unstoppable ascent to greatness on the one hand and a return to chaos and weakness on the other. An analysis of the leaked secret personnel files of the current “fourth generation” of Chinese leaders (with Mao Tse-tung, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin leading the first three) by Sinologists Andrew Nathan and Bruce Gilley concludes that, on this question, there is no evidence of dissension or doubt. President Hu Jintao, his colleagues and their likely successors are aware of the numerous internal and external challenges they face, but they are confident that they, and they alone, can find the solutions that will be needed to keep their country moving forward and enable it to achieve its destiny. Indeed, they believe that it is precisely the magnitude and complexity of the problems confronting China that makes their continued rule essential.

The party’s desire to retain power shapes every aspect of national policy. When it comes to external affairs, it means that Beijing’s ultimate aim is to “make the world safe for authoritarianism,” or at least for continued one-party rule in China. Over the last several decades this focus on regime security has led, first of all, to an emphasis on preserving the international conditions necessary for continued economic growth. The party’s ability to orchestrate rapid improvements in incomes and personal welfare is its most tangible accomplishment of the past thirty years and the source of its strongest claim to the gratitude and loyalty of the Chinese people. Economic growth, my Princeton colleague Thomas Christensen argues, “provides satisfaction and distraction to the population, and, therefore garners domestic support for the Party (or at least reduces active opposition to the Party).” Growth also generates revenues that the regime can use to “buy off opposition and to channel funds to poorer regions and ethnic minority areas to try to prevent violent uprisings.”

As China has grown richer and stronger, the regime’s pursuit of security has also led it to seek an increasing measure of control over the world outside its borders. This outward push has both offensive and defensive motivations. As the steward of national greatness, the party has the responsibility of returning China to its rightful place at the center of Asia. The visible deference of others will provide evidence of the regime’s success in this regard and will help to reinforce its legitimacy at home. Especially if economic growth should falter, “standing up” to traditional enemies and resolving the Taiwan issue and other disputes on Beijing’s terms are likely to become increasingly important parts of the CCP’s strategy for retaining its hold on power. China’s leaders believe that the stronger their country appears abroad, the stronger their regime will be at home.

Conversely, the appearance of weakness or the widespread perception that the nation has been defeated or humiliated could be extremely dangerous to the party’s prospects for continued rule. Underlying concerns about its legitimacy make the regime more sensitive to slights and setbacks, and even more determined to deter challenges and to avoid defeat, than it might otherwise be. The best insurance against such risks is for China to accumulate an overwhelming preponderance of power in its neighborhood.

Moreover, the CCP’s hypersensitivity to what it sees as “separatism” is a direct result of its belief that it must retain tight central control in all places and at all times. Pleas for greater autonomy from Tibet or Xinjiang are thus seen as deadly threats to national unity and hence to continued Communist Party rule. The regime believes that if it loosens its grip, even a little, the entire country will spring apart. China’s leaders see the need to develop sufficient strength to deter its neighbors from providing aid and comfort to separatist groups and will build the capabilities to intervene directly to stop them, should that become necessary.

Even as it grows stronger and, in certain respects, more self-confident, the CCP continues to dread ideological contamination. Pliant, like-minded states along its borders are far more likely to help Beijing deal with this danger than flourishing liberal democracies with strong ties to the West. The desire to forestall “peaceful evolution” at home gives the regime another compelling reason to want to shape the political development of its neighbors.

To sum up: China’s current rulers do not seek preponderance solely because they are the leaders of a rising great power or simply because they are Chinese. Their desire for dominance and control is in large measure a by-product of the type of political system over which they preside. A strong liberal-democratic China would certainly seek a leading role in its region and perhaps an effective veto over developments that it saw as inimical to its interests. But it would also be less fearful of internal instability, less threatened by the presence of democratic neighbors, and less prone to seek validation at home through the domination and subordination of others.

THOUGH NOT everyone is convinced, it is likely that a more democratic China would ultimately create a more peaceful, less war-prone environment in Asia. In the view of some realists, domestic reforms will only make Beijing richer, stronger and hence a more potent competitor without deflecting it from its desire to dominate East Asia and settle scores with some of its neighbors. It is undoubtedly true that even if, in the long run, China becomes a stable, peaceful democracy, its passage will prove rocky. The opening of the nation’s political system to dissent and debate is likely to introduce an element of instability into its foreign policy as new voices are heard and aspiring leaders vie for popular support. As one observer, economist David Hale, ruefully points out: “An authoritarian China has been highly predictable. A more open and democratic China could produce new uncertainties about both domestic policy and international relations.”

Nationalism, perhaps in its most virulent and aggressive form, is one factor likely to play a prominent role in shaping the foreign policy of a liberalizing Middle Kingdom. Thanks to the spread of the Internet and the relaxation of restraints on at least some forms of “patriotic” political expression, the current regime already finds itself subject to criticism whenever it takes what some “netizens” regard as an overly accommodating stance toward Japan, Taiwan or the United States. Beijing has sought at times to stir up patriotic sentiment, but, fearful that anger at foreigners could all too easily be turned against the party, the regime has also gone to great lengths to keep popular passions in check. A democratically elected government might be far less inhibited. U.S.-based political scientist Fei-Ling Wang argues that a post-Communist regime would actually be more forceful in asserting its sovereignty over Taiwan, Tibet and the South China Sea. As he explains:

A “democratic” regime in Beijing, free from the debilitating concerns for its own survival but likely driven by popular emotions, could make the rising Chinese power a much more assertive, impatient, belligerent, even aggressive force, at least during the unstable period of fast ascendance to the ranks of a world-class power.

The last proviso is key. Even those who are most confident of the long-term pacifying effects of democratization recognize the possibility of a turbulent transition. In his book China’s Democratic Future, Bruce Gilley acknowledges that democratic revolutions in other countries have often led to bursts of external aggression and he notes that, since the start of the twentieth century, pro-democracy movements in China have also been highly nationalistic. Despite these precedents, Gilley predicts that, after an interval of perhaps a decade, a transformed nation will settle into more stable and cooperative relationships with the United States as well as with its democratic neighbors.

Such an outcome is by no means certain, of course, and would be contingent upon events and interactions that are difficult to anticipate and even harder to control. If initial frictions between a fledgling democracy and its better established counterparts are mishandled, resulting in actual armed conflict, history could spin off in very different and far less promising directions than if they are successfully resolved. Assuming the transition can be navigated without disaster, however, there are good reasons to believe that relations will improve with the passage of time. One Chinese advocate of political reform, Liu Junning, summarizes the prospects well. Whereas a “nationalistic and authoritarian China will be an emerging threat,” a liberal, democratic China will ultimately prove “a constructive partner.”

Image: Pullquote: Seen from Beijing, Washington is a dangerous, crusading, liberal, quasi-imperialist power that will not rest until it imposes its views on the entire planet.Essay Types: Essay