Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Playing With Fire

The recent spate of anti-Japan marches in China, some even turning violent, represent an unusual display of mass public sentiment for the typically tightly controlled nation. It should be noted, though, that these demonstrations were not a spontaneous outburst of democratic spirit, as they largely received official endorsement (if tacit at times), and even active support and assistance in planning in some instances. They would not have been tolerated unless they were coordinated with the government on some level.

But a funny thing happened in the aftermath. The government reversed course fairly decisively regarding the official position on these protests. In strongly worded editorials in state run media, and through statements by high ranking officials, the Chinese government made it clear that further protests would not be allowed - even going as far as to call the gatherings part of an "evil plot" with "ulterior motives." There have also been a wave of arrests of people involved in the demonstrations in anticipation of May 4, a day of symbolic historical importance for which officials fear more protests might be planned (May 4 is the anniversary of a protest in 1919 that helped to define the modern Chinese sense of patriotism).

The turnabout has led some to speculate about the possibility that the two seemingly contradictory positions signify an internal struggle in the ruling Communist Party. Similarly, and perhaps as an alternative interpretation, some have wondered whether the passion and conviction on display did not cause the concern, for some officials who had originally promoted them, that these movements may soon take on a life of their own - even branching out from their original subject matter. The likely reality is that there is a healthy dose of each - and the fears felt in various circles are not unwarranted and are rooted in China's peculiar dilemma.

E Pluribus China

Throughout its history, China has struggled with the blessing and the curse of its enormity and diversity. Unifying such a vast expanse of land with its myriad cultures in one solitary state has proven a daunting, if not impossible, task for countless conquerors, competing dynasties, and colonial powers. Over the past 60 years, China has been able to achieve relative stability in terms of national cohesion through the force of the overarching philosophy, and power structure, of Communism. But now that ideology and governing system are giving way to a new paradigm as China moves to embrace free trade, entrepreneurship and the boons of market capitalism - albeit in incomplete measures in each instance. As a microcosm of China's gradual abandonment of the Marxist ethos, take the not altogether uncontroversial decision this year to grant the model worker award (an official commendation typically given to humble representatives from the unsung proletariat) to NBA basketball star, and multi-millionaire, Yao Ming. Not exactly a champion of the toiling class. Somewhere Mao is spinning over Yao.

This period of transition has sent China's leadership casting about for new principles to create a sense of national pride and unity. From Fareed Zakaria (via praktike):

Having abandoned communism, the Communist Party has been using nationalism as the glue that keeps China together. And modern Chinese nationalism is defined in large part by its hostility toward Japan. Mao is still a hero in China despite his many catastrophic policies because he unified the country and fought the Japanese. And as China advances economically, Chinese nationalism only gets more intense. Scratch a Shanghai Yuppie and you will find a virulent nationalist - on Taiwan, Japan and America.
An article in today's New York Times strikes a similar chord:

The Communist Party stirs patriotic feelings to underpin its legitimacy at a time when few, even in its own ranks, put much faith in Marxism. Official propaganda and the national education system stress the indignities suffered at the hands of foreign powers from the mid-19th century through World War II. Japan, which China says killed or wounded 35 million Chinese from 1937 through 1945, gets the most attention.
This tack by the Communist Party is a dangerous game to be playing, and one that creates problems in the arena of foreign policy. While there might be specific foreign policy objectives behind some of these machinations (halting Japan's bid for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, leverage in disputes with Japan over undersea deposits of undersea gas, etc.), in many ways stoking these flames generates a tension between the goal of economic development and the expression of nationalistic sentiments. Again Zakaria:

For the first decade of its development (the 1980s), China did not have a foreign policy. Or rather, its grand strategy was a growth strategy. China quietly supported (or did not oppose) U.S. policies, largely because it saw good relations with America as the cornerstone of its development push. And this nonconfrontational approach - "to hide its brightness" - still lingers. With the exception of anything related to Taiwan, even now its major foreign-policy moves are largely outgrowths of economic imperatives. These days that means a ceaseless search for continued supplies of oil and other commodities.
In the case of Japan, this approach could backfire in a serious way - or two ways really. China's confrontationalists could move to cut ties with Japan, or Japanese pride could lead to a backlash that accomplishes the same end result. The repercussions would be significant. According to an article in the Asia Times (hat tip to Nadezhda), current estimates say that about 10% of China's gross domestic product is the result of Japanese business activity in China. Further, as Zakaria and others point out, Japan has been a trusted trading partner and ally in development, having given "China more than $34 billion in development aid (effectively reparations), something never mentioned by the Chinese." The New York Times weighs in a long the same lines:

But China has never made nationalism the driving force of its foreign policy. The government mainly emphasizes its desire to have a "peaceful rise" that does not impinge on its neighbors, and the authorities are nervous about disrupting the flow of investment and technology that has powered economic growth.
The reversal by the Chinese government on the anti-Japan protests can be interpreted, at least in part, as a realization that economic interests should trump the promotion of nationalistic pride as a means of creating a common bond for the Chinese people. But it is not entirely clear that this process can be carefully guided - especially when not everyone is on the same page.

House Of Flying Daggers

The active encouragement of strong nationalistic sentiments might not be as cynically motivated for all in the Communist Party - or at the very least, there might be cynicism layered on more cynicism. Several China watchers suggest that there is a behind the scenes tug of war between the current Party leadership and others who care strongly about nationalistic issues and feel betrayed by the conciliatory tone emanating from the top. Of course, some of this opposition may also be using this nationalism card as a means to usurp Party leaders and assert their own power. According to the Asia Times article:

"Past mass demonstrations have always had a political power struggle element to them," says Ryosei Kokubun, director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at Keio University in Tokyo. He says that a similar crisis could be occurring within the Chinese government: on the one side, with Hu and his ally Premier Wen Jibao, and on the other, less progressive elements within the party who encouraged the anti-Japan riots as a method of causing social unrest.

"I don't think the current leadership of Hu and Wen is really that strong or secure," Kokubun says....[Wen's] approach, more amiable than in the past, may have angered anti-Japanese elements in the Communist Party who then set about disseminating a "very sophisticated level" of anti-Japanese propaganda on the Internet, well beyond the ability of average Chinese citizens, and mobilizing local party chapters to orchestrate the recent demonstrations, says Kokubun.
The official condemnations following the protests are thus perceived as a sign that the Wen/Hu faction eventually prevailed. But to what extent and for how long? Behind this internal power struggle lurks an even more alarming specter: what if China's rapid economic development has created a newly empowered middle class that will soon assert its prerogatives on the political stage? Further, what if the political ascent of the middle class is inspired by feelings of extreme nationalism, possibly buttressing the elements of the Communist Party most inclined to confrontation and hostility? Certainly, the realization that these possibilities exist played into the decision to put the brakes on the protests. But horses can be unruly and uncooperative once outside the barn. Zakaria notes the peril:

Beijing assumes it can handle popular sentiments but it might well be wrong. After all, it does not have much experience in it, not being a democracy. It deals with public anger and emotions cagily, unsure whether to encourage them or clamp down for fear of where they might lead. So it does not know what to do with a group like the Patriots Alliance, an Internet-based hypernationalist group that has organized the biggest demonstrations in the country in six years.
Entrepreneurs Of The World, Unite?

One of the factors playing into the ex post facto clampdown on the demonstrations was the recognition by some in China's leadership that these protests could evolve into general assertions of rights. The Times notes that there is a historical precedent girding these fears:

Moreover, anti-Japan protests have a long and, for the government, a sobering history. A student-led march on May 4, 1919, to protest the decision by World War I Allied powers that allowed Japan to take over Germany's colonial territories in China spawned Chinese resistance against Western colonialism. But the May 4 movement and uprisings in 1931 and 1937 turned against the government.
In modern day China, these concerns are made more pressing by the economic realities: the advent of free market principles and the resulting accumulation of wealth in the private sector has created a new middle class. Historically speaking, the rise of an economically empowered middle class (or the general diffusion of economic power away from a narrow oligarchy - even to an aristocracy) has served to destabilize centralized political power as more voices acquire the means of applying pressure on the process. In China, this newly minted middle class is, in many ways, the driving force behind the nationalist movement.

Japan has joined traffic jams and the housing bubble as a top concern for the urban middle class. Entrepreneurs and white-collar professionals have benefited disproportionately from China's economic policies, but many say they worry their government will not press historical grievances against Japan, a major investor and trading partner, for long.

"Our government takes a soft line on foreign policy," said Li Bin, the chief executive of Nirvana, a health club chain that has supported the anti-Japan movement. "They put economic development first. It is critical for successful people to stand up for the rights and interests of the country." Such sentiments make the Japan issue - and nationalism generally - a double-edged sword for the government.
Some have even reacted in muted defiance to the government's recent crackdown on protest activities - bristling at the suggestion that there should be no May 4 demonstration.

Even so, some urban professionals have promoted a march on the May 4 anniversary. "I think we need another march," said Guo Hui, 30, who runs his own public relations company. "I feel it needs to be peaceful and well organized. But we have to push ahead."

Mr. Guo said he had no major grievances against the government. But during an interview at a Starbucks in Beijing, which Mr. Guo recorded on his hand-held computer "to avoid any misunderstandings," he said he tended to care much more about political and diplomatic issues than his parents' generation had.

"They never got involved in anything," he said. "But I think you have certain responsibilities as an individual. If every individual says something, that has much more force than if the Foreign Ministry says it."
The words of Mr. Guo sound more like the musings of a citizen in a democracy than a dictatorship. The prevalence of those sentiments could force China's hand in many regards.

Whether such involvement might lay the foundation for Chinese civil society, injecting a dose of pluralism into policy making, is a matter of debate.

But a senior editor at a party newspaper says the persistence of the anti-Japan campaign and the participation of urban professionals has alarmed the authorities. Officials are accustomed to dealing with unrest among peasants and workers who feel defrauded or disenfranchised by China's economic boom, not among the urban elite, who are its primary beneficiaries.

"The white-collar middle class is supposed to be a pillar of stability," the editor said.
It has long been the contention of free-market proponents like Thomas Friedman, and not without merit, that opening up closed societies like China to economic arrangements before there is political reform could serve as an agent for political change in the future. To this end, I have argued in the past that our policy of isolation vis a vis Cuba is counerproductive. But that is a separate topic.

As per the predictions of the open market set, in many ways China's wealth is creating forces in its society that will lead to greater political freedoms and openness. Questions remain, however, whether this process can be managed in an orderly fashion without giving rise to potentially destructive forces. The difficulty is, the government and the population at large have very little practice or custom to fall back on to guide them in this evolution. But as Zakaria states, they are trying their best to learn on the fly.
Experts say that the Chinese Communist Party has been seriously discussing political reforms and studying dominant single parties from Sweden to Singapore, to understand how it might maintain its position in a more open political system. "The smartest people in the government are studying these issues," a well-placed Beijing resident told me. But politics is often about more than smarts. In any event, how Beijing's mandarins end up handling their own people might have much to do with how China ends up handling the world.
The United States should do its part to assist China in this period of transition, stressing along the way the importance of tamping down the most extreme manifestations of hyper-nationalism. China's middle class will soon be given a seat at the table, slowly emerging as a political force to be reckoned with. But it is in everyone's interest to make sure that the seat is occupied by a responsible and sensible voice. Playing to hyper-nationalism is too risky a tactic for China's leadership to use in order to create community, and they should abandon this course immediately, assuming the process is not already too far out of their control. History is riddled with examples of nationalism gone awry, and the recent resurgence in many regions should cause all to reconsider the wisdom of such demagoguery.

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