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Society & Culture

Three Fundamental Misconceptions about China

Jul 22, 2021
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

As much as this slogan could well be an exaggerated and unreflective description of reality – given the deep entanglements and interdependence between the two largest powers in the world, there exists some grain of truth to it. China and the United States are seemingly locked in a deteriorating spiral – with China painted in mainstream Western discourse as a “systemic challenge” to the global order, a “threat” to the United States through its ostensible efforts at expanding its global influence, and its governance model as one that vanquishes human rights and liberties in exchange for ruthless efficiency. 

I have written elsewhere on how China’s actions and gestures have not lent itself to a favourable reception worldwide – including in states with wavering and mixed reactions towards the country. China’s inability to account clearly and responsively for its overseas economic projects, projection of a vociferous, bellicose image, and increasingly fraught relations with traditional trade partners, has not helped the country’s case in courting support from open-minded, prospective allies. 

Yet equally guilty of exacerbating the unravelling of U.S.-China relations, are the widely disseminated misconceptions about China championed by certain pundits, commentators, politicians in American discourse. The issue with these narratives is not so much their alleged disrespect towards Chinese netizens – who remain overwhelmingly shielded from the effects of these claims; it is, instead, their contribution towards misunderstandings and misdiagnosis on the part of American policymakers of the national psyche and mindset of the country’s policymakers. 

The following are three misconceptions that ought to be addressed swiftly and promptly – albeit best through organic debate and clarification, as opposed to abrasive berating, from China: 

Misconception #1: Beijing seeks global dominion through an equally global projection of influence. 

The argument goes as follows – as China expands economically, both as a means of answering to domestic legitimation standards, and of ensuring relative security against regional and international competitors, Beijing is likely to seek global dominion. Projecting capacity of influence across the world serves as an instrumental means of eliminating otherwise viable challengers who can thwart the country’s quest for more resources, political control, and military security. 

This is a misreading of Beijing’s intentions. Even under the more assertive leaders in the country’s history – both Xi Jinping and Mao Zedong – the overwhelming legitimation narrative of the Chinese Communist Party remains with enhancing its domestic performance legitimacy. For all his talk of supporting the global spread of revolutionary movements over the world, Mao remained overwhelmingly preoccupied with enshrining his control and purge of conservative structures within the borders of China – he remained fundamentally uninterested in exporting Marxist-Leninism as an ideology abroad. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly stressed China’s transition into a “moderately prosperous society” that eliminates poverty, as well as empowering the revival of the Chinese civilisation – which, contrary those who interpret it as the global exporting of cultures ranging from Confucianism to Sinocentrism, had always been couched in official terms as the revival, and not expansion, of a vibrant Chinese imagined community. The focus remains on moulding the Chinese identity in assimilating and absorbing, as opposed to conquering and colonising. 

In more pragmatic terms, Beijing has neither the military-economic prowess, nor the incentives, to displace America as the leading global superpower. Chinese trans-national ventures – ranging from the Belt and Road Initiative to its economic presence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia – operate as a concentric model with capital and trade nourishment as the primary ends. In lieu of political and ideological influence, Beijing is by far more interested in empowering its burgeoning middle classes as liberated economic agents. This may change in the future – but there is little sign thus far to suggest that China seeks politico-ideological domination beyond its national sphere of sovereignty and influence. 

Misconception #2: China responds well to negative disincentives and international opprobrium. 

The logic undergirding the Western response to Chinese acts of aggression is both easily comprehensible, and flawed. Pundits suggest that only by attaching “significant costs” to Chinese behaviours, could Beijing be deterred from behaving in ways that “transgress” international norms and boundaries. 

Three issues exist with this argument. Firstly, it vastly under-estimates the tolerance and resilience levels for economic slowdown and international opprobrium amongst the Chinese populace – China has grown to become increasingly self-sufficient and resistant to external pressures, through a robust combination of endogenous consumer markets, deep capital pools, and its persisting trade with countries that are alienated from the Washington Consensus. 

Secondly, it ignores the extent to which nationalist and defensive sentiments are emboldened, not dampened, by overt foreign criticisms. If anything, punitive measures would only enable the rallying of domestic populations against “foreign interference” – which, per the national zeitgeist, invokes imagery such as the country’s past “Century of Humiliation” under the “Eight-Nation Army”. The more self-righteous and accusatory the criticisms are, the less likely it is that it will be taken seriously. 

Finally, calls to sever ties with China would only weaken the credibility and rhetorical prowess of moderates and internationalists, who have always championed the country’s economic reforms and engagement with the global community. Certain discourses ludicrously paint the Chinese ruling class as a homogenous monolith – devoid of diversity of thought and respectful disagreements. This view is both demeaning and disingenuous – dissent and debates are tolerated, and often held behind closed doors. By framing U.S.-China relations as a zero-sum game on key issues – e.g. global governance, economics and trade, technology and innovation, skeptics in the West risk undercutting the ability to speak out within the system, of those who are more likely to sympathise with their views. 

Misconception #3: Invoking arguments that sit well with a Western audience, would persuade policymakers and key actors in China. 

There is something rather ludicrous to the onslaught of derision, derogation, and deflective criticisms of China. Setting aside the normative question at large, the question ultimately remains – who, if anyone, are the target recipients of such moralising discourses? 

The target audience could not possibly be the defensive, infuriated diplomats, bureaucrats, and statesmen within the Chinese political system, who view such attacks as merely signs of Western insecurities and American imperialism. Nor is the expected audience the Chinese civil society, who finds the mainstream narratives both too coarse and patronising (where the Chinese people are continuously painted as subjugated, powerless populations repressed by an authoritarian regime), or too hostile at large (where Chinese voices that are not openly anti-government are portrayed as necessary extensions of the state’s United Front). 

There is a dearth of nuance in the ongoing debate over the relationship between the party and its citizens. On one hand, there are individuals who insist that the party serves as perfect representatives of the people – that the people’s will reflects that carried by the party; on the other hand, there are those who portray the 1.4 billion population of China as victims of a regime beyond their control. In practice, the advancement of progressive, moderate, and reasonable reforms can be, and should be accomplished, through the acknowledgment of the vastly uncharted spaces between the two ends. 

China is indubitably afflicted by a plethora of problems – and some of these problems have dangerous spill-over harms for the world at large. This is an empirical fact that should not be ignored. Yet in calling for fixes to the problems, individuals who genuinely wish for a better future to the country must recognise and empower the voices of pragmatic changemakers – not individuals who are shut out of the political system; not individuals who are bent on destroying the country from within, but those who see the merits of both China and the West, and who seek to bring about changes in a realistic and mutually beneficial fashion. 

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