It has unfortunately become a norm of international politics that certain countries are seen as international ‘boogeymen’. Based on how they dominate news cycles, three counties stand out: China, Russia and Iran. They are given many interchangeable labels, including secretive, authoritarian, belligerent, threatening, or even malevolent, just to name a few. If you look at everyday media they are continuously defined from our own sometimes narrow or limited perspective. Whenever you hear of these countries they are automatically cast in a negative light with little effort made to understand their national perspectives. I believe this to be a fundamentally disappointing reality.
In this article, and the next two, I will attempt to portray the current world view of China, Russia and Iran, and explain why it is so. There will be no defence of any current actions or policies, nor any re-examinations of past events, but simply an exercise to see the world from their perspective. Aside from generic economic ambitions, I want to pin down what guides their national interests, foreign policy, and what influence this might have on diplomacy. To try to see events as they unfold from another perspective is, I believe, a crucial skill that faces significant challenges in the current era. A strong multilateral system benefits from increased understanding, not short-sighted misinformed suspicion. If we can grasp the basics of what guides the diplomatic and strategic thinking of others, then a more nuanced state of affairs may follow.
Over a billion potential problems:
As we continue to race towards an increasingly unstable 21st century, China will play a central role in global politics. Little needs to be reiterated contemporaneously that is not already repeated ad nauseum. Apart from one very straightforward and irrefutable fact: China’s population of 1.3 billion people. It is surprising that one of the most obvious and distinguishable aspect about modern day China is often overlooked, or just accepted as a banal fact. As it is these 1.3 billion people who, for better or worse, rely on the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and of President Xi Jinping. The country’s vast population frames much of the decision making of the key actors within the People’s Republic of China. China’s its population must be taken into account when considering foreign strategy, and at the highest levels of any educated hypothesis.
Closely linked is how the CCP leadership sees China’s history, ancient and modern, as not only to be treasured, but linked to its future well-being. The Western view of its own history is I contend, distinctly varied from how the people of China, at all levels, see their own. With a two thousand-year-old history, rich in momentous events, which eventually and quite infamously involve the West, it would be most unwise to ignore or forget how the China of today contemplates the China of the past.
Century of Humiliation:
As a fundamental aspect of everyday life, China’s vast population represents two starkly divided possibilities. On one side is the potential for the great and the positive. If the population remains unified in maintaining its strong and stable economic growth China can continue to forge ahead in becoming the chief great power of the region, and perhaps even global hegemon. On the other side is a potentially disastrous outcome should even a small segment of the population become disenfranchised, or lose faith in CCP leadership. The ‘Chinese Economic Miracle’ hinges on the loyalty of the population to its one-party system.
It is worth remembering that when civil rebellion has occurred in China’s past it was both hugely destructive and, due to the size of the population, never on a small scale. Chinese leaders have always acted in relation to the vast landmass and population of their country, one only need looks at history. Both the White Lotus Rebellion in the 18th century and the Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century killed many million people. Then the Civil War in the 20th century (1927-1949) resulted in an death-toll which is estimated to be greater than 4 million people.
There is a term in Mandarin, dòng luàn, which translates to turmoil or upheaval. It is often used to describe such historical events, and is intrinsically linked to mass population unrest. Indeed, it may be easy to label these events as simply part of Chinese history as almost all states have faced hard moments on the road to modernity. On such a scale however, and with such regularly, it is not inconceivable that its influence would be a heavy factor in any serious decision making. The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the ongoing Hong Kong protests demonstrates that the threat of dòng luàn is very real to CCP leadership. Internal threats always pose the greatest danger to the security and stability of states; with China this has been especially relevant.
Such turmoil is as old as China itself, and explains the size of the apparatus of the Chinese state. There are upward of 90 million CCP members. The government’s policy agendas, domestic and foreign, must match the expectations associated with its ever-growing size. With regard to how China will act as a powerful global actor, the ambitions, the policies, the ideas, must also satisfy the level of ambition built into the populace by President Xi Jinping. This is not to say the Chinese leadership is directly answerable to every need of the population, like in most western democracies. However, the party leadership, since before Mao Zedong, has always told the population that they are the best, and only authority, able to govern the country. As will be discussed in the next segment, much of CCP authority is derived from their interpretation of the country’s history. They have woven the narrative that their one-party system is the only way to hold back turmoil, strengthen their country, and propel them firmly in the future.
A past which guides the present:
Considering the very complicated relationship the CCP has with its own history, it may seem paradoxical to suggest that both China’s history, ancient and modern, is so important. Yet, one needs only read any significant statement made by President Xi, or other party luminaries, to see why history is so woven into their national psyche. Much has already been said of China’s self-proclaimed “century of humiliation” can be roughly charted to have gone from 1840 to 1950, and even further. The utterly ruthless and systematic way in which the European powers colonized China is embedded in the national memory; not to mention World War II and the equally ruthless way Imperial Japan stripped China of resources and lives. This history of devastation and humiliation is so woven into the fabric of contemporary Chinese politics that it has become a significant influence in its own right in guiding the thinking of current decision making.
Framing one’s national history in such a long-term manner is may seem outlandish from our perspective, but in thinking that we forget that every country in the West has its own foundational history. Whether it’s the USA’s founding fathers and the American Revolution, the UK’s unique transition from colonial empire to Commonwealth, France’s Napoleonic revolution, or Australia’s own Anzac history: We all have a history that guides our current way of thought. The crucial difference is that China attaches much greater importance on its own past actions should be reflected in its contemporary reality. In other words, the historical interpretation of how past actors treated China act as a guide for what the CCP believes to be appropriate behavior within international affairs.
In recent years it has become Xi Jinping’s own perception of tumultuous past events which has guided much of China’s strategic thinking. The situation in the South China Sea, and also the establishment of its first overseas military base in Djibouti Africa (2017), serve as two potent examples. Many countries have pointed to these transparent displays of power as cause for great concern.
Going back some years now, it has regularly been said that these are worrying signs of China’s international ambitions. Furthermore, based on the rapid modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), coupled with President Xi Jinping’s assertive rhetoric, it has been assumed that these are blatant attempts to assert power in key geopolitical regions. Most importantly, this represents China finally regaining some international prestige. From their perspective this is befitting of such an ancient, and once powerful, country.
Aspirational goals among great nations:
It should not be forgotten that China’s history also contains moments of great national pride and triumph. The memory of a China ruled by wise and powerful emperors with the people enjoying the riches of trade is of course the history the CCP would rather remember. This very distinctive interpretation of their history, both ancient and modern, which explains much of their current behavior. It can be argued that China simply uses its history as diplomatic ammunition of sorts in their foreign policy toolkit. It may also be seen as a fig leaf when Western countries question their neo-colonial activities. All of these are valid suppositions and, in some cases, probably quite likely. What matters most in the long-term however, whether we understand their logic or, is that this the strategy China, and President Xi in particular, have adopted.
The CCP has a conflicted relationship with its own involvement in modern Chinese history. The Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Revolt cast long shadows. Yet it must be remembered that it is their tumultuous history, the positive and the negative, which defines who they have become as a people. It provides a rationale on how they view the contemporary world, and how great powers consolidate interests.
There are any number of ways to analyse a country’s government and to judge what governs their way of thinking. Because events unfold at their own pace and are inherently unpredictable any analysis is simply educated guesswork. The use of perspective is useful in this regard as it does not look at individual actors or events, and then assign them simplistic labels. Saying a certain country is “authoritarian” or “communist” is limiting in its ability to glean key aspects of what drives the people and the country. With China the task is immense no doubt; fortunately it is this very aspects which make the country so very unique. Their vast population coupled with an equally vast history is precisely one of the key dynamics which define their point of view. The outcome of future events may well be determined by how the country’s leaders react, contrasting their temporal reality with the desirable history they wish to carve anew.