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China Threat? The Challenges, Myths, and Realities of China’s Rise
As any follower of China, of global geopolitics, or The Peking Review will attest, the most troubling question about the future of China is whether or not the Middle Kingdom poses a threat to the security of its neighbors, or to any other country in the world. Ink aplenty has been split arguing both ways, and some authors (most notably Bill Gertz at the Washington Times) have made careers painting China as the inevitable adversary, our new foil in a new cold war.
For its part, China’s leaders have done little to clear the air, choosing obfuscation over transparency whenever possible. There are three possible reasons for this: Beijing may see fostering strategic uncertainty as a viable strategy while it builds national strength; the leaders may yet be unaware that it devolves on a major power to telegraph its intentions in the name of peace; or it just may be the case that there is yet no consensus or clarity in Beijing about China’s grand strategy.
Actions bespeak the same confusion. On the day after China injected itself into the fraught Mideast peace process, the People’s Daily escalated uncertainty on its doorstep by calling into question Japan’s claim of sovereignty over Okinawa.
It is into this fraught milieu that former French diplomat Lionel Vairon wades in his new book China Threat? The Challenges, Myths, and Realities of China’s Rise. Vairon pulls no punches, but he is no panda-slugger. On the contrary, some readers will be tempted to brand him a Sinopologist after reading the introduction:
“The May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, with its toll of over 80,000 dead and over fifteen million displaced, was “karma”—well deserved—for crimes supposedly committed by the Chinese against the Tibetans. This statement by American actress Sharon Stone, made at the Cannes International Film Festival in France that same month, illustrates perfectly the level of insensitivity, propaganda, and growing, gratuitous hostility that characterized the attitude of some of the Western public in the face of the successes achieved by the Chinese and their leaders after thirty years of hard work.”
To quickly dismiss Vairon with such an easy ad hominem “j’accuse” would be unwise. There is substance to his argument that, if nothing else, invites a little honest self-examination from the rest of us. Harkening to Jean-Francois Revel and his parallel examination of the ugly roots of Anti-Americanism, Vairon probes whether there may not be a similarly-motivated Anti-sinicism growing in the West.
Paradoxically, the anti-Chinese frenzy that swept over Western media and politicians at the time, in anticipation of the Olympic Games in Beijing, seems to mark the beginning of a new historical period in light of China’s rise, which may comport to some extent with Revel’s statement. This exploitation of the visible manifestations of Chinese power achieved its aim, first planting a seed of doubt in public opinion regarding the true designs of Chinese leaders behind their usually appeasing discourse before the international community, then transforming that doubt into a growing conviction that behind this façade of cooperation lurked solid hegemonic ambitions.
And therein lies Vairon’s theme: are we reading into China’s words and behaviors a veiled intent, or is that interpretation merely the projection of our own fears of decline and irrelevance? Do we not come to the whole question of China with a mille-fuille of personal biases?
Fair questions. Yet Vairon dives into even more uncomfortable territory. Do we not fear China’s implicit challenge to our Western secular ethos of ultraliberalism and globalization? A half-century after the decolonization of Africa, do our criticism’s of China’s African ventures not taste faintly of hypocrisy?
Vairon peppers his essay – for that is what this book is, an extended essay – with a series of jarring, now-wait-just-a-damned-minute assertions that provoke the American reader almost to the point of turning the book/Kindle into a lethal projectile hurled across a room. There are moments where you want to say “hey, Lionel, mon ami, can we look at what China is doing beneath all of this?”
Slogging through ninety-thousand odd words of this is hard on the preconceptions, but for any of us who care about the role of China in the future and who pride ourselves in a degree of intellectual honesty, it is essential tempering. And Vairon provides an unusually well-articulated look at the most important bi-lateral relationship in the world from the other side of the table.
Barring the unthinkable, a long road lies ahead in the relationship between China and the West. The time to ask hard questions not just about how we percieve China, but also about the nature and roots of our prejudices, is now. If we re-emerge after an honest assessment and find Bill Gertz’s voice speaking most loudly in our heads, then at least we have asked. But if we come out the other end after encountering a card-house of ill-formed opinion, then we will have been driven back to, as Deng Xiaoping once said, seek truth from facts.
And, if nothing else, we will have had a precious opportunity to see the worldview from Beijing. That can only be a good thing as we move forward. It might provide the beginnings of the empathy necessary to cross the gap between East and West. Or, in the worst of all cases, we will at least better know our enemy.