Review Essay: An Unbetter China

Chinese armies defeating the Dzungar prior to the genocide.

There is a growing chorus of voices, mostly Sinophilic or Russo-philic, who attempt to bestow upon China a mantle of moral superiority in its dealings with the wider world for the sole reason that it has not waged any form of expeditionary warfare in its recent history.

This forum and this writer have criticized many of America’s forays into overseas military engagements over the past 50 years. That said, there is no moral standard of which this writer is aware that bestows moral ascendancy upon a country that systematically slaughters its own citizens over another country that engages in misguided adventures abroad.

It is possible to deplore most or even all major exercises of American military power abroad since the cessation of hostilities in Korea in 1953, to see them as misguided and their outcomes to be awful, and yet to acknowledge that with a few exceptions the intentions were neither evil, nefarious, nor malicious. As an historian, you judge the decisions of the past in the context of the times, on that basis this writer would argue that that on the balance the US mostly acted in good faith, with notable and egregious exceptions in Chile, Iraq and Afghanistan.

China’s history leaves the nation much for which it must answer, including the “red on its ledger” from the nation’s imperial period that has not been entirely expunged by decades of foreign incursion, Republican rule, civil war, and Communist rule. Indeed, in the period following the revolution, the Chinese Communist Party has continued some of the tendencies that characterized the worst behaviors of its emperors.

Explore, if you will, how a middling agrarian kingdom actually managed to expand to dominate the continent. I’ll give you a hint: they weren’t invited by their subject peoples, Han or otherwise. Dig, if you dare, into the the gritty details of China’s imperial tributary system, which was outwardly peaceful but often ugly and violent, involving the stationing of military forces beyond China’s borders. Ask the Koreans, Mongolians, and Russians how their histories see China as a “ good neighbor.”

Consider the forcible takeover of the Tibetan region in the 1950s, China’s war with India, and its attack on Vietnam in 1977. And finally, look at the background of the 20+ territorial disputes in which China is currently engaged, including China’s extraordinary claim to the overwhelming majority of the South China Sea, and it’s effort to buy vast swaths of land in Africa and elsewhere. China has been, and is once again, an Imperial Power with 21st Century Characteristics.

Both China and the US have done great things, and both have done atrocious things. But we do ourselves and those countries a disservice by exaggerating the good or whitewashing the bad of either. And if China appears to be under more of a microscope at the moment, there is good cause. For if we accept the premise proffered by scholars both within and outside of China that America is entering a period of relative decline in its international power and China is in a period of relative ascendancy, we must use extreme care in bestowing moral superiority over a nation whose record is distinctly mixed. Doing so only grants it license to engage in much more of the same.

Understanding “Tao Guang Yang Hui”

A phrase that is making the rounds among China watchers is “tao guang yang hui.” I will not attempt to explain the concept: any brief explanation would hide too many nuances, and nuances are important here. I just watched an online debate amongst some of my more scholarly friends, and the battle was about different interpreteations of of the phrase.

One interpretation of the phrase is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s maxim “keep a low profile and bide your time, while also getting something accomplished.” Given the noises China has been making in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Indian frontier, and Hong Kong, it appears to some that China has abandoned the tao guang yang hui strategy altogether.

Others, however, suggest that the strategy was not abandoned, but that Deng’s intention all along was to wait for a time when China was ready to assert itself in the global sphere, not simply lay low forever.

Yang Wenchang, President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, offers his interpretation in “My Views about ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui.” It is a worthwhile read, and an important one: not only does he provide an erudite explanation of the idom’s roots, his interpretation of the phrase seems to be at odds with China’s current foreign policy.

The entire debate may seem a petty tempest among the cognoscienti. If China is becoming more assertive globally, what does it matter whether this is Xi’s own policy or a continuation of the past?

In truth, it does matter: the answer to the question of whether this is part of a long-standing plan or whether this is Xi rejecting Dengist strategy would help us better predict where China is likely to jump next. We are unlikely to get clarification from the leadership compound at Zhongnanhai: Xi will want to seem unpredictable so as to keep his percieved opponents, both at home and abroad, guessing as to his intentions, leaving him with the initiative. Hence a better understanding of his strategic approach is essential to ensure that Asia and the west are not caught unawares by China’s next Great Leap Outwards.


China and the Limits of History

Some things we used to know about china’s past and present but, now, not so much” 
Alice Lyman Miller
Proceedings of the USC US-China Institute Symposium, “History and China’s Foreign Relations: The Achievements and Contradictions of American Scholarship”,
Feb. 16-17, 2008

Stanford’s Alice Miller is one of those China scholars who prefers not to mince words. Whether it was her sixteen years with the CIA or the cumulative effect of four decades studying China, she is direct and still unfailingly scholarly in her assessments and, as a result is, a joy to read.

Her paper at a USC symposium above is an excellent example. There is a school of China scholarship that attempts to parse Beijing’s politics and foreign policy through a prism of China’s imperial past. To those scholars, the CCP is just another dynasty in China dynastic cycle, its current leaders just emperors in new clothes, and China wants to turn the rest of the world into tributary powers.  As a history buff with late-life aspirations to historianship, these parallels are appealing to me, and they are clearly appealing to others, else Miller would not feel the need to debunk the approach.

And debunk she does. Offering ample examples from current scholarship and public discourse, she makes a convincing case that while the history has some general value as background in understanding Chinese strategic thinking, past behavior is no template for current or future action.

A must-read for any China-watcher, it surprises me that this paper has not received more attention, but perhaps it shouldn’t: as a longtime purveyor of the “China is more nuanced than that” approach, I know that people are not looking for nuance: they’re looking for easy. Miller makes it clear that this sort of intellectual laziness is a hazard to be avoided.

History, however, is not the bunk that Henry Ford thought. I side with Cicero: ignorance of history is the hallmark of intellectual immaturity. Miller is correct in saying that we should not rely on history too much. It is important to caution that we ignore it at our peril.

Foreigners in Areas of China Under Communist Jurisdiction Before 1949

Pictured here is former Chinese Chairman Mao Z...

Image via Wikipedia

A pdf book from the University of Kansas. One has to ask whether foreigners (Soviets included) were hesitant to go into the communist regions, whether this was justified, and whether the CCP was wise or misguided in not appearing to be more open.

These are not trivial questions. A cynic could suggest that as the civil war progressed the CCP was uncomfortable giving the world a view of its actions in areas under its control. An apologist would point to the rough handling the CCP had received from the US and Brits and to the suspicion Stalin  had earned for his agents.

I take a middle path. Mao was a latent xenophobe, was actively tapping the xenophobia latent in the nation, and it served the Party’s purposes to underscore that this was a purely Chinese revolution.

More evidence that the Mao and the CCP played the nationalism card better than Chiang and the Kuomintang.