October 27, 2004

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(Chinese) Food for thought

Before diving into the meat of this post, I'd like to mention a new blog focussed on China matters: Fabian's Hammer. On the Asian blogroll and interesting posts such as questioning Chinese nationalism and its implications.

Which segues nicely into the thought-provoking post by Joe at Winds of Change on the same question: China's growing nationalist movement. This is a follow up from Joe's post on neo-fascism and China's future and was sparked by the same Globe and Mail article that Fabian discussed above: China Nationalist Fervour Runs Amok. As an aside, kudos to the Globe and Mail for such an extensive and intelligent series of articles on China.

Joe poses a set of questions about the potential for nationalism and fascism to overrun China and what that might mean. I strongly recommend you read the post and follow the interesting set of links Joe has compiled.

Before I add my $0.02 to the pile I'd note it is important to keep China's history and culture in mind, rather than viewing it through a "Western" mindset. China for literally hundreds or even thousands of years was a feudal kingdom but with key differences to what would be viewed as fascist today. For example the national civil service examination system usually prevented wealthy and powerful families from cementing their influence and allowed for a merit based system of promotion, regardless of wealth and station. Also while it may not seem like it, in fact the current rulers of China are similar in format and nature to China's historical political structure. It was the unsettled years at the end of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the Nationalist Government that were the aberration in Chinese history, not the current system. Another mitigating factor against the rise of fascism is China's vastness. While reasonably (albeit not totally) homogenous in race, China is a massive country with wide differences between regions. What appears to be strong central rule is actually more like an overall co-ordinating body that the various provinces report and pay tribute to, again like China of old. China's provincial and local governments remain strong and tolerant of central rule only so long as it benefits the regions in turn. The imposition of a structure akin to World War 2 fascist states such as Germany or Italy would simply not work in China.

China is a proud country with a long history. Like many countries with a great deal of homogeniety, racism and nationalism is commonplace. This is because there is little sense of "other". For example Hong Kong recently introduced anti-discrimination laws that are discriminatory. Indeed even that law is progress compared to the blatant and open racism that occurs in mainland China against non-Han Chinese. In fact there have been articles in Chinese papers arguing racism can be legitimate. This naturally leads to a fierce nationalism that explains, for example, why China's population is firmly behind in the leadership in aggressively dealing with Taiwan. The same fierce nationalism true of other Asian countries, for example Japan. Combined with Asia's difficult history (not just modern, either) you can begin to understand the competing forces at play in the region, as shown lately in the Japanese push for a UN Security Council seat. Nationalism is nothing new, especially in China. It is, in fact, a thousand year old force that has been vital in seeing China become a nation despite a turbulent history. Is it growing worse? Not as far as I can tell. So long as the Taiwan issue burns so brightly that will remain the main outlet for Chinese nationalist fervour. If (when?) Taiwan and China reach a settlement under some kind of reunion, then it may be time to worry about China's further nationalist aims. But in such a huge country that is safely content with its existing boundaries, the only extension of further nationalism will be to turn China into another superpower.

The China as superpower debate is often bandied about without reliance on the facts. Jacques Chirac as recently as a few weeks ago was in China, showing French arms and quietly bandying the idea of Europe and China emerging as counterweights to US "hegemony" (I hate that word). It may one day happen that China will rival the USA. But that day is a long way into the future. Militarily and economically China is a long way from catching up to anything near the USA's levels. China's leadership knows it, even if they don't actively talk the idea down. It flatters China's place in the world, but it is an emerging global power, but nothing more. The recent G8 meeting and China's attendance are testimony to that.

There are good reasons to think that China's populace would not put up with damaging nationalism. For example the growing middle class know their future is tied to greater integration and trade with the world, not retreat from it. China's deliberate merchantilism ties China's fate intimiately with the USA's, at least economically. China holds the second highest amount of US dollars as reserves in the world, after Japan: something like US$450 billion. This is invested in US Treasuries and the like; China has no interest in seeing this money being blown away by its own moves. The only issue that has the potential to force China beyond its own economic interests is Taiwan, which can be viewed as an internal Chinese issue. As an extension of nationalism it would come at great economic cost - a price the country might be prepared to pay, but a cost nonetheless.

The difference between Chinese nationalism and those of European countries in the leadup to WW2 is whereas those countries were trying to recapture past political and economic glories, China is attaining this glory in a global sense for the first time. It is coming off a much lower base and has a huge amount to go before it ever rivals Western levels.

China has constraints on its growth that Joe alludes to in his posting. The potential remains for China to become more assertive on the global stage, especially to defend its energy security and economic growth. Already the world is seeing some of the results of China's growth in higher commodity and oil prices. China's environment is a mess and the rapid depletion of water tables, droughts and over-cultivation are all problems the country is dealing with. The rapid migration from country to city and the large and growing gaps in wealth between these two are large factors in China's future. But again all of these are internal domestic issues, not factors that will drive a sense of nationalism. Now that China has adopted a path of market economics (after a fashion) it will continue to grow and catch up to the rest of the world, even though as Joe mentiosn there are no doubt going to be hiccups on the way. But to put the gap into perspective, even if China outgrows America by 6% on average every year, it will take 176 years to catch up in terms of GDP. At the same time America will not stand still, waiting for China to catch up in military and political terms. That will continue to remain a check on any growing Chinese ambitions.

Joe also asks if the CCP is keeping the nationalist movement on a leash to use to its own ends. To me this is muddled thinking (with all due respect). China's Communist Party is a nationalist movement and has been since its founding. Now that to a large extent Communism has been dismantled in China you can argue that it is only a nationalist movement that serves to unify a wide and varying country.

Originally Joe postulated:

...I was asked about threats to the future peace and stability of the world. Islamofascism was #1, of course, but I also spent a bit of time explaining my worries about one possible future for China: a future of state capitalism under dictatorial control, a strong need for external resources to fuel that economy, carefully fostered xenophobia, a legacy of belief in the racial superiority of Chinese peoples, a major demographic problem in an excess of young males, and the meme that China is being cheated of its rightful place in the world. Germany's history in the 20th century teaches us what this combination portends.
Until his final sentence he hits the key issues facing China in the years ahead. Where I disagree is that the lessons of Germany can tell us what is in store for China. China is unlike any Western country and its future will not be an imitation of modern Western history. I for one don't see Chinese nationalism as a dangerous element in the world in the years ahead, with the notable exception of Taiwan. But Joe has posted a set of interesting questions that deserve consideration and debate.

posted by Simon on 10.27.04 at 04:22 PM in the China politics category.


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China's Stresses, Buildups... and Futures
Excerpt: Forces are building inside China as we watch: demographic, economic, stresses, military. To what end? That is surely the correct question. But as China's military capabiltiies grow along with its stresses, the number of answers grows, too. Always in mo...
Weblog: Winds of Change.NET
Tracked: April 16, 2005 04:09 AM


I don't even know where to begin in describing all the things wrong with this article. Let's start with the idea that, as you put, "it will take 176 years to catch up in terms of GDP". This is nonsense. 30 seconds in Excel should disprove it for anyone. If the US grows at 3% annually while China grows 9% annually, using CIA Factbook GDP numbers (By PPP), with the US having roughly $11 trillion and China roughly $6 trillion in GDP for 2004, you will have China outweighing the US in just _11_ YEARS. Perhaps you are referring to GDP per capita? That would be a mistake as well. Germany was far poorer than the US in 1939, but still managed to put together a world-class fighting machine and industrial economy. It doesn't matter what the individual wealth of a Chinese person is, what matters is China's aggregrate wealth used for military/industrial purposes.

China is now the #1 producer of steel and coal in the world, among many other industrial products. It is already one of the largest car markets (from nothing in less than 10 years). The only thing that China lacks is technology, and that is rapidly being siphoned off from Japan, South Korea and the US through deceptive joint partnerships. Constraints on military technology transfer are the only thing that can hamper China's rise to a military superpower, and those constraints are being worn away by countries such as France. Putting your hope in commercial interests to reign in Chinese fascism is also foolhardy. Germany and France conducted a lot of trade before WW1. Wars are often fuelled by emotion, so no amount of reason regarding commercial interests will hold them back, regardless of how many US Treasury notes the Chinese government holds.

I'm not happy about it either, but face facts here. China doesn't have to look like Orange County in order to be a huge threat. It can still be a vastly poor country and yet become the most powerful nation on Earth. If Chinese fascists start a fight with the US in 2020, it will not be a fight the US can win. Mind you, probably neither side could win, given nuclear weapons, but Americans are far more constrained by their morality and political system in the use of weapons than the Chinese.

Pray for a slow democratic revolution like in South Korea, because the numbers are not pretty otherwise.

posted by: Mat Krepicz on 10.30.04 at 01:02 AM [permalink]


I wonder if you've ever actually been to China? You are right that total wealth matters more than per capita GDP in terms of military might. China is hugely behind the developed world, even with its current rapid growth. It is coming of an extremely low base. It is also nothing like Germany in the lead up to WW2. Firstly there is no Treaty of Versailles. Secondly the world is a very different places, far more linked both economically and militarily. Thirdly you assume China has expansionary aims. Chinese nationalism, such that it exists, is about keeping the country together. The country has no expressed desire to expand its borders, or for a "greater" China outside of the Taiwan question. Your idea that "Chinese fascists start a fight with the US in 2020" is difficult to fathom. On what basis would China seek to do this? China holds literally hundreds of billions of dollars of US dollars and Treasuries...and when it comes to money Chinese aren't stupid.

China will become a powerful nation by dint of its huge population and economic growth, as will its neighbour India. But the world doesn't stand still waiting for them to catch up. China's military is huge but bloated and lacking massively in military technology. Numerically China will become the biggest market in various products, but it still has 700 million peasants earning barely enough to live. Its leadership is more interested in raising living standards than military adventurism.

Personally I think China's political system will have to evolve given the pressures that growing living standards will exert. I agree that military technology should be controlled when it comes to China, partly to retain the security balance and partly because China has been suspect in proliferation in the past.

What I don't see is any sign of Chinese fascism. I also don't see anything in your comments that actually takes issue with my original post. You can either fear China or engage with it; I don't see anything to fear.

posted by: Simon on 11.01.04 at 09:56 AM [permalink]

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