The challenge of China

Author: Richard Rigby, ANU

Challenge is a word that carries a heavy burden of nuance: it can convey a sense of threat, it can be an inspiration, it poses questions – often difficult ones – and it can also be double-edged, in that the challenge frequently applies as much to the alleged challenger as it does to those on the receiving end. Where China is concerned, the word is appropriate in every sense; but an important part of the challenge is precisely to decide which aspect is of the greatest importance. Only having done this can we attempt to frame policies, or at least provide the best possible advice to the policymakers, which will enable us to meet the challenge that today’s — and tomorrow’s — China poses to us, and to itself.

If there is a single word that should be applied to China, whether speaking of its international impact or its domestic situation, it should be ‘complexity’. There is simply nothing simple about China; and this being the case, we should be distrustful of any simple descriptors or characterisations, be they benign — China’s peaceful rise, harmonious world, harmonious society — or the opposite, such as comparisons of a rising China with Wilhelmine Germany at the beginning of the last century.

And with complexity comes size: expectations that China will take any path, the nature of which can be predicted from the experience of other countries are almost certainly going to be proved wrong. This was so of American hopes for a Westernised, democratic China emerging from World War II; it was so of the expectation post-1949 that China would become a clone as well as a client of the Soviet Union; and expectations have similarly been disappointed in both the pre-and post-1989 phases of the era of reform and opening.

China is just too big, and carries too great a civilisational and historical throw-weight to be anything other than sui generis. As Lu Xun, one of the greatest Chinese writers of the first half of the 20th century, told his readers, you make your path by walking it. This is as true of China now as it was then, but the implications for the rest of the world are now even greater — far greater — than when he wrote these words.

It is relatively easy to predict that in such and such a year China’s GDP will have reached a certain figure, that it will occupy such and such a global ranking in terms of size or in terms of per capita income, that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will be rated at such and such a level in terms of relative size, procurement, capabilities, and the like. These are all of course vital judgments to be made, and whatever the specifics, it seems clear enough that whatever difficulties China faces, domestically and internationally, in pursuing its growth goals, it is going to play an ever greater role in world affairs. Indeed, for better or for worse, it is doing so already. But the more difficult, and more crucial question is, assuming that China’s comprehensive strength, or global ranking, will place it amongst the most powerful and influential nations in the world by, say, 2020, or 2030, what sort of a China is it going to be?

Here our task is complicated not only by the sheer complexity of the issues to be addressed, and by the often unhelpful cacophony of foreign comment, but by the fact that the Chinese government — not just the present Chinese government, but others before it (although the Chinese Communist Party state has greater ideological inclinations and more effective tools than most of its predecessors) — is committed to presenting a single narrative of China’s rise as interpreted and enunciated by its official organs.

Yet anyone who has the slightest understanding of contemporary China will know that behind the editorials of the People’s Daily, the statements of Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokespeople, the presentation of the news by CCTV, or the work of officially approved film directors, there is a hugely complex world of debate, current and counter-current, introspection, historical and cultural revisionism, as much within the organs of state and party as outside. The degree to which this debate is tolerated waxes and wanes, and things can be said by some people, or within some bodies, that are forbidden to others. Some of this debate we can see, some of it is largely hidden. Some of it is inspiring, encouraging, some of it is more than a little scary or plumb crazy. But it is here, as much as in the more ostensibly transparent narratives approved for public — and foreign — consumption and edification, that the vital question of what sort of a China we are going to be dealing with 10, 20 or 30 years from now is being worked out.

Globalisation is another complicating factor that cuts both ways. As China becomes increasingly involved in the rest of the world, and vice-versa, the simple binary division between domestic and foreign — encapsulated in the once much-used formulation nei wai you bie — is increasingly untenable. Whatever they may wish, China’s rulers, and for that matter ordinary Chinese, are just going to have to get used to the fact that things that happen at home will impact on the way they are viewed from outside, and that this will in turn impact on decision-making relative to China by other countries. By the same token, foreign companies will find it increasingly difficult to regard with insouciance events in China that disturb their shareholders. The same, of course, applies to the treatment of Chinese, whether individuals, companies or representatives of the state, in other countries.

This means that in order to judge what sort of a country China is going to become, there is virtually nothing that happens in China that doesn’t matter, or that we don’t need to know about. The days when we could just look at steel and grain production figures, imports and exports, look at the PLA training and recruitment cycle, work out the pecking order in the standing committee of the Politburo, are over. Of course all these things are of the utmost importance. But as we seek to understand a country that is reassuming its historical place as one of the leading nations of the world, we need to know so much more: arguments about history and culture are important, not only to the Chinese, but to us.

To give only one obvious example: whether the standard for judging previous dynasties should be their achievements in culture and learning, or the degree to which central authority was imposed and borders expanded, matters to us. Similarly, the whole question of the reappraisal of traditional Chinese culture; how the modern Chinese state maintains the multinational character of the Manchu Qing Empire; questions of centralism versus federalism; the reappraisal of the achievements of the Nationalist government and its model of modernisation (not to mention its territorial claims largely inherited by the PRC, including, topically, the South China Sea); the debates about democracy; the rethinking of the post May-4 modernisation project . . . to name but a few issues that may once have seemed arcane, but in fact have major implications for all of us, not just the Chinese themselves, as they continue the process of walking a path that is increasingly going to merge with the global highway.

The first and greatest challenge, especially for those of us who grew up under the comfortable protection of British and US naval supremacy, and in a cultural world made in Palestine, Greece, Rome and Europe, is the challenge of understanding.

This essay is featured in the latest issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly (EAFQ).

Richard Rigby is head of the China Institute at the Australian National University and was formerly an Australian diplomat and analyst specialising on Chinese and Asian affairs.