Empire’s Heir?


As the old saying suggests, be careful what you ask for, because you may get it.  The hubristic here in China are well on their way to discovering some uncomfortable truths of arrival as a great power.

For the last twenty years, rapid economic growth has fuelled fevered aspirations of catching up with and surpassing America.  The Darwinian view of world affairs that China’s educated classes have embraced is coupled with a remarkable obsession with America, often to the exclusion of the other 75% of humanity that also lives outside the borders of the Middle Kingdom.  That is because America is presently number one, and, as one of my students remarked last year, being or becoming number one is all that counts.

Eventually, if trends continue—a big if—then the leadership in Beijing and the youthful nationalists will get their way.  Rising incomes added to the vast demographic base will let China surpass America in economic weight, with the military power to match in due course.  Such fantasies of a “Chinese century” intensified after the 2008 Olympic spectacle and the West’s financial crisis.  Resource-hungry China’s investment and trade profile in other parts of the developing world has also been rising.

But the fantasists of arrival are getting a rude awakening, a foretaste of what is to come as they try to occupy some big shoes.  Protests against Chinese companies’ practices in Africa are already becoming more frequent.  And most strikingly, in July and again in October, spokesmen for al-Qā‘idah urged jihad against China in terms eerily reminiscent of earlier pronouncements against the West.  When the torch passes to you, it is easy to burn your hand.

The immediate cause of al-Qa‘idah’s invective against Beijing was the crushing of an uprising by Muslim Uyghurs, in the northwestern region known by Han Chinese as Xinjiang and by independence activists as Uyghuristan or East Turkestan.  Many observers note that news of the crackdown and of underlying discontent has ruined China’s image across much of the Muslim world.

Of course, the Uyghurs’ grievances are a complex matter and barely a blip on the world’s radar screen most of the time.  And al-Qa‘idah, for all its sound and fury and bloodletting, is a relatively small network among radical Islamists and unlikely, at least in its present form, to outlast this generation.  Yet the reactions to these events both inside China and outside in the Muslim world are important because they reveal some deep sensibilities and fault lines, which I suspect will become much more evident and politically consequential over the next decade or two.

Not long after I returned to China in September, one of my students expressed an opinion that resonates a good deal among those of the same generation and relatively comfortable background.  She remarked that while she could sympathise with the anti-régime protesters in Iran over the summer, as having a just cause, the Uyghurs who revolted around the same time were simply “evil people” with murderous instincts.  Now I know that most of that sentiment probably flows from a widespread desire to protect one’s own ethnic group, against what are seen here as marauders ungrateful for the spending and security that the central government bestows on them.  And Islamists abroad generally have not got worked up about China in recent years, except out of tribal solidarity with their coreligionists whenever tales of abuse hit the headlines.  If this were all that were at stake, the bitterness of the last few months would be of little account.

But the instincts run deeper.  The widespread sympathy among educated young Chinese for the protesters in Iran is rooted in what amounts to a common way of life, as secular late-moderns whose main yearning is unfettered access to an often libertine global consumer culture.  For the upper middle class youth of China’s coastal cities are more Westernised than they might like to think.  They want to copy the West in all respects except, perhaps, multiparty elections, which might get uncomfortably turbulent.  And the few thousand Twitterers who ventured out of prosperous North Teheran into the streets are similarly far removed from the Iranian hinterland, which has twice voted in large numbers for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Their vision of Iran has far more in common with that of the deposed Shah’s fellow travellers, than with that of most of their fellow citizens.  Anyone who sees either group as representative of its respective country is much like the Harvard professors who have been known to express surprise whenever America elects conservative presidents, because they do not personally know anyone who votes for them.

Just as a religion-infused public sphere seems suffocating to the Teheran Twitterers, so too does religious fervour baffle and unnerve educated young Chinese.  My students’ mouths have dropped open any time they hear the statistic that at least a third of their compatriots hold some sort of religious belief; they expect less than a tenth.  Ironically, the Uyghurs are not as fervent, by and large, as Muslims in some other parts of the world.  But the self-confidence of those who adhere, in however mild a way, to truths above the world’s flux is always a bit alarming to those of a more secular bent.  Most of the time, confident secularists here can dismiss religiosity as harmless, as an endearing folk custom of China’s ethnic minorities or as something colouring distant societies that matter only for trade and diplomacy.  When religiosity adds backbone to those who do not go along with the worldly trends everyone is assumed to want, however, bewilderment reigns.  For tomorrow’s empire-builders, the alienness of a sentiment most of the world’s population feels will prove an obstacle.  There will be no Lawrence of Arabia coming out of China to unruffle feathers in the Muslim world.  Many an empire has shattered on the mountains of central Asia, and those peaks are sharp and sturdy still.

The other side of the coin is even more ominous.  In an earlier era, many in the Muslim world respected the Chinese government for standing up to the West while invoking anti-imperialist themes.  Now, they are discovering a hard-edged atheism and material ambitions that will press ever more heavily on the rest of the world.  Among modern hegemons that have stridden over the planet, Britain had rapacious capitalism tempered by lingering aristocratic virtues, while America has had rapacious capitalism tempered by piety and a vibrant civil society.  The excesses of the last half century, including the Cultural Revolution, have left very little in the way of such buffers for China as it arrives.  The higher up the social scale one goes, the less of Confucianism—or even an earthy populism and good humour—remains to counterbalance a technocratic tone-deafness.

In the Muslim world, but also in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia, we should expect to hear more anti-imperialism of this flavour in coming years.  Interestingly, however, very few of the educated here expect this to happen.  A recent BBC/Globescan opinion survey found that Chinese versus foreign respondents’ perceptions of China’s rôle in the world have the widest gap for any country.  Many here genuinely believe in Beijing’s own anti-imperialist bona fides as if we were still in the 1950s.  They even suggest that China’s rise, by taking America and the rest of the West down a peg or two, will benefit the rest of the developing world.

This image, so prevalent in official media and textbooks here, is of a China once humiliated by colonialism and now courageously standing up to its former oppressors.  Unfortunately for its proponents, that image today resonates very little with onlookers elsewhere.  Important currents of opinion, both in the West and in the developing world, have a long habit of instinctively siding with David against Goliath.  This cuts across the likes of everything from European anti-globalisation protesters to Latin American leftists to Middle Eastern Islamists.  Even if in inconsistent or eccentric ways, such folk sympathise more often than not with governments and movements that challenge the North Atlantic power centres.

But conspicuously absent is any real backing among them for the Chinese political élite’s self-given mission of checking the West, and particularly the United States.  Part of the reason is that the instinctive backers of David against Goliath sense that the “Chinese century” narrative is about becoming Goliath, not about abolishing Goliath-hood.  One of my students last year observed that the difference between the Islamists and the Chinese nationalists is that the Islamists want to opt out of the money-mad game the West is imposing on the world, while the Chinese nationalists want to beat the West at its own game.  All the talk a few months ago about a G-2 “Chimerica” consortium to run the world uncannily resonated with such fantasies of arrival.  Anyone hoping for a more equal landscape of power in the world should know better than to look to the political classes here to bring it about, whatever they might say to some audiences some of the time.

If this interpretation is correct, then one could draw a variety of conclusions from it.  Those enamoured of Western supremacy will be tempted to go back to Cold War rhetoric about containing China for everyone else’s sake.  Conveniently, such an approach would also be about staving off the decline of Western power.  I do not propose any such thing.  For one thing, I hold no brief for Western supremacy.  The core criticism of China as would-be hegemon can be applied equally well to its predecessor, and its predecessor’s predecessor, of both of which I am a citizen.  Moreover, just as any indictment of American or British imperialism does not rightly touch those Americans and Britons who opposed it and did not benefit from it, so too should I hasten to point out that this new project of empire has very little to do with the interests of those Chinese who today stand knee-deep in rice paddies or slog away on construction sites for a pittance.  The emerging problem is not one of China versus any other country.  It is a more complex matter involving fault lines of interest and ideology that cut across countries.  Those who control the political and economic apparatus of any major power cannot simply be said to speak for their populace, like some sort of undifferentiated mass.

So how do these new global fault lines cut across the landscape?  Perhaps most obvious is that, whatever some might urge, there is no real likelihood of any Western Cold War against a rising China.  Indeed, in the last few years there has been an unhealthy amount of kowtowing to this emerging diplomatic and economic power centre, by precisely those who are best situated not to have to do so.  A couple of weeks ago, none other than Tony Blair penned a rather effusive editorial in the Wall Street Journal praising the accomplishments of the Chinese political élite and professing a Western interest in its continued success.  He has had ample opportunity to hone such skills over years of accommodation to Washington’s imperial adventures.  Other member states of the European Union—for the new presidency of which Mr Blair is presently a candidate—have also caved in repeatedly on issues such as how to handling visiting Chinese dissidents, to avoid offending such an important trading partner.  Across the Atlantic, the number of what are often called “panda huggers” is also proliferating.  America’s former Secretary of Labour, Elaine Chao, was recently appointed as an international adviser by the city of Wuhan.  And the delicate timidity with which the Obama administration has handled its counterparts in Beijing is noticeable.  Far from a new Cold War, the West’s sliding into tributary status fifty years hence seems more likely at this pace.

But we need not confine our attention to the West’s political élites.  One can find many of the same habits of mind among a wider array of Westerners who engage with the Middle Kingdom.  The last decade has seen many of the comfortable and astute swarm here like flies to a honeypot.  They invest in China, learn about China, and master Chinese because China is supposedly booming and will continue to do so.  They buy into the trajectory of the country’s rise and expect to attach themselves to it; the assumption and the activity become mutually reinforcing.  Usually the affinity for Chinese culture does not run very deeply in such cases.  If West Africa were booming instead, such people would be diligently learning Wolof and eating peanut stews.

All this suggests a larger pattern that goes far beyond any musings about great-power politics or competing empires.  Just as prosperous youth in coastal China sympathise with the Teheran Twitterers, so too do likeminded foreigners identify with much of the project that the Chinese upper class has set for itself.  For all the nationalistic rhetoric about Chinese exceptionalism today, it is quite likely—and panda-hugging foreigners generally expect—that China will evolve into something like a liberal régime sooner or later.  Or it will at least be predictably capitalist and cosmopolitan enough, along the lines of Singapore, that the moneyed and mercenary around the world can relate to it well and use it to advance their own purposes.  If that trajectory continues, then Beijing will occupy the same rôle as Washington and London before it.  If the world needs a hegemon—if emerging structures of global governance do not run themselves, which they well might do a generation hence—then this would be a hegemon with which those who need to do business will be able to do business.  There might be some indignant rhetoric at election time in the West, during the transition, but behind the scenes the baton will pass smoothly, just as it did in the 1940s.

Whether this comes to pass depends on many things.  China’s growth may very well not continue, or India might outdo it, or the world’s comfortable might find more diffuse ways of guaranteeing their interests.  I am merely noting the implications if this scenario does unfold.  While such a transition would be convenient for the powers that be, it would be bitterly resented by more or less the same people who resent the current lineup of forces in the world.  Changes on the surface would not win over the Islamists, or the poor in Latin America, or Africa, or elsewhere.  They just happen to be the vast majority of the world’s population.

Such a scenario would also, crucially, be unsatisfactory to many decent people within China.  Just as imperialism was abhorrent to many in Britain and America, because of the burdens, distortions, and fevers that it brought on their own societies, so too should this project repel many Chinese.  An imperial power usually has a high level of inequality at home, keeping its commoners’ noses to the grindstone to pay for adventures abroad.  It also ruins much of value in its own culture.  I have been struck over the years by a peculiar attitude among many of my friends—both foreigners and Chinese who have lived abroad—who profess a love for Chinese culture.  Elsewhere in the world, much of the appreciation of a country centres on savouring its present.  Most deep Sinophiles I know love what China once was and what it might be in a very different future, but have deep misgivings about the fevers of moneymaking and powerseeking that warp its present.  Far from wanting to attach themselves to its trajectory, they look on that trajectory in horror.

It is among those people, and among those dispossessed and disdained by imperial projects of any colour and origin, that the promising ground really lies.  For the sensibilities that are repelled by late modern lucre-lust, and the virtues that can steel us to resist its proliferation, know no homeland.  It is hard to have moral clarity when one is trying to keep the loose change in one’s pocket while touching one’s forehead to the ground.  By lifting up our heads, however, we can see those both near and far who also wish to stand firm, wherever they might stand.  That kind of moral clarity, cosmopolitan in its own eccentric way, and resistant to the temptations of empires and counterempires, is perhaps more available to us today than at any time in living memory.

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