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.

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