China's strategic thinking: A gold medal for mental gymnastics - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 25 August 2008

China's strategic thinking: A gold medal for mental gymnastics

Top:  Posing in front of a street-length screen, placed by the Beijing City Administration to screen off the under-construction area behind it.

Below:  The Forbidden City in Beijing, photographed from the side of Bei Hai Park.

(Photos courtesy Ajai Shukla)

by Ajai Shukla
Beijing, China
Business Standard, 26th Aug 08

Those who believe that the Olympics are Emerging China’s message to the world have missed the wood for the trees. The Olympics are indeed a message, but more to the Chinese people. The message is: you have trusted us to rule you… and behold! We are repaying your trust; hold your head up before the world.

All ye, who wait for the revolution in China --- in the most part, followers of The Economist and the Wall Street Journal --- when an empowered and demanding citizenry will rise against their repressive rulers… take heed! The wait is going to be longer than you thought.

To the discerning visitor to China, far more striking than China’s impressive infrastructure and growing urban prosperity is the astonishing acquiescence of the Aam Chini in his relationship with Zhongnanhai, the home of the Chinese Communist Party and the Government of China.

Democracy, say a growing number of Chinese, especially the young, is not all that it is cracked up to be. Jean Liu, a young woman from Chengdu who now works as a journalist in Beijing, was all Chinese politeness when I brought up the D-word. “Isn’t it dangerous”, she asked, “to allow just any person to talk to the people? Hitler was such a good speaker, that he swept away the Germans with his oratory. And we know what that led to.”

It’s a common argument in China’s chat rooms. I pointed out that Hitler had struck a chord not with his oratory, but with his message of German pride, which resonated with a people humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles. But Ms Liu was having none of it. Like hundreds of millions of other Chinese, she has bought into Beijing’s argument that democracy has hamstrung the growth of countries like India. They remain mired in poverty, while China surges ahead.

Beijing’s enormous propaganda machine powers out the message everyday: “Your lives are getting better; China is emerging fast from its century of humiliation. (China’s invasion and domination by the West since 1840 underpins Beijing’s message.) Democracy will allow some Hitler-style charlatan to take you back into anarchy. Economic growth rests on social and political order.”

And the Chinese people, remembering the chaos before Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and the pro-democracy agitation at the Tianenmen Square in 1989, react to the promise of stability like good Confucians. The government, they agree, must know what it’s doing. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is the answer for us. Beijing rations out --- very deliberately and very cautiously --- economic, political and social freedoms. The official media plays Oliver Twist, asking for more only after the government decides to give it anyway.

The only real protests take place at the levels of provincial government, Beijing’s nod to democracy. It’s been called many things by different dictators: grassroots democracy, basic democracies. But nobody’s yet called it legitimate democracy.

Beijing’s caution is born of a compromise between two perspectives, which have competed in China for centuries. On the one hand is the Southern viewpoint, an internationalist perspective based upon free trade, which was born in the ports and commercial hubs around Shanghai, Canton, Macau and Guangdong. In contrast, the cautious, security-centric Northern viewpoint --- symbolised by the Great Wall of China --- was forged in centuries of invasions from the north by Mongols and Manchus; in this perspective, foreigners are a threat more than an opportunity.

The Northern viewpoint gradually won out, starting from the watershed moment in 1435 when the Ming emperor ordered an end to shipbuilding and naval activity in China. Around 1477, the emperor burnt the records of the seven voyages of China’s greatest mariner, the eunuch Zheng He, who had established Chinese authority as far as Java, Malacca and the coast of Africa.

Today, China walks the finest of lines between the Northern and the Southern viewpoints. Economic activity is Beijing’s lifeline to authority and global influence. On the other hand, it can never be allowed to get out of hand and endanger the established order.

India must watch carefully another contradiction between two conflicting views on international relations, which coexist simultaneously in Beijing. On the one hand, China remains strongly committed to the Westphalian system of state sovereignty, especially after the Tianenmen Square massacre, when the sovereignty was cited as the principle to ward off a global outcry. In fact, Beijing has touted state sovereignty ever since its traumatic encounters with western and Japanese imperialism in the 19th century, as well as after independence through its Five Principles of Peaceful Cooperation. In these, China has used the principle of state sovereignty as a defensive weapon; a shield against foreign interference as well as a sword to strike down domestic opposition.

On the other hand, there is the traditional Chinese view of international relations, a pre-1840 Great Power worldview, which still survives in Beijing. In that view, the power and influence of a country radiates outwards in concentric circles from its capital, gradually diminishing as it proceeds further. This view naturally envisions Chinese domination over (at least tacitly) subservient regional states and neighbours, which --- like North Korea and Pakistan --- accept “guidance” from Beijing. Such regional hierarchies may be confirmed by force, such as during the “punitive” wars in 1962 with India and, in 1979, with Vietnam.

The world watched with admiration as Chinese gymnasts dominated the Olympic gold medal tally in Beijing. Had there been medals for mental gymnastics, China’s count might have been higher.


  1. looks like you've bought into the propaganda more than anyone else, mr shukla! this is drivel. the chinese state has no intricate contradictions that don't show up clearly from the olympics. and what of the fate of the chinese athletes who lost? we've heard some horror stories. and the way you end your piece superbly proves how hard you've been bought by chinese propaganda. you're lost, son!

  2. Good job. However the Chinese did not teach the Vietnamese a lesson unlike India . They lost over 30000 troops and their armour was severely dented . They walked into killing zones which the Vietnamese had prepared for them .

    India should have resolved to take back Aksai Chin and other areas and pressed hard in 1971 when the Chinese were very weak and wobbly .

    You can't see the Wall from near space or outer space either , let alone the Moon !Let's not build a spindly legged local bully into a World Power , it isn't !

    Pucca Ghati

  3. If the best areas of delhi are compared to the junk of newyork or tokyo, we will declare delhi to be a more advanced city. Does anyone visiting any country ever care to visit places which are poverty ridden and Dirty?

    But point taken, if we say we are better than china in terms of overall development and standard of living, we would be lying. But the rich-poor divide is pretty huge. So your aam-chinki enjoying a better life is not right. They work 18-20 hours in their factories so that the whole world gets cheaper goods..

    Having said that, even in US, the divide between rich and poor is staggering. So I think we should just ignore the poor, wherever we go, and be proud of the urban development.

  4. Really well written piece, Ajai.

  5. Good piece Ajai. My respect grows. While a little more discipline might not hurt in India, even as we let people work out the benefits of jobs versus blind ideology.

  6. just a bs indian talker, mind your own business more instead of China or Chinese


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