Yellow peril repainted

Is China a "rogue" country aggressively seeking hegemony in Asia, or a weakened one-party state desperately trying to control rapid social change? We may not know until it is too late
August 19, 1997

China is so huge, and carries an aura of such longevity, that one is always tempted to exaggerate everything about it. Problems that might be commonplace in other cultures assume an appearance of awesome intractability; and immense significance is ascribed to average achievements.

It is now almost seven centuries since the first copies of Marco Polo's manuscript-describing China's trade practices and social life under the Mongols-were first circulated, sparking western commercial, military and religious interest. Since that time, western concern to understand China has been a constant in travel literature, fiction and analytic forays. Most of these works take the position first expressed by the Dominican friar Gaspar da Cruz in 1557: that however overblown some of these accounts of China might seem, "China is much more than it sounds," as opposed to the other countries of the world where "things often sound greater than they really are." But over the centuries there have always been critics seeking to curb these excesses, and to present China as weak, static or downright contemptible. They include Daniel Defoe, Herder and Hegel, along with disillusioned missionaries, mercenary soldiers, frustrated diplomats and exhausted Comintern advisers.

Westerners have also fluctuated in their views as to whether China should more suitably be seen as supine victim or as potent threat. Their judgements have not always been based on reality. The pinnacle of Yellow Peril fears was probably between 1890 and 1915, when China was falling apart politically and militarily. The deepest sense of China as global threat to western values was surely-in the US at least-during the coldest war years of 1955 to 1970, when China was enduring maximum dislocation, famine and economic weakness. Now, as our century lurches towards its end, China is again re-emerging in analysts' minds as a potent source of danger.

In The Coming Conflict with China, Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro explain at considerable length why we should be nervous about China, and-with much greater brevity-what we should try to do about it. The authors see some kind of conflict between the US and China as almost inevitable, given China's "historic legacy" and its determination "to dominate Asia." They see China as labouring under a "deep-seated psychological need" for greatness, a need frustrated over the last few centuries, which has induced in China a mood of "thwarted grandeur." These are vast, vague statements, of a kind that put the authors firmly in the tradition of speculative western commentary on China. The phrases are descriptive, not analytical, and in essence impossible to prove or to refute. But by skilful selection of episodes from China's recent past, the authors convincingly build up a panorama in which their arguments seem cogent.

In looking for parallels from other societies which might illuminate what China is experiencing now, Bernstein and Munro are drawn to the model of the "kind of corporatist, militarised, nationalist state" of Mussolini and Franco, although they assert that China lacks the elements of racial superiority and "armed messianism" which would make parallels with Hitler's Germany valid. In China, as in fascist Spain and Italy, they argue, one finds the following: a cult of the state, to which the individual is expected to subordinate his own interests; the dominance of that state by a single political party; the emergence of the army as the "ultimate political authority" and as an economic force through its control of state corporations and arms sales; an extremely effective police and security system operating alongside a "compliant, entirely non-independent judiciary"; the vesting of the leadership of many state corporations in the relatives of senior party leaders; and an "intense, brittle, defensive kind of national pride" which incorporates a strong anti-foreign component.

There is no doubt that elements of all of these are present in today's China, although whether that makes China more like Franco's Spain or Mussolini's Italy than like other societies seems a moot point: other past and present right-wing dictatorships have had many or all of these characteristics, as did the Soviet Union and various eastern European client states. Another close parallel, although not one discussed in this volume, would be the China of the 1930s, the period often called "the Nanking decade," when up to the Japanese invasion of 1937 China seemed to be moving to new levels of economic growth and cultural diversity under the one party control of Guomindang nationalists.

Although the authors spend some time rummaging around for historical comparisons, the main strength of their study lies in the marshalling of a wide range of events from China's very recent past, in order to support their overall claim that China has now become a "rogue" country. They elaborate on this with the alarmist charge that China might well risk a war with the US because such a war is in "the interests of the governing clique" in Beijing. We do not have to accept either claim to appreciate the accumulation of detail the authors invoke to support their arguments. They focus on 1994 as the year in which a number of elements fused together in China, creating a volatile new situation. In that year, for example, the Chinese government began declaring through its official channels that the US was the new "hegemonist" threatening the longterm stability of China, a role once taken by the former Soviet Union. To the authors of this study, the failure of Deng Xiaoping to halt this negative labelling was clear proof of his loss of political power. Chinese attitudes hardened towards its own dissidents, some of whom had been released as part of China's drive to be chosen as the host for the year 2000 Olympic Games; they were then rearrested after the drive failed. In that same year of 1994, bitterness grew in the aftermath of US attempts to link "most favoured nation" status to China's correction of human rights abuses. We saw the hardening of Chinese policies in Tibet, Chinese defiance of arms proliferation agreements, the selling of nuclear technology to Iran and Pakistan, the refusal to allow Red Cross visits to Chinese prisons, Chinese tolerance of large-scale software piracy and the belligerent shadowing of the visiting US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk by Chinese submarines and fighter planes.

To 1994 Bernstein and Munro also assign the emergence of one of the indubitably important influences on US-China policy, the formation of a "new China lobby." Earlier use of the phrase "China lobby" was linked to the virulently anti-communist and politically powerful pro-Chiang Kai-shek and pro-Taiwan American lobby of the 1940s to 1960s era, often associated with the McCarthy period. The loss of this lobby's influence was clearly signalled by Nixon's visit to China in 1972 and confirmed by Carter's normalisation agreements of 1979. The "new" lobby that replaced the old one, according to Bernstein and Munro, is a mixed group of American corporate leaders, former politicians and military men now serving as international "consultants," and a pliant entourage of lawyers and academics. Evidence of China's sophistication in manipulating this lobby came in January 1994, with the floating of $1 billion worth of Chinese bonds in US money markets. Over the next few months, the Chinese turned their attention to senior executives from the Ford motor company, Time-Warner communications, AT&T, IBM and Boeing. The authors give considerable attention to the role of Henry Kissinger as a corporate consultant, along with other former prominent power brokers such as Alexander Haig and Brent Scowcroft, all of whom earn large "consulting fees" by easing the path of the corporations they represent to the right sources of power in Beijing. Bill Gates and other businessmen come in for their share of criticism for being so easily co-opted by the Chinese, as does the "K Street crowd" of Washington lawyers and lobbyists, so named from the street close to the Congress and the White House where many of them have their offices.

Although Bernstein and Munro give the corporate names of several lobbying groups, they leave nameless the individual members of this "K Street crowd." They are similarly discreet about identities in what they describe as a core group of "a half dozen or so" senior American academics, whom they believe have bought access to contemporary Chinese sources in return for their silence over human rights abuses. Perhaps this reticence is sensible in these litigious times, but it is also unfortunate, in that it constitutes a kind of trial by innuendo, in which innocent researchers are lumped together with colleagues who may be rather more calculating about their research careers.

The nature of China, the authors argue, is such that all of these groups-whether they know it or not-are in fact doing business with the People's Liberation Army, or what the authors call "PLA Inc," because the armed forces now play such a huge role in China's export sales; in the financial and real estate worlds of China and Hong Kong; and in China's overseas investments. Some of the authors' most disturbing data concern the activities of "PLA Inc" in the US business world. For example, the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Co (Catic)-intimately connected to PLA Inc-has recently bought several US machine-tool companies with the equipment to shape metals for jet aircraft and missiles; another PLA Inc company has acquired the US company which makes the precision bearings for Nasa space shuttles and the US Airforce's C-17 military transport planes. And the Chinese company known as the Xinxing corporation, which conducts $16m of annual US business for the Chinese military, turns out to be owned by the PLA general logistics department. Only rarely do such companies receive much coverage in the press-an exception was in 1996, when the FBI discovered that an intercepted illegal shipment of 2,000 Chinese AK-47 automatic assault rifles to the US had in fact been dispatched by two PLA-managed companies, "Norinco" and "Poly Technologies."

So what exactly should be done about all this? One problem here is that The Coming Conflict focuses almost entirely on US needs and reactions, so we get little sense of European interests in China, or of the special markets being carved out by Japan, Australia and New Zealand. But from their US perspective, the authors see Clinton's policies as completely failing to curb China's abusive ways. They find the linking of "most favoured nation" status to the attempt to rectify Chinese human rights abuses especially vacuous, because any bite the policy might have had was undercut by the administration's susceptibility to the clout of the new China lobby.

Although sharp in their criticism of Clinton, the authors have little concrete advice to give him-beyond suggesting that he try to push the Chinese into slowly increasing the amount of permitted US imports, until such imports level out at a figure of about 65 per cent of China's total exports to the US. They also urge that China be refused entry into the World Trade Organisation as a "developing nation," on the grounds that such status brings with it favourable financial loopholes that China will exploit to the full. But beyond this, their main conclusion is that China's belligerence and economic toughness are real, and that the only feasible US response is one of heightened military vigilance in Asia, and of US commitment to maintaining a firm military edge over China in the air and at sea. In this regard, the authors see the firm response of the US in March 1996 to Chinese missile testing off Taiwan as being exemplary. On that occasion, as the Chinese communists tried to intimidate Taiwan on the eve of its first open presidential elections, the US sent two aircraft carriers and their support fleets to the region. Chinese bluster faltered, and the Taiwanese went ahead and elected Lee Teng-hui by a massive majority.

In an unusual addition to their book, Bernstein and Munro construct a scenario for the year 2004 in which the American president and the joint chiefs are being forced to respond to a Chinese blockade of Taiwan, initiated by the Chinese in an attempt to force the island into reunion with the mainland. The fictional scenario has a chilling realism as the authors construct dialogues that the Americans might have on such an occasion, as they consider whether the protection of Taiwan is worth a war.

Linking such speculations to the exigencies of current policy, the authors conclude that the nature of the power balance in Asia has shifted decisively since 1994. Now it is China that seeks hegemony in Asia; it sees alliance with Russia as a good way to attain this. The only response to this situation is for the US to strengthen its ties with Japan, and to permit a rearming of Japan and an expansion of the Japanese navy sufficient to give the US-Japanese joint forces the advantage over a Sino-Russian bloc. There is an irony here: exactly a quarter of a century ago, Nixon broke the long-standing freeze with mainland China and invoked a new US-China axis as a curb to the Soviet Union and its Asian allies.

To those for whom the second world war is still a living memory, any decision to rearm Japan may well seem irresponsible folly. And behind all these speculations remains the largest question of all: how much of the danger that the authors discuss is real, how much is mere bluster-the attempt of a critically flawed one party state with dramatic but uneven economic growth and uncontrollable social pressures, to persuade the rest of the world that it is indeed a superpower? The trouble with such questions is that they often cannot be answered until it is too late.
The coming conflict with china

Richard Bernstein and Ross H Munro

New York: Alfred A Knopf 1997