China’s ‘Great Leap Backward’


chia-hu-ping-maoA bipartisan strategic assessment underlies a widely-shared assumption about the likely direction of China’s development, notes a leading analyst. This was not the simplistic faith that if China became richer, it would turn into a liberal democracy. No one knows whether or when that might occur—or whether China will in fact keep prospering. Instead the assumption was that year by year, the distance between practices in China and those in other developed countries would shrink, and China would become easier rather than harder to deal with, James Fallows writes for The Atlantic.

But that’s no longer true, he notes, citing the areas that together indicate a turn:

        • Communications. China’s internet, always censored and firewalled, is now even more strictly separated from the rest of the world’s than ever before, and becoming more so…
        • Repression of civil society. Throughout the Communist era, the Chinese state has suppressed the growth of any form of organization other than the party itself. Religious practice, for instance, is authorized for five officially approved faiths (Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism)—but only state-authorized temples, mosques, and churches are allowed. So too for unions (all party-run), NGOs, and any other means through which people might associate….
        • Extraterritoriality. The recent repression is worse because China’s officials are attempting to extend it beyond China’s borders. Countries have always tried to use economic muscle to advance political or ideological ends. In China’s case, the most obvious example is its ongoing economic punishment of Norway (notably a boycott of its salmon) for the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s insolence in selecting the still-imprisoned writer Liu Xiaobo as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize six years ago….
        • Failed reform. chinacrony-cap-pei-198x300The most prominent part of Xi Jinping’s program since he assumed control in November 2012 has been an anticorruption campaign, advertised as a prelude to cleaning up China’s version of crony capitalism…
        • Anti-foreignism. In April, the Chinese government put out an instructional video that would have been considered crudely propagandistic had it come from some military-information ministry at the height of World War II. It was called “Dangerous Love,” and it warned young Chinese women about falling for sweet talk from foreign students or professors. What if that handsome student is actually a spy?! ….
        • The military. This is the most publicized aspect of a changed attitude from China. China has land borders with more than a dozen countries, and is connected by the East and South China Seas to half a dozen more. At the moment, it has territorial disputes with many of those countries, all of them on its maritime frontiers ……

These changes cannot be wholly attributed to President Xi Jinping. Rather, they “are most often traced to the messages—both emboldening and unsettling—that the Chinese leadership took from the world financial collapse of 2008,” Fallows suggests:

The concern about a more internationally aggressive China involves not a reprise of the Soviet Union during the tensest Cold War years but rather a much bigger version of today’s Russia. That is: an impediment rather than an asset in many of the economic and strategic projects the United States would like to advance. An example of kleptocracy and personalized rule. A power that sometimes seems to define its interests by leaning toward whatever will be troublesome for the United States. An actual adversary, not just a difficult partner. China is challenging in many ways now, and increasingly repressive, but things could get worse.

china soft power2Recent shifts are also undermining China’s attempts to project its soft power, Fallows contends:

“Their political model has absolutely no appeal, not even to their own people,” Chas Freeman told me. Freeman was the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under the first President Bush, but 20 years earlier, as a young State Department officer, he had served as interpreter during Richard Nixon’s first meetings in Beijing. “This is a sui generis system that no one is copying.”

Nearly everyone I spoke with agreed that China’s oversteps have generated ill will far greater than the goodwill fostered by its foreign aid and Confucius Institutes, which are supposed to teach Chinese language and promote Chinese culture around the world.


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