1) As China rises in economic power and global influence, does it threaten the hegemony of the US in the world?
- Some experts would answer this question by examining the American angle and subjecting the idea of American hegemony to scrutiny. These analysts believe that China’s rise is less a cause than a symptom of America’s decline, and that the notion of China threatening a world order based on American hegemony is flawed because America’s dominance has been eroding for some time. In this view, the world has been tiring of America’s influence at the same time its influence has been fading. Many here believe that America’s economy is fundamentally flawed in ways that are just now becoming apparent as home prices, stock prices, and the value of the dollar fall amid high fuel costs and the mortgage meltdown. They believe the US foreign policy to be ill-conceived, in both the soft and hard power it seeks to project. In this view, America’s anticipated fall in share of global GDP and in public opinion worldwide will be results of its own fiscal irresponsibility and military overstretch. In short, these experts believe the decline of the US is inevitable and follows historical geopolitical patterns. China’s rise in this scenario is a separate phenomenon and occurs at the same time other potential powers and economies are increasing in influence around the globe, including the European Union, Russia, and, one day, India.
- Some would say that China’s growing power won’t last and will be diminished before it poses a serious threat because of what they see as the fault lines running through China’s non-democratic system of government and the mathematical impossibility of infinite economic growth. These experts believe that people who have been given economic freedoms will come to demand commensurate political freedoms, leading to conflict with the Chinese Communist Party and the ultimate collapse of the state under its own weight. Another possibility is that the system of bargain trading political freedoms for prosperity will falter in an economic downturn; when the CCP doesn’t hold up its end of the economic bargain, the people will clamor for change, which will include demanding increased political liberties. The variety of potential outcomes here all would produce domestic turmoil in the short-term and would theoretically take China off the world stage as a hegemonic power while it undergoes a dramatic transition in governance. China would simply be too preoccupied to project much power internationally. In an extreme scenario, this upheaval could be ugly, and featured on the 24/7 global media cycle. This would likely diminish any soft power and goodwill the PRC has built over the last decades.
- Others would say that, as China grows, it will become more like the United States and West, and therefore less of a threat. These experts believe that democracy will come incrementally to China in a peaceful evolution whereby the Chinese Communist Party increasingly allows more social and political freedoms, and ultimately multi-party representative democracy in the form of elections. They believe this development is inevitable, and that, once this happens, China will join the community of high functioning democracies and support the status quo led by the United States. In this scenario, China becomes a stakeholder in American hegemony, becomes a junior or equal partner in maintaining the current world order, and begins to play by established international norms and rules. Evidence of this trend may be found in China’s increasing participation in multilateral organizations and in its philosophy of the “peaceful rise.”
- Some would argue that yes, in fact, China does pose a threat to the current international system. These experts believe that the CCP is cavalier in its treatment of its own citizens, and that the Party elites will continue the trend of consolidating power and restricting democratic reform. As China’s trajectory increasingly diverges from that of the US and leading Western democracies, experts here believe the PRC will become hostile to the system based on the interest of those countries. Instead of playing by the rules, China will become more recalcitrant with respect to existing international institutions. In this view, China and the US will become adversaries, and the world will follow in an alignment process recreating Cold War dynamics. Results of this alignment could include disruption of free trade, proliferation of nuclear weapons, increased militarization, and armed conflicts. Most believe polarization would be related to China’s quest for energy resources as well as an ideological battle with the West, and general anti-Western sentiment would be a feature of any alignment process in the developing world.
- If such an alignment did take place, some believe soft power dynamics would almost certainly become hard power dynamics. In fact, there are those who believe this is already occurring. Stories in the Western media in June 2008 and allegations made in several books released this year allege the Chinese to be involved in a sophisticated espionage effort against the US and West. According to these sources, cyber-warfare is technically underway as accusations are leveled at the PRC for hacking into US and other Western government computers, and even planting espionage instruments in computers manufactured in China for export.
- However, most experts generally give China the benefit of the doubt at this point and assume that China’s international intentions are not hostile, and that the world does not need to be actively containing or balancing China’s soft or hard power, nor worrying about the implosion of the Chinese government. They generally believe that China’s focus will be domestic for the short-run as it tackles economic, social, and environmental issues within its borders. In foreign policy, they believe China will continue to wield its influence multilaterally through regional and international bodies, rather than unilaterally. The balance sheet largely shows China’s participation in these institutions is generally more constructive than obstructionist, despite tensions with Sudan, North Korea, Iran, and Myanmar.
2) Does China pose a military threat?
- Alleged cyber-warfare scenarios aside, and despite dramatic increases in China’s military expenditures over the last decade that have gotten the attention of many in the global community, most believe China’s military is still not on par with other modern military forces. Although the People’s Liberation Army is the world’s largest standing army, its troops lack many of the technological advancements that make a difference in modern warfare, namely air and naval power, long-range missiles, and smart bombs. China's military budget is a fraction of that of the US Department of Defense, and China's overall military expenditures relative to its GDP are miniscule. Even China’s nuclear capacities are now seen as outdated, as more nations have joined the nuclear club while China’s attention has been focused on economic development.
- When gauging the level of military threat China poses, most experts watch regional players in Asia for a reaction to China’s rise because those countries would be most immediately impacted by an expansionist PRC. The fact that nearly all Southeast, Northeast, and Central Asian nations largely seem to be accommodating and cooperating with China, instead of attempting to balance or contain China, downgrades the perception of the PRC as a potential menacing power internationally.
- In the modern era, nearly all Asian nations have depended on the presence of US army and naval forces in the area as a deterrent to Chinese aggression. That the most notable of these, Japan and South Korea, are beginning to show signs of fatigue with respect to hosting US military troops is a sign taken to mean that China’s neighbors do not fear China as much as they may once have.
- The recent downgrading of the threat of brinksmanship in the Taiwan Strait, after recent Taiwanese elections ushered in a party less confrontational to the PRC, only adds to this generally optimistic assessment of the impact of China’s “peaceful rise.”
3) Will China become a democracy one day?
- Some believe it is already heading in that direction; these people point to recent efforts by the CCP to more fully introduce the rule of law, especially with regard to commercial matters, reforms within the legal system, the expansion of elections at the local levels, and improved intra-party democratization. Some experts in this camp argue that the repression of political and social freedoms (human rights) will become too unwieldy for the Party to manage, that the natural human inclination toward self-rule will win out, and that China will follow the path of other previously authoritarian governments in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, becoming increasingly democratic, and ultimately a true democracy.
- Others argue that China has no historical experience with democracy, that its citizens are placated by economic prosperity or are too consumed by subsistence living to actively promote democratic reforms, and that the CCP has no intentions of allowing democracy to dilute its power. The CCP is not always seen as having menacing intentions here – the Party has evolved to value leadership by highly trained technocrats. Significant corruption aside, Party leaders (and many Chinese citizens) genuinely do not feel government should be left up to the people, especially not in a nation as diverse, populous, and complicated as modern China. Stability is often valued over potential instability resulting from democracy.
4) Will China at least improve its human rights record?
- The infractions most commonly cited as human rights abuses in China include: the suppression of free speech and association; the abuses of the state regarding the questioning, imprisonment, and treatment of suspects; and the forced submission of citizens to what the CCP deems the country’s larger good, from land seizures to education to treatment of ethnic minorities to fertility rates. Other infractions commonly cited include China’s support for regimes who perpetrate similar or worse abuses on their own populations.
- It is important to note that China’s human rights record as described above is not simply a product of CCP neglect or malice. The Chinese government believes that certain domestic measures are critical to preserving CCP rule, and thereby critical to preserving the stability of the country during this time of rapid modernization, regardless of whether these measures compromise human rights.
- China ignores human rights abuses in other countries (even trading partners) partly because of China’s dependence on key exports from those countries, and partly because after a century of domination by outside powers, China values sovereignty above all else. These two rationales are clearly linked. By refraining from supporting interventions in other countries over issues related to human rights, China hopes to prevent other countries from “meddling” in its own internal affairs.
- Generally experts believe that, left to its own devices and absent any forcing events, the CCP is incentivized to preserve the status quo on human rights in China. However, the closed nature of the Party makes any prediction here difficult.
- Many human rights advocates around the world have attempted to pressure and/or shame the Chinese government into improving its human rights record, especially at a time when attention is focused on Beijing as the host of the 2008 Olympic Games. Such attempts have been seen as moderately successful, but it is difficult to know how and why the CCP makes reform decision. Efforts to shame China could be viewed as a dangerous approach, however. External criticism of the CCP tends to incite fierce nationalism among the Chinese population, and the CCP has the ability to amplify this sentiment in the state-controlled press. This often reinforces support for the government and the weeding out of moderate voices. Thus it is unlikely that such shaming efforts to pressure China to improve its human rights record will have lasting long term effects.
5) What effect has the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 had on China as a whole?
- In some ways, the Chinese government (primarily the Central Party leadership) gained credibility and international support in the aftermath of the disaster. The government responded quickly and Premier Wen Jiabao was on the scene within hours, personally aiding in the rescue effort. The military was dispatched on a monumental humanitarian mission to provide aid to survivors as well as to assist in rescue and recovery operations. The Party allowed the domestic and foreign press immediate access to the area and to the survivors, despite the criticism of the government that inevitably was reported. International sympathy replaced recent condemnation of the Chinese government following the uprising in Tibet and over the situation in Darfur.
- On the other hand, the earthquake revealed a lot about what many feel is the unseen, uglier side of life in China. Shoddy school construction was largely responsible for the overwhelming death toll and has roots in government corruption at the local level. Failure to foresee the devastation of dams and communities built along seismic fault lines did not say much for China’s celebrated technical and engineering prowess. In addition, the One Child Policy contributed to the bereavement of families who lost children in the earthquake’s devastation. Whether these exposed failures ignite genuine reform or a crackdown on access to public information remains to be seen.
6) What are the expected effects of Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics?
- Complying with International Olympic Committee (IOC) requirements of host nations has had a short-term positive effect on how China deals with the foreign press, as many restrictions have been temporarily lifted (for foreign press only). It has also focused increased attention on pollution and air quality issues in Beijing, and their impact on athletes and spectators alike (and by extension, Beijing’s citizens). The IOC has also pushed for reform in human rights, and there is hope that whatever temporary measures are instituted will become permanent.
- Theoretically, the Games should further open China up to the international community as hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors are exposed to China and to the Chinese; international media attention educates millions worldwide about both the good and the bad that is modern China. Both positive and negative attention should increase the level of worldwide engagement in the PRC. Likewise, the Olympics have been called by some China’s “coming out party,” indicating that the Chinese government seeks further integration into the international community, beyond economics.
- The Olympics in Beijing will be worth watching, beyond the marvels of the athletes competing. With hours of news time to fill, foreign press outlets generally devote a significant portion of their coverage to exploring the host country. If the unprecedented liberties the PRC has stated they will grant the foreign press come to pass, for the first time the world will be given access to modern China. Everything that happens will contain political and geopolitical nuances. The etiquette that is observed by visiting dignitaries, athletes, and spectators around official ceremonies will reveal much about how the world views China. The way the CCP handles any protests that will likely erupt will enlighten forecasts of the Party’s evolution generally. Even the medal count at the conclusion of the Games will likely be interpreted as a sign of China’s place in the world, and others in relation to it.
- Overall, we offer words of caution as to how the spectacle should be perceived. Think critically about what you see and read about the Games. Use the information here in the Monitor as a lens through which to filter the spectrum of opinions that will be proffered. Remember the gray areas, that reality is more complicated than it may seem. Take the extra step to utilize the breadth of perspectives offered by world press outlets on the Internet. A fascinating exercise would be to compare coverage from different news outlets around the world as events unfold on what will truly be a dramatic international stage.
Next: Map of China