My Weekly Reader 22 August 2022.

            For obvious reasons, historians like to quote William Faulkner’s remark that “the past isn’t dead; it is not even past.”  It applies to so many contemporary situations.  Take the case of Xi Jinping’s China.  In some ways it resembles the Soviet Union.  It is a Communist Party dictatorship that persecutes both dissidents and minorities.  It remains a state-capitalist, rather than fully capitalist, economy.  The decision-making by its leader is so opaque as to make it a “black box.”  Outsiders straining to understand the future direction of China resort to what used to be called “Kremlinology.”  That is, they have to give a very close reading to the public pronouncements of Party leaders or their approved mouth-pieces.[1] 

China drew the lessons of the collapse of the Soviet Union and sought to fend off similar dangers.  First, it confirmed the Chinese leadership in its shift from a fully Communist economy toward a more capitalist economy integrated into the world market.  Second, it made the Communist Party very hostile to up-wellings of discontent.  Third, it left the United States as the sole super-power.  The diplomacy of balance between the United States, the Soviet Union, and China could not be sustained.  There was no counter-force to hold the Americans in check.  The ways in which America used that power has set the teeth of many foreigners on edge. 

            Under these circumstances, thirty years ago, Deng Xiaoping adopted the motto “hide capabilities and bide time.”[2]  In essence, China would build its power outward.  Its military would concentrate on strengthening China’s defenses against American power before developing the ability to contest American military power at a distance.  Its diplomacy would build influence in the Western Pacific/East Asia before extending China’s reach into more distant realms.  Its economic policy would build trade links in the same region, while using membership in the World Trade Organization and Most Favored Nation status to entangle American economic power in the trammels of its own “rules-based order.”[3]  China’s goal is something very like Imperial Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” 

            American mis-steps and mis-adventures facilitated a Chinese policy that seeks not merely to raise China, but to diminish the United States.  The disastrous invasion of Iraq, the financial crisis of 2008-2009, and the long political turmoil stemming from those events may lie at the root of the current sense among the American public that the country is on the wrong track in some way. 

            From this point of view, Xi Jinping is less turning from China’s long-term policy than he is taking the long-considered next step.  One thing that we still lack is a clear sense of how the Chinese leadership understands the Trump administration (as pure circus or as circus with substantive policies opposing China).  Another is how Americans—now apparently divided, pessimistic, and largely pre-occupied with domestic issues) will respond to Xi’s new phase.[4]

            Still, the first step in solving a problem is recognizing that you have a problem. 


[1] Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (2021).  On Doshi, see: Rush Doshi – Fellow – The Brookings Institution | LinkedIn 

[2] Consider the motto of Nazi Germany’s National Political Academy: “Mehr sein als scheinen”—“be more than you appear to be.”  As good as anything offered by Polonius.  Without, you know, me endorsing Nazism. 

[3] Analogical thinking can be either productive or destructive depending on whether one chooses the appropriate analogy.  So it is worth people learning something about Gustav Stresemann (1878-1929) to figure out if he fits. 

[4] See the intelligent remarks by David Wilezol in his review, WSJ, 10 August 2021.   

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