How China Sees The World
Monday,Jun. 17, 2013
By Hannah Beech; Art by Ai WeiWei
Liu mingfu likes to think he is the oracle of a new era. Aretired colonel with the ramrod bearing of a career soldier, he hasnever been to the U.S. but is a self-proclaimed expert onSino-American relations: he lectured on the subject at the NationalDefense University in Beijing, the training ground for the People'sLiberation Army (PLA). Three years ago, Liu wrote a best-sellingbook called China Dream: Great Power Thinking and StrategicPositioning of China in the Post-American Age. In his hawkish tome,Liu explained that China needed a strong, martial leader andoffered advice for his resurgent nation: "When China is threatened,it has no choice but to use war to protect its right to rise, tobreak through America's military containment."
In March, Xi Jinping, the broad-shouldered son of a CommunistParty revolutionary, completed a power transition that will see himguide China for the next decade. Liu is delighted. Since Xi'sascension--he assumed the leadership of the Chinese Communist Partyin November and became President three months ago--he has talkedtough on territorial disputes and predicted that China will becomethe chief military power in the Asia-Pacific region by 2049. The59-year-old leader, who is meeting with U.S. President Barack Obamaon June 7-8 in a rare two-day summit in California, warned that thePLA should be "prepared for war" and has toured a seemingly endlessnumber of domestic military installations. Most tellingly, he hasadopted "China Dream"--Liu's catchphrase--as his motto, pledgingthat "we must achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation, andwe must ensure there is unity between a prosperous country and astrong military."
Those words were delivered in December as Xi inspected aguided-missile destroyer that cruises the South China Sea, awaterway that China claims as mostly its own, much to the fury ofother Asian nations. The new Chinese President's vigorous publicpersona contrasts with that of his bland predecessor, Hu Jintao,who chose as his leadership slogans "peaceful development" and"harmonious society"--pleasant enough goals, perhaps, but hardlythe proclamation of an emerging superpower. "Xi has used very toughlanguage," says China scholar David Shambaugh, whose recent bookChina Goes Global: The Partial Power examines the country's globalfootprint. "This is very concerning and illustrates a much hardertype of nationalism than that of his predecessor Hu."
For decades, China's outlook on how East met West was simple: aproud, ancient civilization was brought to its knees by foreigngunboats, British opium and Japanese wartime oppression. Wheneverthe People's Republic dealt with the world, it did so with a chipon its shoulder, and Xi's forerunners larded their speeches withaccusatory references to "a century of humiliation" at foreignhands. The West was regarded as arrogant overlord, democratic foeand subversive instigator rolled into one. That sense of historicinjustice festered even as China's growing economic power mighthave been expected to sweep away such insecurities. But theascension of President Xi--he of the patriotic swagger, politicalpedigree and photogenic PLA-folksinger wife--heralds a new era ofChina's interaction with the international community. Instead ofsimply positioning China as a vanquished, aggrieved inferior, Xiand his China Dream envision a mighty nation reclaiming itsrightful place in the world, not just economically but politicallyand culturally too.
To that end, the Xi-Obama confab, which comes at what theChinese leader calls "a critical juncture" and could, he says,signal "a new type of great-power relationship," is being regardedin China as a meeting of equals. From the Chinese perspective, theMiddle Kingdom dominated the globe for all but a few unfortunatecenturies. Why shouldn't the 21st century bring a return to theplanet's natural state of affairs? "Xi Jinping is the perfectembodiment of the China Dream," says Liu. "He will help Chinacompete with the West and advance to its former glory as the mostpowerful and civilized country on earth."
China's renaissance is by now a familiar narrative, but thestory of its astonishing trajectory bears repeating. A nation thathalf a century ago counted Albania as one of its few tradingpartners is now the world's second largest economy--and couldeclipse the U.S. as the biggest within five years. The ChineseCommunist Party has engineered the fastest and greatest expansionof wealth that any country has ever experienced, lifting 300million people out of absolute poverty. China's trove ofsuperlatives carries global weight: the country's 83 millionoverseas travelers are the world's biggest spenders; its banks holdthe most foreign-exchange reserves; its factories, power plants andvehicles produce the most greenhouse gases; its consumers rank asthe No. 1 buyer of luxury goods--even though China's per capitaGDP, calculated on a purchasing-power-parity basis, still ratesbelow those of Cuba, Serbia and Tunisia.
China may well become the world's largest consumer market by2015. Already it is the largest exporter on the planet and one ofthe top five sellers of weapons. How China sees the world mattersbecause Chinese aspirations, tastes and fears will shape the livesof billions of people across the globe. Indeed, after a couple ofcenturies of lying dormant, China--and its worldview--may onceagain dictate the narrative of our age. Great powers write history,and if Xi's China Dream comes to pass, this century will belong tothe nation that millennia ago named itself the Middle Kingdom.
Yet China's ascendancy on the world stage can't mask someuncomfortable realities. Despite pouring billions of dollars into asoft-power push that encompasses everything from building roads andhospitals in the developing world to sponsoring Mandarin lessons inthe West, China's international image languishes. A 21-country pollby the BBC World Service released last month found that negativeattitudes toward China had increased by 8 points to 39% over thepast year. Even in parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia thatdepend on Beijing's aid and investment, China Inc.'s reputation isthat of a voracious extractor of natural resources. The country'smilitary expansion and assertive maritime claims in the South andEast China Seas are spooking its neighbors, not to mention thealleged state-sponsored cyberattacks and pilfering of U.S.industrial and military secrets that Obama is sure to raise with Xiwhen they meet at Sunnylands, a private estate in SouthernCalifornia. Among Beijing's few real allies--and even that term canbe applied only loosely--are North Korea, Russia and Pakistan.
Far from taking a leading role in international affairscommensurate with its economic weight, China remains a foreignpolicy laggard, often shying away when it could use its influenceto promote regional stability and howling when it comes toterritorial flash points with smaller countries like Vietnam or thePhilippines. "China says it wants respect from the rest of theworld," says Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Instituteat the National University of Singapore. "But it does very littleto earn real respect." Indeed, Chinese from both the government andthe business community are often genuinely surprised when theydiscover that their lavish foreign aid and trading partnerships areundercut in the world's mind by escalating territorial disputes andthe martial drumbeat emanating from Beijing.
China's assertiveness abroad also belies growing insecurities athome. While the inexorable rise of China may be a given in theWest, Chinese people are not so sure of their future supremacy. Theworld's greatest economic expansion cannot continue forever. Chinamust wean itself off a dependence on low-tech exports, buttransitioning to a knowledge- and service-based economy willrequire massive investment and a revamping of the nation'seducation system to promote creativity. Meanwhile, incomeinequality is widening, and corruption chokes the Communist Party."Back in 2010, when China escaped the worldwide recession, therewas a sense of superiority about the Chinese economic model," saysDali Yang, a political-science professor at the University ofChicago. "But that euphoria is gone, and now we are entering an eraof some doubt and anxiety in China."
Some of the seamier side effects of China's three decades ofspectacular economic growth--toxic air, poisoned soil, dirtywater--are spurring civil unrest. Each day brings dozens ofsmall-scale protests related to environmental degradation,landgrabs by corrupt officials and government repression of ethnicminorities. Those who can are voting with their feet: in everlarger numbers, rich Chinese are fleeing the land where they madetheir fortunes, taking their children and money with them. In 2011,the latest year for which statistics are available, 150,000 Chinesesecured permanent residency abroad. "When a nation's elite is readyto bolt at a moment's notice, it says much about the regime's lackof legitimacy and staying power," says Shambaugh.
Battle for the Pacific
The U.S.S. freedom pulled into Singapore's harboron
April 18, its hull decorated in graycamouflage, as if no one might notice the first of four Americanlittoral-combat ships to be hosted by the Southeast Asiancity-state. The warship, which will roam the contested South ChinaSea, is the latest evidence of the U.S.'s so-called pivot to Asia,which will see 60% of American naval vessels deployed in the regionby 2020, up from 50%. Back in November 2011, when Obama firstannounced that he would rebalance military forces to Asia, he saidthis was not meant to contain China. Nobody bought that, least ofall China.
Beijing's military buildup--its defense spending has more thandoubled since 2006, and its armed forces now include nearly 1.5million service members, according to Chinese officials--is drivenby a sense that it needs to prepare for a possible showdown in thePacific with the world's remaining superpower. A Chinese defensewhite paper released in April noted that "China's overall nationalstrength has grown dramatically" while "some country hasstrengthened its Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanded itsmilitary presence in the region and frequently makes the situationthere tenser." That the "some country" remained unnamed wascamouflage no more effective than the U.S.S. Freedom's graypaint.
As China's shadow has loomed larger, other Asiannations--including those with past grudges against the U.S., likeVietnam--have urged America to keep the peace in regional waters.In addition, treaty obligations require the U.S. to defend thesecurity of Japan--and of Taiwan, which Beijing considers part ofits sovereign territory. Over the past few months, Chinese patrolvessels have swarmed the East China Sea near a disputed scatteringof islets called the Diaoyu in Chinese and the Senkaku in Japanese.The uninhabited rocks are administered by Japan, but China claimshistorical ties to the area, which is rich in natural gas andfishing resources.
China is also embroiled in maritime conflicts in the South ChinaSea, pitting it against four other Asian rivals that share the vastwaterway: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. (Taiwanalso maintains claims.) Beijing says that it has long consideredroughly 80% of the sea its own but that it was bogged down in thepast century with the enormous task of rebuilding the nation andhad little time to dedicate to such matters. Now China's behaviorhas grown more muscular. This year China fired on a Vietnamese shipin contested waters. Last year, dozens of armed Chinese vesselspushed Filipino fishermen out of a disputed shoal. Xi has taken thehelm of a task force that deals with maritime issues, unusualmicromanagement by a Chinese leader. "There is a unitary messagefrom Xi that any territory is a core national interest and thatChina is not going to cede any ground," says the University ofChicago's Yang. "This is an extremely dangerous game."
China's behavior is alienating even nations that aren't involvedin territorial disputes with it. Take Singapore, the tidycity-state whose population is majority ethnic Chinese. Itsfounding leader, Lee Kuan Yew, assiduously cultivated ties withBeijing. Yet last year his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong,sent a warning when he visited the Central Party School in Beijing,the ideological heart of the Chinese Communist Party, which Xiheaded until last year. Lee delivered a spirited defense of theU.S., which he cautioned was "not a nation in decline," as someChinese have been crowing. "The U.S. is an enormously resilient andcreative society," said Lee, "which attracts and absorbs talentfrom all over the world, including many from China and the rest ofAsia."
The Great Escape
Mr. Guan wants out. the Beijing property magnate doesn't knowwhere he will go yet, perhaps to a farm in Australia or a ranch inthe American West. All he knows is that the place that made him amultimillionaire no longer commands his loyalty. "Frankly speaking,I have lost confidence in this country," he says, noting that mostof his wealthy friends now have foreign permanent residency if notpassports. "All the economic reforms we've had will be useless ifthere's no political reform. If I can't change this country, thenthe best thing is to leave."
On a smoggy
Saturday inBeijing, Guan, who asked that his full name not be used, spends hisafternoon exploring exit strategies. In an ornate room gilded withLouis XIV curlicues and a U.S. flag, Guan and dozens of otherslisten to a pitch by Li Zhaohui, the founder of Cansine, a Chineseemigration agency. Guan is presented with an array of options forgaining permanent residency abroad: a €300,000property deal in Cyprus, a €500,000 villa inPortugal or even a $500,000 stake in a future Kimpton hotel inMilwaukee, a city Li describes as "famous for its high unemploymentrate." (In 2012, 70% of applicants for the U.S. EB-5 investor-visaprogram, which requires a minimum outlay of $500,000, wereChinese.) Cansine's own fee? At least $15,000.
Chinese emigration used to mean an escape from war and famine,railroad workers flooding Gold Rush California or wok stirrerscrowding New York City tenements. But most Chinese emigrants todayare, like Guan, wealthy. In 2011, about 80,000 Chinese receivedU.S. green cards. (Beijing does not allow dual nationality, so someChinese prefer permanent residency to foreign citizenship.) "Iwanted a better life, and I wasn't going to get that in China,"says Li Yanan, a Chinese businesswoman who arrived in Singapore in2002. "So many deals back home are done under the table, and I gottired of that."
The exodus from China has only increased since then. RichChinese, after all, have to breathe the same air as everyone else,and smog in urban centers spiked to record levels earlier thisyear, with pollution surpassing that of a smokers' lounge.Food-safety scandals, ranging from a river full of dead pigs tobabies poisoned by fake formula, make the simple act of eatinghazardous. There's also a concern that one of Xi's centralcampaigns, a crackdown on corruption, could jeopardize fortunesmade in fast-and-loose ways. Corrupt Chinese officials have a habitof fleeing abroad. In 2011, according to U.S. watchdog GlobalFinancial Integrity, China hemorrhaged more than $600 billion inillegal capital flight.
Roughly 300,000 Chinese per year now study overseas, and a largeportion pay full freight. Even as select Chinese schools havegrabbed top marks in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation andDevelopment's rankings of math, reading and science performanceamong 15-year-olds, many parents worry about the merits of aneducation system based on rote memorization. Virtually every memberof China's Standing Committee, the seven men who rule the nation,has extended family who studied abroad. Even Xi sent his daughterto Harvard. The state of Chinese education is especially relevantas China must push its economy beyond churning out cheap exports.So far its universities have done a poor job at breedinginnovation. As Singapore's Lee noted last year, all eightethnic-Chinese Nobel laureates in science were or later becameAmericans. "Our government cannot provide good education, welfareand a sense of security," says Fesy Li, marketing manager of GlobeVisa, another Chinese emigration agency, which is peddling optionsin St. Kitts and Nevis, Latvia and Vanuatu. "Chinese believe theycan find these things in other countries."
A Dream Deferred
With Mounting Unease on the home front, Xi is relying onflag-waving to unite the masses against a common foe, be it theU.S., Japan or even the Philippines. Primed by patriotic education,Chinese youth expect their leaders to stand up to the outsideworld. But this spring, an online forum linked to the People'sDaily, the government's mouthpiece, asked people whether theyagreed with Xi's rhetoric, including elements of the China Dream.Thousands of people responded, and at least 70% said they disagreedwith their new leader's principles. The poll was soon pulled offthe Web.
Xi's China Dream is designed to address some of the country'spressing social problems. But his ultimate concern may be thelongevity of a party that has ruled for more than six decades. Inhis first trip as China's leader, Xi traveled to the country'ssouth, the capitalist laboratory where three decades ago DengXiaoping unleashed the market reforms that have remade the nation.But Xi made no bold initiatives. Instead, in an internal speechthat was later leaked, he warned against betraying China'scommunist heritage. "Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?" heasked, according to the leaked account. "An important reason wasthat their ideals and beliefs had been shaken. It's a profoundlesson for us. To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union ... is toengage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts andundermines the party's organizations."
That obsession with avoiding the Soviet Union's fate could wellprevent the Communist Party from carrying out reforms that willmake the nation stronger and improve its image abroad. InApril--even as state newspapers heralded Xi's antigraft efforts,which include a much hyped crackdown on extravagant banquets andexpensive cars for government officials--activists in Beijing weredetained after holding a banner that read: UNLESS WE PUT AN END TOCORRUPT OFFICIALS, THE CHINA DREAM WILL REMAIN A DAYDREAM.Investigations by foreign media into the fortunes of Chineseleaders' families are scrubbed from the Internet. Efforts to cleanthe air are foiled by competing directives to maintain growth atall costs. "The average urban Chinese can't say life is better nowthan it was five years ago," says Bo Zhiyue, a senior researchfellow at the National University of Singapore. "People arerealizing that GDP growth isn't as important as quality oflife."
Such contradictions proliferated as the ancient Chinesedynasties waned. Of course, China watchers have predicted thedemise of the People's Republic for half a century only to beproved wrong. In a nation that boasts five millennia ofcivilization, any number of lessons can be plucked from the past.But here's one from the Tang dynasty (618-907), when China couldrightly call itself Zhongguo, or the Middle Kingdom. Tanginnovators introduced the planet to gunpowder and woodblockprinting. The best and brightest of the world came to China, andthe imperial capital, Chang'an (modern-day Xi'an), was a polyglotplace where up to one-third of the population was foreign: Persianmerchants, Japanese monks, Turkish chefs.
Today, Beijing's foreign population is less than 1% of thetotal. (In New York City, some 35% of the population is foreignborn.) Add to that the brain drain of Chinese elite. "There arealways capital outflows from any country," says Wang Huiyao, whoruns the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. "But Chinadoesn't have inflows of talent. We have a huge deficit, and thatwill make it harder for us to rise in the future." How the worldviews China, then, may matter just as much as how China sees theworld.