An Open Letter to Western (and Western influenced) Policymakers
As China’s brand of governmental action and political organization gains credence, I think (though they may not yet be ready to say it) that American intellectuals are beginning to understand that finding ways to temper the irrational and shortsighted greed of the individual is the very soul of future collective political action and national ethics, by whatever name we choose to call them: collectivism, socialism, socialism with market characteristics.
In the West we have an addiction to the notion that the individual can subsist without the collective. I have learned over the last decade and a half watching China’s growth and its growing pains, that collective spirit and collective effort is as if not more indispensible to our posterity than the European enlightenment period’s focus on individual “freedom” and agency that survives as the dominant paradigm to this day. It is a paradigm that is showing signs of wear and obsolescence. That’s how I see it. A deeply ingrained belief in the power of nations and groups of nations mobilized by noble intent and guided by aims that transcend mere economic units of measure are the human ideals what wake me up in the early hours, and light the fires that burn in me at night.
That passion and curiosity burns as brightly today as it did the moment I decided to pioneer American youth coming to ‘Red’ China in the weeks before 9/11. To find effective ways to leverage my (15 years) experience inside China’s business propaganda/media establishment to help paint a clearer picture, understand clearly and where possible dispel some of the larger misperceptions that currently drive America’s China policy. The policy decisions made on American’s behalf regarding China and vice versa are critical, because China and America will together in the coming decades, either destroy the world via armed conflict, the unchecked spread of terror, and willful ignorance of the existential threat of climate change, or save the world by jointly eradicating these scourges permanently.
Never have two more powerful nations intersected at one point on the world stage. Yet, never have two so interconnected people, trusted or known less about each other. And while this endemic misunderstanding goes both ways, this is largely an American malady born a parochial world-view and the incessant grandstanding made necessary by the prolonged quadrennial spectacle that are our national elections. A time when demonization is the rule of the game, the only goal being the collection of votes with very little thought of how pragmatic policies will be implemented once one candidate is actually elected. Democracy has many strengths, but this vituperative grandstanding, in the American context, is almost certainly one of its most debilitating weaknesses.
My passion is to bridge that gap in knowledge and rational discourse, because we are a (China and America) family sharing a common destiny and common home whether we our moral intelligence is ready to accept this undeniable fact or not. More pressingly, we know today with scientific certainty, that our only habitable home- planet earth- is on fire. The people of China and America along with all the peoples of the world have a joint (dare I say “collective”) responsibility to put the fire out and draw humanity away from the precipice of destruction. We have less than 10–15 years (and this is assuming drastic measures to increase renewable and green economic growth while bringing ozone depleting and earth warming effects of the 180 year industrial age to a very abrupt end. As an example, curbing carbon emissions in order to maintain no more than a 1.5 degree Celsius increase above pre-industrial temperature norms in any given year must be adhered to or many of the effects of climate change will rapidly become irreversible causing storms, droughts, sea-level rise and a decrease in biodiversity humanity has not witnessed since Europe began its fossil fuel binge 18 decades ago.
We have no time for war, be it economic, cyber, conventional or otherwise. This moment and the concomitant collective human responsibility to save our planet, are unique in our planet’s history. For the true threat is existential.
China is the first superpower in the modern era not of European origin, and China- in a sharp rap to the heads of almost every European economic theorist- plans, controls and subsidizes almost all of its large indigenous corporations (public and private) as well as its currency (many say, with some merit, that China to stimulate growth, manipulates both) as a means of regulating and tempering the indelible exuberance of market forces. And so in our sister China we are presented with a completely new type of sibling rivalry, because she is at once our largest trading partner, providing most of the goods, at low cost the American consumer takes for granted today, she provides a sharp counter-proposal about how our limited global resources and governmental regulation of these human and natural resources ought be optimally managed, and yes China is also our largest source of IP loss, the largest locus of corporate manufacturing “offshoring”, and our largest foreign creditor. China represents all these things and no invective-laced twitter soundbite from our presidential candidates can encompass either the gravity or the opportunity this intermingling of two great nations represents.
The relationship could not be more close-knit, whether we today feel we like everything about each other or not. It is important to bear in mind, given the miniscule size of earth, that China and America ARE siblings, of one family. Tied inexorably by destiny. It can not be otherwise, and this we shall realize as our moral facilities continue to develop. One great American president Abraham Lincoln’s words echo, “We must not be aliens or enemies, we must be friends.” The Sino/US partnership is new, a uniquely 21st Century relationship. It breaks the mold. We can not skip out on one another, the tethers that bind us one to another can not be untied. We are Siamese twins, joined at the heart and hip. Will there be squabbles? Yes, but which of us shall incite the insane and do indelible harm to our blood sibling on whom our own life depends? Sanity demands that the answer be no one will. The only sane, viable choice is comprehensive cooperation. Healthy sibling rivalry may begin with intense competition about who is taller, prettier, or stronger, but it can not end there, siblings ultimately learn that their most fundamental responsibility is to take care of their mother and father- mother Earth and Father time. Once two siblings grow in wisdom and confidence the realization that love and enduring compromise is the only answer is met, or the family perishes.
This is a story that is not being told in America. But from my vantage point, it is The Story of our Age. Will the United States and China decide to engage in petty squabbles for spheres of influence in the 21st Century or will they join together to sustain our tiny planet’s critical biosphere? The choice is stark, it is binary and will require a paradigmatic leap of love over the notional fiscal quarter, trade surplus/deficit, job offshoring, irrational containment or currency manipulation, all conversations that, along with false narratives about zero-sum (ego, status and war) games, are egotistical and dilatory at precisely the moment in history where every cooperative second counts, for the sake of our dying mother.
Having built TV programs and businesses in China for 15 years, I have of late born witness to China’s metamorphosis from the more gentle rhetoric of “Peaceful Rise” to the increasingly bombastic rhetoric, “ Asia is our yard, and we do intend to be its primary player.” This change in tone, while the subject of much media speculation in the West is not at all different from America’s Monroe Doctrine of 1823. It defies logic that a nation that used to count the Philippines as a colony finds it necessary to use military muscle and the role of self-anointed ombudsman and moral high-hand to adjudicate China’s own complex and natural rise, in its own Asian neighborhood.
The goal of the American Monroe doctrine, as stated, was to enable peace through delineating spheres of influence and keep a mercantilistic and war-like Europe out of the Americas. This made sense after an American revolution to throw tyranny back across the Atlantic. But it is somewhat hypocritical for a nation whose Western boundaries to this day extend beyond the formerly sovereign Hawaiian Islands and all the way to Guam Saipan and beyond to claim that a rising power and the world’s most populous nation should not undergo a similar dialogue sans interference with its neighbors. Indeed the dialogue seems natural, and our own colonial history from Shanghai, to the Rhee regime in South Korea and the Marcos regime in the Philippines should chasten our desire to dictate how Asia pursues this conversation today.
More to the point, while many in the West find this new Chinese assertiveness lamentable, they should in no way have found it unexpected. The rise in tenor since 2012, rising to a crescendo post the recent Hague ruling came in tandem with China’s “surge” in what it terms “Comprehensive National Power” (CNP) to wit: the theory that China in order to be heard and dealt with equably would need to harness its full media/cyber/public opinion, economic, and military power, mobilized, managed and leveraged by the ruling Party to “wage and win regional conflicts under informatization conditions” that extend beyond the traditional battlefield. Why? Because after The Century of Humiliation (something Western schoolchildren learn precious little about) and liberation from unprecedented foreign incursion and injustice, the Chinese people believe that if they remain united now, even and especially as challenges loom on the horizon, it will have earned the place renowned British Sinologist Joseph Needham theorized China has naturally enjoyed for most of the last 20 millennia: a trade (not war) based economic and cultural pre-eminence among its sister nations.
Does this mean war. To that I would say no, not unless accidents or exuberance turn dialogue into debauchery. For the Chinese CCP all armed conflict has first always been about preservation of territorial integrity and the sustenance of the Party as a guiding force in a nation larger than any history has yet countenanced. While perspectives certainly may differ, China has found that in the world’s most populous country, a strong, unified central government has provided the environ for rapid, peaceful development without the fear of foreign meddling and incursion. Again one need only view China’s history since the 18th Century to understand why this concern is not mere theory, it is a hard lesson learned time and time again: when China’s central government is weak, its borders and then its mainland have been encroached upon, its resources both natural and human treasure ignominiously drained. With that historical marker as the lodestar, it is quite easy to see why China’s territorial integrity and maintenance of Central Government (Party) rule are beyond reproach do lofty ideology or geopolitics enter China’s defense equation. It is noteworthy that China has often to sharp criticism extended that principle to the nations with which it engages. China, as a rule does not insert itself into the domestic politics of the nations of Africa, ASEAN, Europe, except in matters of bilateral trade and investment. While this principle may be open to critique, it is hard to imagine a more stable and even-handed policy by a great power in the wake of the misery colonialism and the supposed superiority of European paradigms over indigenous ones has left the world in Central Asia, the Middle East Latin America and one could go on. China looks inward to guide its internal development and looks outward with a level of restraint and humility that must be recognized as a new and laudable paradigm on the world stage. China is not looking to impose its morals, values or economic system on anyone. That sentence alone is revolutionary in the history of post-renaissance world affairs.
Given its progressive defensive arms development, China no longer fears ruinous land invasion from any quarter, it only fears fracturing and fissures from within, and this it is fair to say, China and the Party will stop at nothing to avoid.
In that context, a new look at China’s stance with regard to various territorial disputes must be engaged. While demonizing new paradigms is as old as the welcome Copernicus and Confucius first received, a bold new context for viewing China’s advancing rhetoric and earned national pride of place as the worlds second (and soon to be first largest economy) must be engendered by the serious student of international relations and history. What we see today is not a China looking for conflict, what we see, as we look at depth is a China preparing to galvanize a nation for the economic and cultural transformations that are inevitable if this planet is to survive. China is taking the measure of what it will take to achieve true sustainability, sans neo-liberal gridlock, and the true diktat of multinational corporations who will always put shareholder interests before those of posterity. China is preparing for the transition toward sustainable growth.
A Nation that is prepared when necessary to say “No”
A non-aligned nation simply saying “no” to the West and its 3 century-long dominant economic and sociocultural paradigms is a new phenomenon to anyone alive today. So why, we might ask has China seen fit to do so. I think there are two primary reasons: First, China is beginning to say no to certain conditions placed on it from the outside, because they have a different construct for internal stability and global cooperation in mind, reliant less on fixed alliances and more on dynamic, bilateral assessments of economic and environmental circumstance. Secondly, China is prepared to say no because China believes if she maintains domestic solidarity, she can regain what the nation feels it lost through an overly peaceable footing in the late Ming and Qing dynasties: their rightful place as the Central Kingdom, the epicenter of political and economic activity on the planet.
Since Deng Xiaoping, the Party has likely always intended to say no to the West; they have simply been biding their time and evaluating circumstance. Transparency in all things regarding statecraft is not a virtue the Chinese value as much as we claim to value it in the West. For them, full transparency in a potentially hostile (and formerly aggressive colonial) environment is often the harbinger of weakness, and weakness, given the dire potential consequences, is a vice China can not and will not afford.
So Why the Sudden Shift in China Policy, and Why Now?
The economy. The economy. The economy. This rhetorical shift from `2002–2012 “Peaceful Rise” to 2014–16 more assertive statecraft is rooted primarily in a nuanced domestic economic situation; China’s economy is rapidly changing, angling toward the sustainability that is undeniably the only viable option for humanity. This is by design.
The relentless push to cease overcapacity in core, legacy durable manufacturing and the temporary spikes in unemployment that inevitably will bring, along with housing bubble that must be curbed, large scale SOE closings in a variety of sectors that often hit individual geographies particularly hard, are being done in order to facilitate market efficiency and a more natural system of economically and environmentally sustainable capital allocation, all inside a nation grown accustomed to 9–10% year on year GDP growth, clamoring for the greatness they truly believe (as many Americans do) is their birthright. It would be fair to say that no nation has attempted change so bold, in such a short period of time, not only for their good, but for the good of the planet. It would be worthwhile to ask if this litany of changes could happen at the speed required, with the organization and disciplined mobilization necessary in a liberal democracy prone to gridlock and the kingship of corporate interests over those of the state.
Yes, let me be the Western contrarian who says that China is dealing with a more complex, exciting and challenging set of problems than any nation at any time in the history of the world. This willingness to face a panoply of challenges does not come without difficulty. Rapid change implemented in an orderly fashion across 1.3 billion human beings is bound to build a natural and expected impatience amongst the populous. The coal miner in Hebei can not but be disconsolate at the loss of a job he has spent his entire life committed to doing. And this dynamic played over one hundred million times in its myriad iterations throughout China’s shifting economy creates pressures that the regime must intelligently navigate and mitigate, as they must simultaneously empathize and deal with the plight of the laid off worker, and the fact that China’s conversion from an export centered, natural resource draining and polluting economy to an internal consumption, green, service-based economy can not happen easily or overnight.
It will necessarily take time and require the patience and solidarity of China’s people, on whom China’s productivity, stamina and march to global eminence will be based. From the Party’s perspective, what the outside (West) views as a regressive turn to unbridled nationalism is about sovereignty and a show of strength in a very real sense, but it is also, and I would argue primarily, about galvanizing national pride effort and the cheerful willingness to pitch in during a time of unprecedented change and renewal. But more bluntly, it is about calming 1.3 billion people’s nerves and mobilizing them to meet the challenges close at hand. The West may decide to read this as China stepping up, but the correct read is that China is stepping forward, for humanity.
Rising unemployment in the coal, steel and other SOE sectors, intolerable levels of pollution, and climate change induced flooding in cities in need of revamped and renewable drainage and water reclamation systems, 50 million new college graduates in search of work each year, and a Party whose dialogue with the people for 30 years has been grounded in unprecedented, export-led, economic expansion is a conversation that will begin to change. At 10% year on year GDP growth, few anywhere could argue, but China now feels strong enough to peer yet further into the future and shoulder much of the responsibility for making that future safe for all. For 30 years China did what was in their view expedient for what were the circumstances extant. But for the last 3 years and well beyond (if sustainability is prioritized) things will not necessarily get better for everyone immediately, especially if the way we define better, is the Western notion of more material wealth and more conspicuous consumption. It is hard to convey the effect this has on one party system who understands (in a way we in the West fail to realize) that they are indeed accountable to their people. The rise in galvanizing nationalism in a nation of 1.3 billion is not a call to war of missiles and bullets, it is a call to the historical memory of China’s core values; pride, a rich history, self-sacrifice, and the motivation that comes from knowing that the middle kingdom can rise and play a decisive role not in creating more conflict, but in establishing a firm basis for humanity’s continued advance. Policy-makers in the West should at minimum take these factors into consideration before adding tension to the ties that bind us, and hold our small planet from teetering into environmental and economic chaos caused by bankrupt systems and a culture of greed that are no longer viable options in a collective society where my fate and the fate of my Chinese brothers and sisters are inextricably tied.
This shift in China’s focus to a massage of galvanizing nationalism was inevitable, the West’s misreading of it was not.
Questions of war and peace, of whether we have the collective political will to reforge ourselves into a sustainable civilization where all human beings are joint stakeholders. Whether we and our planet will survive. These are the questions before us today. If the measure of national intent is tangible action, the Chinese may have lessons to teach in this regard. Thoughtful policy makers in the West can no longer afford to exclude that possibility.