Impressions Of An Amateur China-Watcher


Phat Cat
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Feb 23, 2009
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I recently returned from several days at Peking University, where I was fortunate to listen and learn from academics and policy analysts from the United States, China, and East Asia, as well as one senior Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) official. The opportunity was welcomed by this amateur China-watcher, who has puzzled over the middle kingdom throughout many years of college, graduate school, and my professional career. Treading on the sovereign territory of China scholars without having first put in the requisite years of language training and research puts one at risk of attack. Nevertheless, based on years of speaking with Chinese friends and colleagues, I offer my .13 Yuan (that's two cents at the current conversion rate) on several aspects of Chinese foreign policy.

First, you cannot overstate the impact of history on how Chinese academics and officials perceive, or at least describe, their country's role in the world. History, in this context, stretches back thousands of years, and covers every political dynasty, each era of domestic instability, and foreign interventions emanating from every direction. As the senior MFA official described it, China is unique because it has a "5,000 year unbroken civilization." Generally, if given ten minutes to assess a contemporary foreign policy issue, many Chinese scholars will spend the first nine and a half minutes describing events before the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Yet, these same scholars would not claim that history is determinative of China's future, but rather that it is imprinted on the minds of policymakers in Beijing to an extent that Westerners might underestimate.

Second, Chinese foreign policy is often articulated in opposition to the behavior of other great powers, currently represented by the United States. Coming back from China, I read this recent quote from a People's Liberation Army senior colonel, Gaoyue Fan: "Because we were invaded and oppressed by foreigners in our history, that's why our culture tells us that we should not do as the other foreign powers. We will only attack after being attacked. We do not come into alliances with any big country or blocks of countries." This sentiment extends to China's no-first use nuclear weapons policy, which, as Chinese academics will point-out, differs from the preventive uses of nuclear weapons that they claim are permitted under the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review. Or, as I've been told by more than one Chinese colleague on the issue of nuclear weapons or nuclear nonproliferation: "we never dropped the bomb on anyone."

Third, there is no "Beijing Consensus" held by Chinese policymakers regarding the direction of the country's foreign policy. Just when you might think that there is a simplifying doctrine that can be projected on Chinese global behavior, you will be corrected and apprised of conflicting viewpoints. According to Chinese academics, variation among policymakers is based on where they are from within the country, where they sit in the bureaucracy, what their relationship is to the Communist Party, and what their potential financial interests are. There is no more a Beijing consensus than a Washington consensus.

Fourth, I have never heard a Chinese graduate student, academic, or policy analyst note that the country is ruled by a single-party authoritarian dictatorship, nor that this is consequential for the China's foreign policy. Most Americans know that domestic politics does not stop at the water's edge, and that Republicans and Democrats have contrasting opinions about global affairs. In addition, in developing and implementing U.S. foreign policy, we are reminded of the expansive reach of the executive branch, oversight activities of the Congress, and legal arbitration role of the judiciary. Within China, all these branches of government exist, yet are routinely bypassed when party officials chose to do so. When I was at Peking University, Chinese media was relentlessly promoting retrospectives and upcoming celebrations regarding the Communist Party's ninetieth birthday on July 1. Yet, perhaps because they do not feel the party's presence in their day-to-day lives, most Chinese academics do not see its hand in carrying out the country's foreign policy.

Micah Zenko: Politics, Power, and Preventive Action » Impressions of an Amateur China-Watcher

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