The mood in Canberra towards the People’s Republic of China is souring. No single event has spurred this downward spiral; rather, a string of incidents and actions by the PRC have impelled many in Canberra to re-examine the Beijing government’s pledge to rise peacefully. These include continuous media reports about the PRC government’s efforts to meddle in Australian society, the PRC’s insistence that it has every right to fortify artificial land features in the South China Sea, Beijing’s retaliation against select South Korean industries to display its displeasure over Seoul’s decision to deploy a US missile defence system, and the hardine speech by PRC President Xi Jinping on the twentieth anniversary of the Hong Kong handover. These have all chipped away at the image of a rising power that is genuinely committed to mutual respect among nations.
Of course, at the official level the relationship is fine. The comprehensive strategic partnership established in 2012 between the two countries is alive and well. The smiles and buoyant mood during Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Australia in March 2017 attest to this. But just below the surface there are numerous indications of a deteriorating relationship and increasing disagreement among Australian policymakers about the right way to engage with China. Protecting Australia’s interests with effective responses to the PRC’s actions – be they in the South and East China Seas or within Australian society – has never been more demanding.
To be effective, such responses will need to have as a starting point a clear sense of Australia’s national interests with regard to the PRC. Australian decision-makers also need to have a clear grasp of the national interests of modern-day China in the minds of its leaders. The driving forces behind the ambitions of the Communist Party of China (CPC) are intertwined with a historic longing for greatness, which unites rulers and citizens.
Geography defines destiny. Just as Australia’s sense of vulnerability stems from its geography and a “fear of abandonment” by its security guarantor, Chinese strategic anxiety is shaped by a fear of encirclement. In the PRC’s view, the United States has flourished in part because of its benign environment. If China were situated where the United States is and had but two friendly neighbours, it would not be concerned about encirclement. Instead, hostile adversaries from overland or across the sea have contributed to the collapse of Chinese dynasties over millennia.
Chinese strategic culture is also shaped by a preoccupation with legitimacy. Confucian thought stipulated that the right to rule – the Mandate of Heaven – was bestowed upon virtuous rulers. It was – and still is – impossible to know when a dynasty loses this mandate and collapses, only that such a fate befalls unjust rulers. The existential anxiety of today’s leaders of the CPC, regardless of the PRC’s recent resurgence of power, arises from a fear that the Party is losing its legitimacy. Behind closed doors they acknowledge that the Soviet Communist Party collapsed because it lacked legitimacy in the minds of the Soviet peoples. Chinese senior officials are haunted by this example, not to mention the fate of Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu (executed by his own citizens).
The need for those in power to provide security while maintaining legitimacy – however defined – is one of the key factors that need to be considered when answering the question: what does China want?
But, first, one must define China. Are we talking about “China,” the civilisation for which not only over 1.3 billion citizens of the People’s Republic of China feel a deep affinity, but also most of the over 50 million people of Chinese heritage who are citizens of other countries? Are we referring only to the citizens of the PRC? Or does China stand for the CPC, which in 1949 founded this one-party authoritarian state? This is not a quibble about semantics, but fundamental to understanding the complexities of China’s ambition. People of Chinese heritage universally, PRC citizens included, and the Party all desire certain things – respect, for example. But even then, they would disagree on the methods and pathways to gain respect.
The more assertive China becomes, the more important it is to distinguish between CPC ambition and the emotional pull that people of Chinese heritage feel towards their cultural roots. In Canberra, officials and commentators alike would do well to use the words “China” and “Chinese” more prudently. Why not speak of the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, when we mean the state that calls itself just that?
This essay primarily explores the question of what China wants from the viewpoint of the CPC leadership. After all, it is predominantly the decisions the Party makes which will affect the PRC’s future and that of the Asia-Pacific region. Concerns about the Party’s intentions loom large when Australians discuss possible PRC threats to national security, the rule of law, sovereignty and the Australian way of life.
To seem indispensable
The communist leaders of the PRC have an overriding existential desire: to stay in power. Some would say that this is true of politicians the world over, regardless of the political system. In some regards it is, but in the PRC there is no mechanism such as an election to cast aside one party, nor is there an alternative political party to turn to if the current one is deemed incompetent or unwanted.
Moreover, in the PRC the ruling party uses brute force to deter the emergence of any opposition to its rule. Voices of dissent are quashed. The internet and media of all types are controlled. Citizens of the PRC are constantly reminded that the demise of the Party would mean political upheaval, with all the associated risks of instability. In the CPC’s narrative of history, this leads to weakness, division of the country and, inevitably, the suffering of ordinary people. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, the PRC media focused on the social havoc that ensued, especially its effect on ordinary Russians. In Chinese, the expression “to walk the Soviet road” became synonymous with “chaos.”
Of the core interests the Party publicly acknowledges, upholding the socialist system – keeping the CPC in power – is routinely mentioned first. Territorial integrity and upholding sovereignty comes second, followed by ensuring sustainable economic development.
The Party is desperate to instil in the citizenry a sense of its own indispensability. In public statements, propaganda officials emphasise that it is thanks to the Party that China is united, that living standards are improving, that China is now respected, and that China’s national strength, however measured, is rising. For example, in August Xi Jinping, marking the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), said:
Over these ninety years, our country and our people have experienced setbacks and advances, suffering and glory. We have witnessed unprecedented historical change, and realised the great leap from standing up to growing wealthy and strong. This is the victory of the strong CPC leadership, it is the victory of the Chinese people’s unremitting struggles, and it is also the victory of the courageous People’s Liberation Army.
Xi and his peers have every reason to feel jittery about losing power. Marxist-Leninist thought does not capture the imagination of PRC citizens; getting rich does. Economic growth has been the bedrock of the Party’s legitimacy since 1978, when the PRC did an about-turn and embraced the policies of Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty; nearly 300 million people have moved into the middle and wealthy classes. Rising living standards have led to an expectation that the upward trajectory will continue. But economic growth is slowing. The next wave of necessary reforms to restructure the economy will infringe upon the benefits of privileged interest groups that are essential to the Party’s grip on power. Therefore, Xi dithers and to date has not summoned the political courage to embark on genuine restructuring, as was envisioned in the ambitious sixty-point reform agenda in 2013, one year after he took the helm.
At the same time, respect for the Party has declined considerably, both among elites and ordinary people, because of rampant corruption and nepotism among Party members. Xi Jinping is intent on restoring the authority of the Party. He has overseen a ferocious anti-corruption campaign that has lasted longer than any previous one. He sprinkles references to both revolutionary Mao Zedong thought and ancient Confucian thought through his speeches, insisting that Party members need to be morally upright model citizens. He has not only ordered ideological education to be strengthened in schools and state-run workplaces, he has also created new CPC entities to ensure that the Party, not the government, is in firm control of key decisions.
When Xi Jinping became leader of the CPC in late 2012, he set as his goal the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and embraced the “China Dream” as his signature slogan. There is much in common with Donald Trump’s aspiration to “make America great again”: more jobs, more respect, a return to military greatness. As with the American version, which had been promoted by Ronald Reagan more than two decades earlier, the China Dream had been discussed for a decade or so whenever Party ideologues debated how to justify policies with something other than tired Marxist-Leninist slogans.
This is an extract from Australian Foreign Affairs Issue #1: The Big Picture. To read the full edition subscribe or buy the book.