The world’s worst nightmare over China’s “peaceful rise” has come true. Once the “rise” has been accomplished, “peaceful” is the glaring casualty. Though coined by Hu Jintao, the leader who most embodied this doctrine was Deng Xiaoping. Conscious of the danger of an aggressive China, he assured the world that it would never become a superpower or seek hegemony.
Addressing the United Nations General Assembly on 10 April 1974, he said, “A superpower is an imperialist country which everywhere subjects other countries to its aggression, interference, control, subversion or plunder and strives for world hegemony.” Premier Wen Jiabao, on the eve of his visit to Indonesia and Malaysia in April 2011, repeated Deng’s assurance: “China will never seek hegemony.”
But by Deng’s and Wen’s own definitions, China has become worse than a hegemon. It is now a belligerent bully bent upon establishing its dominance by all the means at its disposal.
China has bared its fangs to show its true face to the world. Its earlier leaders may have tried to allay the fears of those alarmed at the prospect of the Asian giant re-emerging from centuries of slumber. But when it comes to Xi Jinping, such doubts should forever be laid to rest. Xi’s single-minded pursuit of making China the world’s foremost superpower can no longer be hidden or camouflaged.
China has considerable strengths to achieve its ends—military might, combined with economic clout. What is the way out for the world, especially countries like India that are in close proximity and that face the brunt of the fire-breathing dragon on their borders? The answer lies in the third kind of power that China lacks: respect, credibility and socio-cultural appeal. Along with military and economic power, non-coercive soft power is also necessary to maintain supremacy and to co-opt dissent. For China to be accepted as a dominant power, a rival, if not replacement, for the US, other countries should look up to it and follow its lead.
For this, the Chinese way of life also must be attractive to people all over the world. But this is far from the case. In fact, the Chinese way of life is probably not attractive to the Chinese themselves.
In Hong Kong, for example, a pall of gloom has descended after the change of its security laws. The new laws effectively do away with the freedoms that the island’s citizens were guaranteed under the ‘one nation, two systems’ handover agreement with the UK. The Taiwanese would also not like to be a part of the present Chinese system.
Within China too, there is a flight of millionaires whenever emigration opens up and a flight of capital whenever currency controls are eased by the government. If the best-off in China had faith in their own system, why would they want to leave? Or why would the Chinese rich want to park their money overseas if they trusted their own government? The world over, there is tremendous resentment because of the Wuhan virus and the way China handled it. While within its own borders, the authoritarian state apparently managed the pandemic well, no one believes in the official narrative. We don’t know where the virus originated for sure, whether in the wet markets as claimed by the Chinese authorities or, actually, in a laboratory as some have alleged.
China’s complicity in misleading the world through its influence in the World Health Organisation is also now quite well-established. How many have died in China or what are the actual number of infections is also pretty much anyone’s guess. As the world readies to counter the Chinese threat, no one should be overly surprised or dismayed by the new normal. Superpowers, despite their official postures, will flex their muscles to achieve their ends. World history has shown this repeatedly. China, after centuries of relative dormancy, has now risen to unprecedented heights as a successful and powerful state. It has not only modernised itself but pulled off a near-miraculous state-created capitalism totally at odds with the official ideology of its one-party Communist regime.
But this also means that the 1.4 billion Chinese live a life of daily contradiction. Their official state dogma says one thing and their actual lived reality is totally different. This is where the real fault line of China lies. It is this that its opponents should expose and exploit. China, thus, is most vulnerable as far as its soft power is concerned. More prosperous than ever, China is also less free than possibly even under Mao. It is this paradox that we need to highlight. In addition, Chinese companies and apps are viewed with great distrust because they are thought to be spying for their government back home. Finally, the great weakness of all empires comes from over-extension.
The debt-trap of the Belt and Road initiative has many of its erstwhile beneficiaries reeling. A Sino-centric world does not seem all that attractive anymore. It is in this light that we must remind the Chinese people and the world of Deng’s prophetic plea: “If one day China should change her colour and turn into a superpower, if she too should play the tyrant in the world, and everywhere subject others to her bullying, aggression and exploitation, the people of the world should identify her social imperialism, expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.” The time has come to do precisely this.
Makarand R Paranjape
Director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. Views are personal