(2021) Since moving to a market economy, China has dragged hundreds of millions of human beings out of crushing poverty, brought infrastructure to places around the world where no one thought it was even possible, and all the while, managed it in an orderly peaceful manner. In light of the chaos that ensued the Soviet Union’s dissolution in the Yeltsin years, not to mention Yugoslavia, Chinese authorities argued that the Tiananmen Square crack-down was justified. Economic reform first, and then political reform, was the argument for the best way forward for China.
After China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), with US support, there were still objections and grumblings relating to China’s trade practices, aggressive technology transfer tactics, issues relating to intellectual property, and manipulation of the Yuan, etc. Nevertheless, China enjoyed technical and political support, primarily from the West, with its biggest benefactor and investor being the United States of America.
And all was well, and we all benefited from a dizzying array of affordable manufactured goods and China’s image in the West and the rest of the world was not that bad. In fact many saw China as a mostly responsible, non-aggressive rising power, and so it enjoyed a fair amount of good will and admiration.
Forward to today. What happened? Whither to all that good will?
For President Trump, US support for China’s accession to the WTO in 2001 was a mistake. What previous US administrations have grumbled about, but by and large not really acted on, they now no longer ignore. Trump brought the issues surrounding China to center stage — a position for which he now receives bipartisan support. And now, since Covid, calls for ‘decoupling’ of the two economies have grown louder. Joe Biden’s administration, though less bellicose, is not likely to go soft on China either.
From the EP Navy aircraft incident off Hainan Island, to everything that has happened since, like the Nine Dash line presentation to the UN, freedom of navigation quarrels, artificial islands, Hong Kong, Huawei; the ongoing trade war, Xinjiang, wolf warrior diplomacy, Covid, TikTok, WeChat, India and Taiwan, China-West relations are at a low point.
From the West’s perspective, interdependence was supposed to ensure China’s peaceful rise. Political reform would inevitably come to China, as it had done to some of China’s neighbours. At the very least, it was supposed to move towards a more open system democratic system. Hong Kong, it was hoped, would rub off on mainland China, but that did not happen, and in fact, its state-capitalist system (already a contentious system) has moved, and is moving in the exact opposite direction, to a more authoritarian system. That, and especially China’s massive military build-up is causing the most angst; not only to the USA and her allies, but also to China’s neighbours such as Japan, Vietnam, India, etc., and beyond to a wider world used to a US led, relatively stable world, based on the post-cold war status quo.
From China’s perspective, it sees its model of governance as working well for its 1.4 billion citizens. One that is not in competition with the West. By and large, the system, though not free from corruption, enjoys support from its population who have seen their lives dramatically improved in the last 30 years. The population is fully cognizant of their tumultuous history, and a long as the Chinese Communist Party keeps delivering on stability and prosperity, the one party system is accepted as is, as the price for stability. As for its military build-up, China argues that it is modernizing its military, and increasing its spending in line with its growing economy, but not increasing the percentage spend to GDP. Furthermore, the belief in China is that its military is there to ensure that it never has to endure another ‘century of humiliation’, a difficult period in Chinese history between the mid 19th and 20th century where China was unable to push back against various foreign forces. It’s a sentiment, as I found out in my travels through China, that runs quite deep.
China’s rise means the status quo is changing, and for many, that is unnerving. China (like the US) will have to manage this intelligently to avoid falling into the Thucydides Trap.
All contentious issues will have to be resolved — and the good news is, that they can actually be resolved.
There are a few things in the meanwhile that China could do to reduce tensions and manage its image worldwide, and thereby actually increase its soft power. The US has some major work to do in this department also, but that is not the focus of this particular article.
1) The Environment.
Though not perfect, China is making an incredible effort to clean up its environment. Sure, as the biggest emitter, China needs to move its newly-set Carbon Neutrality date deadline from 2060 to 2050, but to hear North Americans or Australians, among others, railing about China’s environmental record is disingenuous when you compare per-capita carbon footprints. That we all need to improve is not in dispute here – we all do, and what China could do, is use its clout in developing countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere to insist upon, and impose, stricter environmental rules and regulations.
Unrestrained by legal repercussions, China’s companies have penetrated developing markets world-wide by offering unbeatable credit terms and playing by the ‘local’ rules. What the West cannot legally turn a blind eye to, China does, because, it argues; it is the citizens of those countries and not the corrupt officials that ultimately benefit the most, be it through roads, ports, internet access, or running water. And opinion polls in parts of the world where China is more present like Africa for example, support China’s argument that it is welcome in those markets.
What China can do, as it’s building these infrastructures, and extracting resources, is at least, impose strict environmental standards — to become a leader in environmental responsibility. It has the leverage and should definitely use it here. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s the smart thing to do for everyone. Image-wise, environmentally responsible countries score big soft power points. The world really needs China on this file, especially in light of the US’ environmental back tracking.
2) Cut out the military parades.
With all the tension in the South China Seas military parades look more jingoistic than anything else. It especially does not look good for a rising power massively investing in its military. Images and videos of President Xi Jinping reviewing the troops, hyper-sonic weapons, and nuclear weapons do not endear him, or China to the rest of the world. Sure, military parades are a lot of fun to watch, especially for military observers, but they also remind outsiders of Stalin, Hitler, and the like. It makes everybody nervous. Countries with great soft power skills do not do that. The next one is scheduled for 2029. Cancel it, or make it a fun friendly parade. Re-assure the world.
3) The detention of Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and Canadian entrepreneur Michael Spavor, as well as Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, is truly an unfortunate affair. Three human beings and Canada are caught up in the middle of the ongoing US-China spat. China cannot go backwards in time and not-arrest Kovrig, and Spavor. And Canada cannot go back in time and let Meng Wanzhou quietly transfer flights through Vancouver International Airport. So what to do until this mess gets sorted out? China ought to treat Kovrig and Spavor with the same decency Meng Wanzhou is treated in Canada. What Meng Wanzhou is undergoing is not pleasant — court is never pleasant, and neither is house arrest, but the conditions of her arrest are humane, and all accommodations have been made to make her ordeal as tolerable as possible. Meng Wangzhou will not spend anytime in a prison cell in Canada. China needs to do the same. Release them, or at the very minimum, improve their condition in the meanwhile, by moving them out of prison cells, and providing unlimited access to sunlight, visits, quality food, and anything else that is required. They really do not belong in a cell.
4) Not using the economic weapon as a political tool.
Around the world, countries have been targeted by economic punitive measures. In Norway, the salmon industry was targeted as a result of a Nobel prize being awarded to human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. Australia and South Korea likewise suffered politically motivated targeted economic aggression. In Canada, farmers have borne the brunt. This tactic does huge damage to China’s image (well beyond the targeted countries). If anything it has cemented a block of like minded Western countries to act in concert with other like minded countries to stand up to China. Brandishing the economic weapon is not a good idea and only adds to the growing unfavorable views of China.
The truth is, that China’s people are kind, welcoming and generous with a fascinating history and culture. It’s a country well worth visiting and it is truly unfortunate to see China’s image around much of the world, being increasingly viewed in a negative light. China can turn this around to the benefit of all. The world benefits greatly from wise superpowers with soft skills. Better to be a hard power with soft power, than a hard power without soft power.