Brilliant and insightful (two different words that still seem redundant) Washington Post article entitled, Behind the “Modern” China, on how China is still rife with “19th-century” ideas despite its gloss of modernity:
China can go for great stretches these days looking like the model of a postmodern, 21st-century power. Visitors to Shanghai see soaring skyscrapers and a booming economy. Conference-goers at Davos and other international confabs see sophisticated Chinese diplomats talking about “win-win” instead of “zero-sum.” Western leaders meet their Chinese counterparts and see earnest technocrats trying to avoid the many pitfalls on the path to economic modernization.
But occasionally the mask slips, and the other side of China is revealed. For China is also a 19th-century power, filled with nationalist pride, ambitions and resentments; consumed with questions of territorial sovereignty; hanging on repressively to old conquered lands in its interior; and threatening war against a small island country off its coast.
The article then notes how these 19th-century elements of China do not seem to change, even as China becomes wealthier:
But can a determinedly autocratic government really join a liberal international order? Can a nation with a 19th-century soul enter a 21st-century system? Some China watchers imagine the nations of East Asia gradually becoming a kind of European Union-style international entity, with China, presumably, in the role of Germany. But does the German government treat dissent the way China does, and could the European Union exist if it did?
China, after all, is not the only country dealing with restless, independence-minded peoples. In Europe, all kinds of subnational movements aspire to greater autonomy or even independence from their national governments, and with less justification than Tibet or Taiwan: the Catalans in Spain, for instance, or the Flemish in Belgium, or even the Scots in the United Kingdom. Yet no war threatens in Barcelona, no troops are sent to Antwerp and no one clears the international press out of Edinburgh. But that is the difference between a 21st-century postmodern mentality and a nation still fighting battles for empire and prestige left over from a distant past.
These days, China watchers talk about it becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. But perhaps we should not expect too much. The interests of the world’s autocracies are not the same as those of the democracies. We want to make the world safe for democracy. They want to make the world safe, if not for all autocracies at least for their own. People talk about how pragmatic Chinese rulers are, but like all autocrats what they are most pragmatic about is keeping themselves in power. We may want to keep that in mind as we try to bring them into our liberal international order.
This article nails it with its descriptions of modern day China, but it cheats us a bit by ending without telling us what all this means. In light of the above, should the West just walk away from China? Will China will never become “postmodern?”
I think the article is wrong on two implicit points. First I think China is making progress, just not as quickly as most would like nor as quickly as most thought it would. I am not prepared to write China off. It took (and is still taking) Korea and Japan a long time to become “postmodern” (the article’s term, not mine). And in hindsight, whatever made us think China would get there so quickly?
Second, I think it wrong to think any country is “postmodern” (again, the article’s term, not mine). As much I would like to believe the European Union is capable of relinquishing the nationalistic tendencies of its nation-states, I think that experiment is too new for us to conclude it has been accomplished. I also think the article wrongly assumes Chinese technocrats preaching “win-win” are not “postmodern.” Is it not possible that, just as is true in the United States and in Europe, there are some who are “postmodern” (whatever the hell that really means) and some who are not?
China is getting there.
Be patient. Very patient.