No ‘House of Cards’ politics in China’s rise

Marcus Loh October 26, 2016 8:05 PM (UTC+8)
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Just over a year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a historic visit to the United States (US). It was a milestone trip for two reasons.

First, it came at a time when both countries were meeting on equal terms as economic superpowers. International Monetary Fund data showed that China’s share of the global economy stood at 16.48 per cent, while the US had 16.29 per cent in 2014.

This gave China significantly more leverage than before, as she negotiated thorny topics ranging from cyber security to developments in the South China Sea. Secondly, President Xi was visiting the US at a time when more than half the Chinese population are plugged into the Internet, and could be watching him. In that context, how China’s interests are represented by its leader could either raise or depress China’s national pride and the resulting moral legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party of China.

Fresh from Congress’ approval of ‘fast-tracked’ authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks, a sense of trepidation still lingers among the American public on how China is keeping to its commitment to her Peaceful Rise. After all, to whip up popular support for the TPP, President Barack Obama’s administration played up impressions of the Chinese ‘bogeyman’, and how America needs the TPP as a strategic pivot to Asia Pacific.

But examine China’s more than 3,000-year history, and one would be hard-pressed to find signs of Chinese hegemony. The peoples in vassal kingdoms at the periphery of China’s borders were never regarded as subjects of her Imperial Court. Instead, China had so much faith in her sense of exceptionalism that she believed that foreign counterparts would be drawn in by the sheer perceived magnificence of her culture and soft-power that was contained within China, or ‘under the heavens’ – as it was during the Qing Dynasty in events leading up the Opium Wars, as it was in modern times when the world witnessed US President Richard Nixon’s milestone trip to meet Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972.

There is sufficient precedent in China’s assurance of her Peaceful Rise. China’s use of her military has traditionally been defensive maneuvers. Commentators like former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger opine that in hindsight, China’s involvement in the Korean War, the shelling of Quemoy and Matsu islands and the push back of Vietnamese forces in 1979, were pre-emptive measures that were designed to inflict psychological deterrence over physical conquest. These incidents might lend some respite to the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea. Moreover, there is an overwhelming slate of incentives domestically for China to keep the peace.

Reliance on worlds beyond ‘the heavens’

More than any time in history, the reliance on economies beyond the ‘Middle Kingdom’ will determine the state of peaceful development on China’s domestic front. This is a strong motivator for China to preserve friendly relations with the world. In 2014, China’s global trade exceeded US$4 trillion, making her the world’s largest trading nation. Beyond her role as ‘factory to the world’, China has also become an attractive investment destination. President Xi shared that as of August 2015, 65,000 US businesses were in China investing an estimated US$76 billion.

With this exchange in commerce, came the infusion of capabilities, know-how and technology transfers, which has propelled the emergence of business giants like Ali Baba, Tencent, and others. These leading Chinese firms are creating higher value and higher-paying jobs for locals. In what could perhaps be one of mankind’s most defining achievement in raising living standards, China saw more than 600 million people lifted out of poverty, and more than 400 million people joining the middle class since she opened up her economy in 1978.

Singapore’s dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Kishore Mahbubani cited how this achievement, together with India’s economic reforms, were the two determinants that enabled the United Nations to meet her Millennial Development Goals in reducing poverty.

Yet even if China becomes the world’s largest economy in total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) terms, there is still a long way to go before the majority of her population enjoys the same standard of living as the more developed countries.

Bridging domestic divides

According to the World Bank in 2014, China’s GDP per capita was about seven times less than the US, six times less than Germany, and eight times less than Australia. Much has been said about the wealth disparity between China’s coastal cities and her rural West. Yet even in rural China, the Central China Normal University in 2011 found that the wealth gap among rural households was also widening. The total income of the top 20 per cent of the rural households was 10.19 times higher than the bottom 20 per cent.

While it remains to be seen how much China is able bridge her income divide before social pressures become untenable, the country has made great strides in narrowing her digital one.

The infusion of technological advances into the lives of the Chinese means that just as more Chinese are scaling the social ladder, they are also embracing social (media) mobility. Almost half of the country’s 1.3 billion population have a digital voice. A 2015 study by social media agency, We Are Social, reported that China has 668 million active internet users, 659 million active social media users, 675 million unique mobile users, and 574 million active users of social mobile applications such as WeChat – numbers which are more than two times that of the total population of the US. This means that there is little that the Great China Firewall can do, to alleviate the pressure of envy among the Wall’s inhabitants.

Pork Bun Diplomacy

Aside from frowning on the ostentatious display of excesses, there is limit to what the Chinese government can do too to stem this pressure. Yet, the government knows that it must assure the populace of its commitment to egalitarianism, by shoring up and demonstrating moral legitimacy. In China, where important officials seldom mingle with the public, Chinese President Xi’s ‘pork bun diplomacy’ in 2013 surprised even the most cynical of locals. He ordered a plate of pork buns, had some local street food, and sat with diners at a restaurant in West Beijing. This was a marked departure from the perception of faceless Chinese bureaucrats indulging in lavish banquet meals.

In another move to strengthen the moral authority of his administration, President Xi vowed to fight ‘tigers’ and ‘flies’ in an anti-corruption drive when he took office, referring to both big wigs and junior ranks in the Chinese Communist Party. He reiterated this stance in his visit to Seattle last week, where he gave assurances that the clamp-down on corruption was not political showmanship. He even made reference to American television drama, ‘House of Cards’, much to the amusement of his American hosts. But it was a statement directed not so much to his hosts as it was to influential Chinese business leaders who were present at the forum, and to a connected Chinese population that is closely watching how their leader represents them in his first visit to the US in this capacity.

In an age where more than half of the Chinese population are connected to each other (and to a lesser extent, the broader world community), we are seeing how the moral legitimacy of China’s leaders, and the external affairs of the country are becoming more intricately intertwined. To skeptics, it is worth nothing that China’s Peaceful Rise is a shared agenda. As much as China is taking firm steps to cultivate a stable domestic environment, it is also all the more reliant on a peaceful, external one.

Marcus Loh
Marcus Loh is one of 54 accredited practitioners of the Institute of Public Relations, Singapore (IPRS). He is currently Director of Corporate Communication for the Star Education Group, a holding company of Baring Private Equity Asia. He serves concurrently as Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Communication at one of Singapore's leading education institutions, PSB Academy. Marcus serves at various industry and academic bodies in an advisory capacity, including the IPRS membership sub-committee, the UOB-SMU Asian Enterprise Institute and MACH Advisory, a social enterprise. He has a Master of Science from Smurfit University College Dublin, and earned his second Masters degree under a government scholarship with the Singapore Management University. His views on public and international affairs have also been sought and published by media houses such as The Diplomat, The Business Times, The Straits Times, TODAY, Marketing Magazine, Digital Market Asia and Singapore Business Review.
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