Don’t overreact to China

How should western socialists react to the rise of China? Chartist spoke to leading activist Lijia Zhang

International politics  is shaping up for a new cold war, with the interests of the Washington-aligned world seeking to contain the growing power and influence of China. In this interview with Chartist, Lijia Zhang, the Chinese political commentator and recently published novelist, sets out her views on how the democratic left should maintain its independence between the two camps, resisting both NATO belligerence in the East Asia region and Xi Ping’s authoritarian model for the future development of the People’s Republic. 

What has been driving China’s push for development in recent decades?
There has been debate among academics and experts about what is exactly the China development model. Some call it the ‘Beijing Consensus’ (an alternative to the ‘Washington Consensus‘) or the ‘Chinese Economic Model’. From what I can gather, it is a development model that combines an authoritarian political system with a market economy of some kind where there is selective government intervention.

Does this development inevitably require the aggressive stance now being taken by President Xi?
Under President Xi’s leadership, China has become more assertive. When he became the president, he obviously believed that China was powerful enough to take a higher profile. He introduced his grand strategy of ‘major power diplomacy’ – not diplomacy of dealing with major nations, but to regard China as a major power and its need to behave as such.

One of his signature programs is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global development project that is reaching deep into Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa and Europe. Developing China’s economy is one important driving force but not the only one. The project is seen as Xi’s effort to expand China’s power and influence in the world at the expense of the US.

Xi has also significantly increased military spending as he believes that a major power needs a powerful and modern army. China’s tension with the US and its hope of catching up with the hegemony has pushed up military expenses. But the BRI itself doesn’t require a powerful military, let alone a hardline rhetoric, but they are all part of Xi’s China’s Dream – its road to rejuvenation. He wants to project a strong China image.

From what you say, it seems that Chinese nationalism is being asserted as the fundamental ideological stance of the Beijing government. Is there any dissent from this among the general population?
Xi has tightened social control. The internet is harder to police but there is, of course, censorship. Before a critical post on social media platforms such as Weibo or WeChat gets taken down, one does get to hear some different views. For example, writer Fang Fang started to publish an online diary during the first lockdown in Wuhan. Plenty of people read this diary before it was taken down. But on important issues like democracy in Hong Kong or the independence of Taiwan, the vast majority of the mainlanders stand with the government, I am afraid.

The West’s response to China’s assertion of its interests to date has been that of the Triad and AUKUS. What are the dangers this will escalate tensions?
AUKUS, the trilateral pact between Australia, the UK and the US, is designed to counter China’s military expansion. Beijing warns that it may lead to an arms race. The escalating tension between China and the West, and the US, may inch towards a crisis.

Taiwan is the great worrying flashpoint for confrontation. Xi’s so-called ‘Russia-leaning neutrality’ has damaged its reputation in the West, but it is a bad idea to lump China and Russia together, or worse still, to further antagonise China when the war is raging in Ukraine. The US should work together with China in trying to bring peace. If the US wants China to play a positive role on the issue, it shouldn’t make threats. The Americans have swung their sticks too readily without offering enough carrots.

From the perspective of the democratic left, what should the British Labour Party be doing to take the tension out of the military build-ups and open channels for dialogue around an alternative progressive approach? Are you concerned that the party leadership seems to want to take its cue from the US in these matters?
That’s a million-dollar question. Engagement is always a good idea. The Labour Party should try to understand China and its history better, including the ‘century of humiliation under foreign powers’. Don’t place the party on a self-appointed high moral ground, accusing China of this and that, as the Americans have been doing and demonstrating that they have not come to terms with China’s rise. And finally, do not provoke China unnecessarily, such as sending a delegation to Taiwan – an act that might provoke China’s military aggression.

The US is overreacting to China’s rise, driven by fear. I can understand why there is such a fear about China, an authoritarian regime with a poor human rights record. Its stifling of freedom in Hong Kong, its mistreatment of the Uyghur in Xinjiang, compounded by its ever louder nationalist rhetoric, all amplify such fear and reinforce the ‘China threat’ narrative. However, I think some of the fear is generated by ignorance.

It is wrong to assume that China has ‘malign intention’ towards the US. Its growing wealth and power does not necessarily mean that it will carry out military adventures. Besides, I don’t think China has grown powerful enough to represent a real threat just yet. Yes, China has become the world’s second largest economy, but its GDP per capita is much smaller than that of the US; so is its military capacity.

Lijia Zhang
Former Nanjing rocket factory worker Lijia Zhang is the author of Socialism is Great!: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China. Her novel Lotus was published by Macmillan in 2017. Now based in Britain, she continues her work as a journalist and commentator on affairs concerning her home country.

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