Politics biggest challenge for China’s rise

Source:Global Times Published: 2014-2-10 18:38:01

William Kirby

Editor's Note:

China has long harbored dreams of national rejuvenation. But have these been achieved? What geopolitical and domestic challenges does the country face? Global Times (GT) reporter Chen Chenchen talked with William Kirby (Kirby), T. M. Chang Professor of China Studies and Spangler Family Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, Chairman of the Harvard China Fund and member of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies Council.

GT: How do you interpret the idea of the "Chinese dream?"

In fact, Chinese leaders since Sun Yat-sen have been talking about national rejuvenation. China has been free of unequal treaties since 1943. It had a century of historical humiliation, and China became a great power with its victory in WWII.

China's rise has lasted for not just two or three decades, but 100 years, of which this is the latest chapter. I think it is an inevitable return to eminence and authority.

Currently there is really a renaissance in Chinese culture, in arts, film, literature, and so many areas. And there should also be a renaissance in what you call political thought.

But if you look at the debates about where China should go in the early 20th century, they were led by people who were both deeply knowledgeable about China's classical past, and also cutting-edge scholars in global terms - as good as anyone in the West. But this is not the case today. The great traditions of China are missing.

GT: What's the biggest challenge that China faces?

I think the biggest challenge is the question of political reform. In the early 20th century, China lost many historic institutions: the emperor, the examination system, and the local gentry as a key to integrate state and society. They are all gone, but they have not been fully replaced.

Instead China chose from the international menu of options: a constitutional republic, a self-styled "Chinese empire" under Yuan Shikai, unbridled militarism in the warlord period, a bit of fascism in the 1930s, several forms of socialism, Stalinism in the 1950s, and its Chinese variant, Maoism, in the 1960s.

The new Chinese leadership is facing a very difficult job. Take the anti-corruption campaign. Every country has corruption. But the only way you can deal with it in the long run is with open systems, like honest police, honest judges, and an open press, for starters.

GT: The geopolitical context of today's "Chinese dream" is different from a century ago. How do you evaluate China's geopolitical environment?

From the end of the Vietnam War to the present has been a period of unprecedented peace in East Asia, the first such extended period since the Opium War.

In strategic terms, this is a great moment for China. China has no enemies that threaten China's borders today. There are no external threats, and this era of peace and security has been the foundation of China's prosperity over the last three decades.

There are some arguments that East Asia today is like Europe before WWI. This is absolutely wrong.

Before WWI you had a series of alliances that were predicated upon fighting a war. They existed to intimidate each other, but every one of their militaries prepared for a major war.

That is not even remotely the case today.

GT: How do you see the spat between China and Japan?

The Chinese are obsessed with getting a sincere apology from the Japanese, while the Japanese are obsessed with not giving it. That's the problem.

The Germans have apologized many times. The Japanese have actually apologized many times too. The difference, perhaps, is that the Germans eventually meant it, whereas many people, be they Korean, Chinese or Myanmese, don't think Japanese have apologized sincerely.

And if you want to be sincere, the last thing you should do is to go to the Yasukuni Shrine. But that's not what motivates Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It's unbelievably stupid.

But China should not overreact. Great nations should not make small matters the center of their attention. And Japan is not the only country that has challenges facing its history.

Sino-Japanese relations have thousands of years of history, and even in the last 100 years there have been, and there remain, important areas of cooperation.

China's modern history was shaped in many positive ways by Japan - terms from gongchanzhuyi (communism) to shehuizhuyi (socialism) and minzhuzhuyi (democracy), are Japanese translations of Western terms. The first generation of anti-Qing revolutionaries was educated in Japan.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Sino-Japanese relations were actually very good. The same issues were there, but people chose to look to the future, not to the past.

Young people today in China who've never met a Japanese person sometimes seem more anti-Japanese than their parents or grandparents, which doesn't make sense.

When a Japanese Prime Minister visits the Yasukuni Shrine, China should absolutely complain and protest, but then get over it. Japan did terrible things in a war that it fought - and lost. But should this history truly be at the center of contemporary Sino-Japanese relations?

GT: Can China lead Asia despite the tensions in current geopolitical environment?

Of course. China is inevitably a great player. If you look at the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, the centrality of power in the Chinese mainland was the dominant story, in trade and in military power. That's the historical setting.

The unnatural set of affairs was the 19th century, when the Qing came apart from the twin evils of neiluan waihuan (internal rebellion and external aggression).

The challenge today is for China to be not only the major power, but also the leader in a positive sense. China is the big brother.

It can give other regional players support. It need not contest every islet in the sea.

This doesn't mean Beijing has to agree with its neighbors on everything. China is powerful, but it is not as self-confident as one thinks it should be.

Yet Beijing has shown it can deal with thorny regional issues in an increasingly sophisticated way. Take the Taiwan question.

I give Beijing and Taipei enormous credit for the way they have handled cross-Strait relations since 2008, very carefully, not emotionally. Beijing is becoming much more sophisticated in dealing with Taiwan.

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