Chips, shoulders and China

Copenhagen and climate change, the execution of a mentally troubled British citizen, Google and human rights…and now US arms sales to Taiwan: over the past few weeks, a string of different issues causing international attention have posed the same question: how do you solve a problem like China?

A common response from China to all these has gone something along the lines of ‘we’re not going to be coerced into doing things that we don’t want to’, but is crucially tinged by a defense of its perceived rights: its right to economic development, even if carbon-intensive, the rights of its judicial process to be free from international pressure, the rights of its government to dictate terms to international companies operating in China, its right of sovereignty over Taiwan. Couching its responses in terms of rights (which is a touch ironic when contrasted with its own domestic human rights record) complicates compromise, because it puts itself on the defensive and generates a posture of nationalistic victimhood. This posture, of course, taps into its longer history of international resentment – confronted by criticism over the execution of Akmal Shaikh, it referred to the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s as a previous instance of British arrogance in lecturing China.

My point here is that its historical narrative about what China ‘is’, is built upon both this brooding victimhood of Western exploitation, as well as its contemporary vision of itself as a resurrected great power; the massive chip on its shoulder about the past shouldn’t, or perhaps can’t, be dismissed lightly as a rhetorical ploy. The Economist’s Banyan correspondent wrote that “…many Chinese recognise that the world – and even drug-pushing British gunboat-diplomacy – has changed, and that it may be time to move on.” But the effort invested into constructing this narrative isn’t easily shifted, in part because it continues to offer a much-valued legitimacy claim for the CCP leadership among the population, but also because of how deeply-rooted it is in this psyche of what China’s place in the world is.

To put it pithily, how China behaves can’t be understood without reference to this sense of what it ‘is’ (if you want in in academic jargon, it’s about how identity affects interests). So where does this leave the wider world? It’s tempting to read this as a bit of an apologia for China in the suggestion that the international community has to tiptoe around the constant dredging up of the past two centuries of history. But Chris Patten’s recent combative comments led me to pause for a moment: “I don’t believe that your relationship with China should always be on China’s terms…there’s too much sucking up to China by governments and businesses that think you can’t do business in China unless you do it entirely on China’s terms. It’s nonsense.”

This is admittedly a bit half-baked, but I’d conclude that some things are always going to get fairly virulent responses (i.e. Taiwan and the idea of what the rightful ‘Chinese state’ is) and that historical baggage is always going to be part of the reply. In these cases there is very little room for compromise; international actors have to decide whether the grief is worth it in relation to progress in other areas. But on most other isues of contention, what it does point to is how the carrot is going to be so much more effective than the stick, to play to its idea of what the world expects of it and the global public good that China is helping to secure. It means that post hoc criticism is going to rarely be useful, even if it makes us feel good.

Pride and humiliation. There’s a thing called a national psyche that redefines ‘rationality’ – perhaps not too dissimilar from human action.

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