The Caravan

Are We Witnessing 'Peak China'?

Tuesday, September 25, 2018
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Is there anything more to be said about China?

If the twentieth century was "The American Century," then this twenty-first century, by general acclamation, has been assigned to The People's Republic of China. What more needs to be said?

The Beijing regime has stressed that China's "peaceful rise" disavows any intention to seek paramount world power by conquest, threat, or imposition, always reminding us that China was traduced and humiliated by unequal treaties and foreign aggression through all the generations of global modernization under Eurocentric hegemony. Therefore, China's dramatically swift rise to wealth and power is legitimate, just, and inevitable, something the world can welcome.

Indeed, China's return to the forefront of universal prestige and influence since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping is compatible with America's post-World War II grand strategic hopes, supported by policies such as were formed at Bretton Woods, for a thriving global economy encompassing all nations.

And well before this, something akin to an American love affair with China can be traced from the "China Clipper Ship" era when to New Englanders "The Far East seemed closer to Salem than any other American town,"1 through the "Open Door" policy to keep China from being devoured by a major colonial power, to the Nobel prize-winning novels of Pearl S. Buck. Today's Zhongnanhai residents may not view this history in a particularly favorable light, but China undeniably has been, from America's point of view, something of a heartthrob.

Seen from a wider angle, the most conspicuous theme in the history of world order has been the series of efforts, by one power after another, to gain mastery of the modern international state system.2 The PRC in the Deng and early post-Deng years seemed to adhere to this model as China conducted itself as a good citizen of the states' system to the benefit of both the global commonweal and its own economic and political interests. That began to change near the end of this century's first decade when the PRC became "assertive" toward the international system while its intelligensia began to deride the status quo and declare that China's rise would be in the context of a new hierarchical world order to replace the Westphalian model whose central doctrine of "the equality of states" would be transcended. The future would be characterized by national rankings based on size, wealth, and power.3

Another new phenomenon in the past few years has been Xi Jinping' s gathering all reins of power into his hands and his redesign of the PRC political system to make himself de facto "President for Life." This has come almost in parallel with a shift in media reports from eager admiration of "The China Miracle" to signs that the economy may now be in a downturn such as a normal country might experience. The two trends are in contradiction to each other because China's centralized all­ pervasive political power has been riding on what was thought to be a never-breaking economic wave. Recent reports that the regime will be dispatching sizeable numbers of political cadre into the universities is not a sign of confidence at the top.

At this moment, an experienced "China Watcher" might turn to Chairman Mao Zedong for insight. He was "The Great Helmsman," after all, who brought China to a level of unity and purpose that overcame its century or more of misery and victimization.

The foundation for all Mao Zedong-thought (which Xi Jinping has recently been channeling) is his major essay On Contradiction, 1937. The primum mobile for Mao were contradictions: between the people, among the people, and between the people and the regime. In 1957, Mao elaborated on this philosophy in his address "On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People."

In Mao-Thought, contradictions (Maodunzhe is the term in Chinese) can be productive if they are non-antagonistic. But antagonistic contradictions can cause a collapse of the "harmony" the PRC proclaims.

Any comprehensive look at the PRC today summons a feeling that the post-Deng period and especially during Xi's power-accumulating presidency, is rife with antagonistic contradictions. Among them:

  • That Mao and Confucius are compatible. China watchers know they are not. From Mao's cultural revolution of the 1960's until his death, the people were instructed that Confucius was a demon while Mao was "The Red Sun in Chinese hearts!"; today they are portrayed as twin exemplars of Chineseness.
  • Capitalism and Communism are one and the same, as "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics." There is a doubly antagonistic contradiction here: the two economic philosophies are diametrically opposed yet both are of European origin while "Chinese characteristics" have yet to be explained. This raises an added question,
  • State vs. empire? What is the PRC? remains a legitimate question. In this modern era, the country has gone from the Manchu -- (not Han Chinese) ruled Qing Empire, to the never-consolidated or successful 1911 Republican Revolution, to the Marxist-Maoist Cultural Revolution fiercely opposed to every element of the modem state system, to today's yet to be clearly defined PRC which appears to be designing a Sino-centric post-Westphalian order shaped by "spheres of influence."
  • Even the Flag and its Meaning may be other than explained by the regime: the big yellow star is supposed to represent the Communist Party and the four smaller stars the Marxist-approved participants in history's "class struggle": peasants, proletariat, et al. But another, earlier, reading saw the big star as the Han Chinese and the other stars as the ethnic peoples of the PRC: Mongol, Manchu, Tibetan, and Uyghur, each of which inhabits a major geographic area and is presumed to possess some form of autonomy or semi­ autonomous governance, as in the Xinjiang Uyghur Zizhou (Autonomous Region). This interpretation reveals an antagonistic contradiction - autonomy vs. centrality - whose tension, now evident in Beijing's suppression of the Uyghurs, spells trouble for the self-definition of the PRC polity itself.
  • A cultural and strategic contradiction deep in the Chinese psyche is the matter of land or sea, epitomized in Carl Schmitt's theory of all world history as a struggle between sea powers and land powers.4 This, with no reference to Schmitt, was the theme of a six-part television series in 1988 that struck a nerve in the PRC hierarchy. Called "River Elegy," it depicted China's strategic persona as a contest between the open waters of the world's seas and the "Great Wall" mentality fixated on the Central Asian land mass.

This question has been at the core of strategic thought at least since artillery was made mobile by using ships as carriers of guns rather than troops for boarding other ships. A power with access to the sea is able to be in contact with most of the globe, while a land power has had to depend on crossing territory controlled by others.

This is crucial to understanding the PRC's "One Belt, One Road" grand strategy; one is by land, the other by sea. China is declaring its intention to have both. Command of the sea has seemed the decisive military factor in the defeat of dominant continental powers by alliances led by maritime powers. Hitler's Wehrmacht was defeated on the continent only after Germany's U-Boat control of the North Atlantic was defeated and Imperial Japan surrendered only after the U.S. victory in the Pacific made it possible for a B-29 to take off from Tinian in the Marianas for the 1,400 mile flight to destroy Hiroshima.5

This context makes all the more significant the PRC's sea borne strategy - which, history has shown - cannot exist without territorial roots - a matter of secure and sustainable bases. That China is running into trouble was reported one recent day when the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal agreed with each other. The Times, citing Beijing's funding of a "string of pearls" (ports) across the Indian Ocean, noted a "new phenomenon," a pushback against Beijing. China's financing for an improbable deep-water port has caused Sri Lanka to default on loans and handover to China a 99-year lease on the harbor and adjacent land, giving the PRC an outpost on one of the region's busiest shipping lanes. In reaction, Malaysia has declared that "We Cannot Afford This" amid fears that such an agreement between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing would one day bring Chinese warships into control of the Malacca Strait.

That same day The Wall Street Journal wrote "Another 'Belt and Road' Hostage: Pakistan is the latest to learn the high price of money from China," pointing out that Pakistan's foreign debt has ballooned since borrowing from Chinese banks to finance the "China-Pakistan Economic Corridor," a 62 billion dollar showcase for the PRC's OBOR. The US and the IMF fear Pakistan could fall into a debt trap and be forced to tum over the strategic Gwadar port to Chinese creditors. According to the Journal, "Many of the Chinese projects were poorly conceived and the debt to build them will damage Pakistan's finances for a generation."

All these are cause to consider whether the world may be starting to witness something like "Peak China."


 1 Van Wyck Brooks, Fenollosa and His Circle, 1962, p. 1.

 2 Martin Wight, Power Politics, ed. Hedley Bull and Carsten Holbraad. Penguin, 1979, p. 30.

 3 See China Orders the World, ed. William A. Callahan and Elena Barabantseva, John Hopkins University Press, 2011.

 4 Carl Schmitt, Land and Sea: A World-Historical Meditation, trans. Samuel Garrett Zeitlin, edited and Intro by Russell A. Berman, Telos, 2015 (1942).

 5 Wight, 68.