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China Doesn’t Want to Rule the World

After working in the hospital for almost 10 months, my co-workers are finally starting to talk with me about politics in China (this serves as a good reminder of 1. how important relationships are in China and 2. how hard it can be to get interesting information). Two of the women were fairly willing to talk one-on-one with me about it, but when the third woman would come in the room the conversation would die instantly.

Whenever we have these chats someone always makes sure to close the door (sometimes I even do it). It’s not that I would normally be worried about what is said, but the Party office of the hospital is directly next door, and one can never be too careful.

One of the most interesting bits to come out of our discussions is their insistence that China is a developing country that would never want to be a global power. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard these two arguments, which seem to be common knowledge for many Chinese people.

Developing Country

I would normally agree that China isn’t quite a developed country yet, but there are more than 100 million people in China living in cities that could be mistaken for New York or LA. Usually the person telling me this lives in one of China’s more prosperous cities, which is hard to stomach (the co-worker in this case owns a big apartment, two cars, and is considering spending a small fortune to send her child to school in the US).

The part that bothers me is that “Developing Country” is used as an excuse. China can’t cut pollution because it is a developing country, China can’t build schools because it’s a developing country, China can’t give people freedom of speech because it’s a developing country…

Meanwhile, China has spent billions of dollars on high-speed rail, hosting the Olympics, and launching men into space. Clearly, being a developing country doesn’t limit which vanity projects can be funded.

This argument of being a developing country though is crucial for China’s second claim:

China doesn’t want to rule the world

Forget the news about China’s aircraft carrier, growing role in Africa, and second largest GDP, China doesn’t have any real power in the world. Just today they posted a story on People’s Daily that Kissinger had said “China won’t be the next superpower,” which seems like an odd thing to publish days before the Party’s 90th anniversary, unless that is the message the Party wants repeated.

This is a part of the Party’s crucial creation myth (which we’ll be getting more into soon) that China was a powerless and abused country until their rule began. If China is powerful now, than the Party would have fulfilled it’s role and may no longer be needed by the masses.

It also is a convenient dodge for responsibility; powerless, developing countries are picked on by the rich western ones who have already exploited the world’s resources and people. This is China’s favorite argument as to why it shouldn’t have to limit its carbon output, even though it now pollutes more than all of South America and Africa combined.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at a few more myths crucial to the Party’s rule.


9 Comments

  1. I always get so tired from those arguments. Chinese should learn how to debate, instead of using false arguments. I have the same experience as you, it always boils down to the fact that China is still a developing country. There are more rich people in Guangdong than in the whole of the Netherlands! As a final resort, they always use “China has so/too many people” in the context of nationwide issues or “Chinese people are different” in the context of health-related matters. Best example of the latter is justifying all the beliefs surrounding pregnancy and what you absolutely can/cannot do. How can you debate like that….

  2. Rick says:

    I am in Shlanghai as I write, staying in the Bund area. There are still many needs in China but as I see a medium sized “super yacht” down on the river and Audis and Mercedes driving the streets, I agree that China now has the same questions to answer as any other developed nation. Does China want to rule the world? I doubt it – they just want to exploit it like those before them have (usually) done.

  3. Bill Rich says:

    You forgot about the aggressive invasion of islands in the West Filipino Sea.

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  5. […] few days we’ve been exploring a few of the myths the Party sees as central to their rule (here and here). Today and tomorrow we’ll be taking on the the most controversial one, that […]

  6. George Ding says:

    Hey Tom, love the site.

    When it comes to denying China’s ambitions, you neglected to mention the most famous defense of all: The Zheng He Proof. I’m sure you know it. It goes something like this: In the early fifteenth century, Zheng He sailed to the coast of Africa, Arabia, and all around Southeast Asia and didn’t invade, conquer, or subjugate any peoples–instead he brought gifts to these far-flung societies. This shows that China is a peaceful country and does not harbor any imperialistic intentions.

    I used to think that all these arguments were just politics weaved in sophistry but recently I’ve been increasingly uncertain. Recently, at dinner with my parents and relatives, who are well-educated and relatively wealthy, I brought up the Paracel islands dispute. They made the aforementioned Zheng He argument, railed against European imperialism, and defended China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea. They said that China would never act like America or Britain before it, and you know what? They actually believed it.

    I’m not sure if that makes them pawns or if they possess an insight into the essence of Chinese ambition that I am not privy to. But it made me second-guess myself: could China really be the only country in the world that does not harbor imperialistic ambitions? Of course not, but I realized that in their minds they were right. China doesn’t want to rule the world, because from their point of view a great swath of the world already belongs to China.

    Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, and the myriad islands in the South China Sea for sure. But also Mongolia, parts of Russia, even northern Vietnam. Any land that “Chinese” people, notice that term becomes very elastic in arguments like these, have set foot on belongs to China. No politician would admit that, of course, as it makes for a terrifying foreign policy; and China has lost, in one way or another, the latter set of territories; but as far as I can tell, this is the starting point when you talk about Chinese sovereignty with a Chinese person.

    So China doesn’t want to rule the world, it just wants to regain its former power and control. The problem is, to the rest of the world, that desire looks an awful lot like imperialism.

    • Tom says:

      I think the Zheng He argument is a very interesting one, but it should be tempered with the fact that China’s borders have grown considerably since the Qin dynasty to include Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. Other early dynasties pushed into Korea and Vietnam. It’s also important to consider that when Zheng He’s voyage ended China was closing itself off from the outside world, so it is very hard to know what exactly the next step would have been after acquiring so much new information.
      I think what Zheng He teaches us is that at that moment China had no colonial aspirations, and for much of the colonial period China was the one being colonized.
      Today, China’s reach seems to be slowly growing, with “outposts” in Africa, South America, the South Pacific, and even Idaho. Given that China still hurts over their past weakness, I wonder if the gov’t is trying to compensate for that past.
      Excellent thoughts all around though, and I’m glad you shared them.

  7. Tim Corbin says:

    A government that forcefully keeps in line anyone who might want to leave (ie. Tibet, Xinjiang) and has 1500+ missiles pointed at another (guess who, http://bit.ly/jBQWqH) will never convince anyone that they have no interested in controlling other nations. The whole “we’re a peaceful” country line doesn’t fly when you abuse, mistreat, don’t trust, and are afraid of your own people. If China starts ensuring justice, equality, and a whole lot of love at home first, then they’ll get some some credit.

  8. Yaxue C. says:

    The Chinese Communists are not known for doing things in good faith if you look at its 60-year rule. If you look at how it bullied, threathened, coaxed and retaliated other countries to try to thwart the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Liu Xiaobo, it examplies what and how China (that is, China under Communist rule) may do to the world.

    When I heard the Prime Minister said on CNN that China loves peace and all that, I couldn’t help laughing. Whether Mr. Wen is sincere or not is irrelevant here; you have to ask yourself this: In a country where a Prime Minister can be “disappeared” overnight and never heard again (Liu Xiaoqi, Zhao Ziyang at their times), in a system where the rule of law is selective and a servant of the Party’s interest and the government is not elected by the people, a statement like that mounts to no more than a wonton blip, whether it comes from the President, the spokesperson of the Foreign Ministry, China Daily, People’s Daily, CCTV, wherever.

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