China’s coyness at odds with its increasing influence

China’s refusal to clearly spell out its stance on global issues will only invite groundless speculation

Kerry Brown
05 June 2010

In 2008, Mark Leonard produced a short book called What Does China Think. It set out to explain some of the current debates in China on what the country stood for, where it had come from and where it was heading. Leonard’s book got good media coverage in the West, not least because it showed just how different opinions were among key groups in China. It was a revelation for those who assumed opinion was monolithic in the People’s Republic.

Since then, Chinese intellectual debate has got even livelier. The anti-elitist nationalists of Unhappy China, published early last year, are ranged against those who hark back to the reformist liberal days of Zhao Ziyang, and who took heart from an account, published in the People’s Daily in April, of Premier Wen Jiabao’s recollections of his time with reformist hero Hu Yaobang .

Post-modernists struggle with structuralists, realists and idealists in modern China, with the odd Marxist thrown in. From time to time, even a Maoist sticks his head above the parapet, though those of his like are becoming extinct except abroad. China is becoming the land of an extraordinary ideological free-for-all.

But events like the Cheonan crisis in the Korean Peninsula, sanctions against Iran and the role of China’s outward investment show that, however important the question of China’s thoughts, the real mystery is: what does China want? The more we ask this question, the more difficult it is to define an overarching narrative.

President Hu Jintao, as the final voice of authority, talks of China’s ambition to be a “strong, rich country”. But that is not very illuminating. Does it want to control a global network of countries that are economically tied to it so it operates like a modern-day economic empire? Does it want to become a superpower like the United States, but without its tiresome overseas military commitments? Does it want to export a harmony-promoting ideology of Confucianism to counter its Western equivalent, Enlightenment values, that promote Western economic and political interests over those of developing countries? Does it want to be a regional power, or a global one? Does it want soft power – or hard?

The world wants to know what China wants, given the events that demand its involvement like the Korean crisis. Where does China see its interests in this? Is it still ideologically linked to an old, fellow revolutionary power? Does it still see its relationship with North Korea almost like that towards a vassal state? Does it fear US influence creeping up in the peninsula should the Pyongyang regime fall, and a unified Korea become possible?

Just sitting, staying silent, and protesting to the rest of the world that it has “less influence” in North Korea than everyone thinks is becoming less and less tenable now. The issue is that it does have influence there, however small, which no one else has. So why can’t it stop being studiedly neutral and start exercising some of its influence? Why, on this issue which is so important to it, can’t it say a bit more clearly what it wants?

You see this same confusion when looking at the issue of China’s enormous currency reserves. They now amount to some US$2.4 trillion. There they sit, in the central reserves, largely in foreign debt. From time to time, there are arguments about how best to use them – to invest more abroad, to think of a way of using this money in China. Critics in China complain that never has so much money been accumulated for so little practical end. Others argue that this supplies a huge security blanket. And many see it as nothing more than the symbol of the very worst of China’s over-reliance on a foreign system which could wipe out most of this wealth overnight in a foreign currency collapse.

What does China want with all this money, and what does it want to do with it? Does it have some grand plan which no one sees clearly yet? Is it preparing itself to buy up large chunks of resource-related investment? Has it some internal use for all this capital? Or should China’s foreign currency reserves be seen as the world’s largest monument to indecision ever assembled?

Caution is no bad thing. But indecision is not good. China is now internationally so prominent, politically and economically, that its coyness is becoming its most striking characteristic. It lets the US and others take leadership on almost all issues, setting out a position which it then moves around, sometimes concurring, sometimes disagreeing, but very rarely asserting strongly what it wants for itself up front.

If China wants to avoid the sort of flak that came to it from almost all directions when it did finally set out its position on climate change last December at Copenhagen, it is going to have to help the rest of the world with this question of what it wants. Because, while there are many people now who can give a pretty good account of what China doesn’t want, spelling out what it does want is surprisingly hard. In the coming months and year, it is going to have to help much more with answering that question, or put up with others making potentially dangerous, ill-founded assumptions. And that at least is one thing we can be pretty certain it wouldn’t want.

Kerry Brown is a writer, lecturer and consultant about China and Asia. He is senior fellow at Chatham House on the Asia Programme

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