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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 15:04 03/09/2007
February 14, 2005

The Chinese Phenomenon and a Realignment in Asia

Akio KAWATO (GLOCOM Fellow, Associate Professor at Waseda University from April)

1. A point of no return

(1) "A new and even bigger Japan" has emerged

I visited China last November. Even in my previous trip nine years ago China startled me by its development, but this time I was shocked. As far as Beijing and Shanghai are concerned, I can safely say that their development passed the point of no return. Big cities are inundated with high-rise office and apartment buildings, and on the way from Shanghai to Hangzhou (it takes two hours by a 150km per hour chic, modern train) one cannot find any "idyllic rural areas". Instead, there is a 300km belt of office buildings, factories (many are Japanese) and large mansions of rich people. But why are there so many high-rise buildings in China today? It may be for the efficiency of investment. Anyway, the view is very majestic and yet even suffocating.

The ancient living area in Beijing, Hutong, is now almost extinct. My guide told me that people happily leave Hutong for new apartment houses, which have individual toilets and even baths. So far the demolition has been fairly easy, because all lands belong to the authority (Now people are becoming conscious of their rights, resisting evacuation, though in many cases they are just attempting to get a better deal).

Now traditions are neglected for the sake of "development". In this sense the Chinese are very Japanese as well as American, although a drastic change in culture has been a norm in Chinese history. Mongols built Beijing in only ten years. "A new and even bigger Japan" is emerging.

(2) Economic reforms proceed steadily

My guide in Beijing was a lady about 30 years old. She started a small company with one of her friends and does consultation business. There is no institutional and social inhibition to start private businesses, though many students still prefer to work as government officials. Government salaries are not bad and job secure. The Chinese nowadays can obtain passports easily, even by mail. I know as an ex-official how difficult it is to achieve even such a very small deregulation. About 25% of industrial production still come from state enterprises. However, they are now free from a number of burdens like paying pension and building local schools and hospitals (These works have now been shifted to local municipalities. Many of them are not up to their obligation, causing arrears in pension, etc.).

Alas, deregulation of the press leaves much to be desired. In spite of the large number of foreigners in Beijing, I could not find any analogue of "The Moscow Times", an independent English newspaper for expatriates in Moscow. My guide recommended me new journal, which, she says, is "quite open and does not hesitate to reveal wrongdoings of officials". I scanned the journal and found that it is similar to Soviet publications during the Andropov era. It is allowed to criticize corruption, but cannot report about feuds in the leadership and criticize their policies.

(3) What is the Communist Party?

Communism in its original form was a dictatorship of the elite by the masses. They nationalized all means of production, hampering further development for the sake of fair distribution. Today the Chinese Communist Party is "dominated by rich people", as one academic in Beijing told me. This confirms my belief that communist parties are not so much ideological as administrative.

In the Soviet days urban party committees were in charge of supplying vegetables and other daily commodities and rural ones were in charge of agricultural production. Administrative organs did exist, but the Party was the last resort for coordination of many interested ministries. The best and the brightest opted for jobs in the party apparatus. When the Party was prohibited by Gorbachev from engaging in the Soviet economy, the entire economy began to crack, allowing mafias to pop out to the surface.

If the Soviet Communist Party resisted reforms, the Chinese one facilitated their implementation (though several officials are misusing reforms to embezzle state properties). The career path of Party officials is full of competition, and new policies are adopted after widespread discussion involving academics as well. Thus minimum competition and policy alternatives are secured.

The Chinese economy is still in the process of privatization. They have to make delicate decisions about to whom properties may belong. Any mistakes or wrongdoings might instigate violence or social unrest. A hasty enforcement of a plural party system can only lead to a fierce battle for material gains (Remember the armed conflict between President Eltsyn and the Russian Parliament? Politics is not so much about beautiful words as about materialistic advantage, especially in developing countries. ). We should not destabilize China. Instead, we should continue with the engagement policy to realize a gradual but steady democratization.

(4) Is yet another "Boxers' Uprising" looming?

Today there are many reports about "uprisings" in China. Will they one day form such a threat like the Boxers' uprising in 1900? I did not smell such a danger at all. The feeling is much the same as in the late sixties in Japan. Routine dominates peoples' lives. The express train from Shanghai to Hangzhou was full of well-dressed housewives, who enjoy most the fruit of the development. They were on their way to tour Hangzhou. They dominated the scene, loudly talking to each other and showing how to use their new mobile phones.

There are seeds for unrest, however. The number of university students grew in a few years from 1.5 million to 3.5 million, thus exacerbating the unemployment problem. They engage in Internet chatting, blaming Japan and USA for their misery (for the USA there are defendants, but alas none for Japan, I was told). This is the background of the "anti-Japanese feeling" in China. Japanese correspondents are scolded by their headquarters, if they do not report about the Japanophobia in China, a very fashionable topic in Japan today. Tokyo headquarters are keen not to drop a story which their competitors loudly report about. One Chinese intellectual lamented to me, "For some reason we are made 'anti-Japanese'".

As I stated above, their pension and health insurance systems are being revamped, forcing many people to rely on themselves. Old parents are fed by their children and the well-off people buy private health insurance. So, people are saving more money than in the past. The snag is that the national banks, where most of their savings lie, suffer from bad assets (loans to national enterprises). When the growth tapers off and the issue comes to the surface, then people might express their protest to the banks.

However, the entire situation (please note that my observation is limited to Beijing and Shanghai) is quite similar to the late sixties in Japan. Sporadic student uprisings (I still remember how the Marxist students violently occupied the Shinjuku railway station in Tokyo) and peoples' protests might be possible, but a nationwide revolt so far seems quite unlikely. The development in China has long passed the point of no return.

2. Restudying Chinese history

(1) The Nature of Sinocentrism

China has been a void in our minds for many, many years. "One day the forgotten neighbor unexpectedly knocks at your door and you find a giant standing in the doorway"-these are the words of one Chinese economist. China finally awoke from its long hibernation, regaining the dominant position it had in the 18th century.

Before they are incorporated into today's world (very different from the 18th century), both they and we need to reexamine Chinese history in order to avoid either an overestimation or an underestimation of this great nation. First of all what is Chinese history? Is it the history of the Han Chinese or the history of the Chinese land? The Hans have not been the dominant forces in this region. They constantly mixed with other nations. This region saw the first unification during the Qin dynasty in A.D. 221, long after Egypt and Babylon and four hundred years later than Persia. What is more, the first Emperor of the Qin dynasty, with blue eyes, might have had a nomad origin. The surrounding "barbarian nomads" constantly took part in Chinese politics and economy, and in some occasions became dominant forces in the society. Indeed, today's large geographic span of China owes to the Mongolian Empire (Incidentally, Russia, China and India, the three large entities in Eurasia succeeded the Mongolian rule). The nomad's military dominance (their superb snipers on horses had no match at that time) made it possible.

So, China is not a homogeneous nation. It is per se a multinational state, though nowadays a majority of them associate themselves with the Hans (if only one of your parents is a Han, you can select the Han nationality).

(2) Does Sinocentrism always mean aggression?

As stated above, the Hans are not so much aggressors as "victims" of the surrounding nomads. Like the Russians they have a notion "Much suffering Hans". True, they used to have an international system to subjugate the surrounding countries: in politics the Cefeng regime and in trade Chaogong. Once during the Japanese medieval time the Muromachi Shogunate obtained official recognition as King of Japan from the Minh Emperor, and the Japanese export to China was considered to be a "tribute" to the Emperor (This subjugation lasted for only less than ten years, though).

One has to note that in many cases in Chinese history the subjugation was inverse and the concept of Cefeng and Chaogong was used as a mere fig leaf to conceal Chinese subordination to the nomads. The sinocentrism, Zhonghua thinking, still remains to be a mere effort to recoup their national pride and lacks an aggressive motive. It reminds me of the Russian theory about the"Third Rome". However, one should note as well that China did not hesitate from invading the surrounding countries, especially Korea and Vietnam, whenever they found an opportunity. China should be engaged, but at the same time it should be contained.

(3) "We will neither seek hegemony nor isolate ourselves. We take part, trying to jointly change the rules of game."

These are the words which one Chinese academic told me. It sounds very reasonable. This is mainly because they need a peaceful environment for their nation-building. Success of the International Exhibition in 2006 and the Olympic Games in 2008 is an absolute imperative. At least until then they do not want any unrest with Taiwan. They condone the American presence in Asia, particularly because "The Americans are the only force which can restrain the Taiwanese leadership. And we highly appreciate the recent remarks made by State Secretary Mr. Powell, strongly suggesting that the US would not support the independence of Taiwan." ---These are the words of one Chinese academic. In my trip this time I did not hear any criticisms about the Japan-US joint development of the missile defense system and about the transformation of the American armed forces in Asia. Only one expert cautioned me, saying "Japan tilts too much towards America. More weight toward Asia would be needed".

3. How to place Japan, the US and China in one basket that is Asia

(1) A tectonic change in Asia

As briefly stated above, China is regaining its dominance in Asia. The Opium War, the Sino-Japanese War and the Boxers' Uprising took a heavy toll on China. The reparation it had to pay amounted to more than seven years of their state revenue. It is China along with India that suffered most from colonialism. They have a legitimate right to recoup their previous status.

Today's Asia is much different from two hundred years ago, however. The US has a dominant presence both in security and economy, and Japan matters far more than in the 19th century. The ASEAN countries continue to develop, forming an entity as big as China.

Nevertheless, the rise of Chinese power will bring a tectonic change to the politics and economy of Asia and perhaps even of the entire world. The trade between Japan, South Korea and China is quickly growing. Very soon China will be on per with the US as a trade partner with Japan (it has already become the biggest trade partner for South Korea). It is no secret that Asia depends on its exports to the US for its growth, but for the US too, Asia has become an indispensable partner in her exports and investments. Anyway, the aggregate economic strength of Asia is on per with the US or even surpasses it.

(2) The sixtieth anniversary of WW II and Japanophobia

2005 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the WW II. This will be particularly delicate for Sino-Japanese relations. Just after the war approximately one thousand Japanese officers and soldiers were executed as war criminals by the allied forces and the countries occupied by Japanese forces. The Tokyo court brought a death sentence to seven "war criminals" and life sentence to sixteen. Thereafter, when Japan and the Chinese People's Republic established diplomatic relations in 1972, China dropped its claim for war reparation from Japan, saying that Chinese people do not have any enmity against Japanese people, who were forced into the war.

Since then Japan actively helps China in its economic development. It has provided China with grants, technical assistance and soft loans (thirty to forty years for repayment and a very low interest rate) of approximately fifty billion dollars. Thanks to this, China could rapidly build its economic infrastructure such as ports, railways, highways, subways, sewage and steel mills, thus forming a basis for foreign investments later on. Japanese companies have already invested more than twenty five billion dollars in China.

During Zhao Zemin's rule Japan's private business made a gigantic advance into the Chinese market, while political relations hit a snag. Zhao Zemin was very keen on bringing to the hearts of Japanese the sins they committed during the war. I do admit the sins we committed toward the Chinese during the war, but the way by which Mr. Zhao handled this issue antagonized many Japanese who thought their leaders had made official apologies to the Chinese a couple of times.

Meanwhile, the rapid development of China gave birth to social opinion. As freedom of speech is limited in publications, those who are discontent with the government began to use the Internet to express their opinions. In several cases their sites may be manipulated or funded either by authorities or foreigners, but it is certain that the government does not have enough capacity to put them under its control. Those who take part in the debates consider that the "corrupted and selfish government officials" are not doing enough to defend the interest and dignity of China vis-a-vis Japan and the USA.

However, the general feeling toward Japan is not so extreme. Ordinary people are busy with their own struggles to stay on the surface in the rapidly growing society. And many of them fear that the deterioration of the political relations with Japan might reduce inflow of Japanese investment. Local authorities' concern is similar. If they cannot prevent an open demonstration of xenophobia, their region might not see any new factories and what is more they might even get sacked by Beijing. The central government is committed to maintaining good relations with Japan and the USA for the sake of further development and maintenance of stability. I was told by a number of Chinese experts that China needs the presence of the US in Asia because the US is the only force which can prevent Taiwan's move toward independence. The Chinese government would not officially raise the issue of the Senkaku islands to Japan, either.

Therefore, the general atmosphere, as I already mentioned, reminds me of the late 60s in Japan. The majority of the people were busy doing their jobs, while a small group of students became radical, and at one time, even violently occupied a railway station in Tokyo. On that very day, people read about the "students' revolt" with great interest, but never thought that they were on the eve of a wide-spread mutiny.

I recall yet another precedent in Asia. In 1974, during Japanese prime minister Mr. Tanaka's visit, local students revolted against the "over-presence of Japanese companies" in their own countries. But this did not cause an exodus of Japanese companies. The Japanese government amended its diplomatic course toward these countries and ASEAN became one of the most important partners for Japan. A similar thing may well occur during Japanese VIPs' visits to China in the near future.

In any case, however, I can safely say that Japan and China are capable of getting along and that they have no other alternatives.

(3) Will Japan tilt toward Asia at the expense of the US?

When Admiral Perry forced Japan to open its ports in 1854, Japan was not an independent player in his eyes. Japan was needed only for the convenience of the American whale hunters and Sino-American trade. And Japan's defeat in WW II perpetuated Japan's status as a minor political power.

Today, Japan has become the closest ally for the US. Japan pays three fourth of the total expenses of the US troops stationed in Japan. Japan finally sent its defense forces to Iraq, adopting a special law to overcome a possible conflict with the Constitution, which many in Japan consider is against the Constitution. The US-Japan relations are now at their peak.

However, a peak can be followed only by a descent. Many Japanese, who used to love America, feel disenchanted. They do understand that the US is now "in war", but they do not feel that they are given a plausible explanation about why the WMD were not found in Iraq. They also do not understand, why Japan's wish to become a permanent member of the Security Council of the UN is not seriously reckoned with in spite of all the contributions and sacrifices Japan has made for tens of years. I still remember the cynical question posed to me as Council-General in Boston, "Does Japan really deserve to become a permanent member of the Security Council? What are you able to do?". It is just like bullying a person whose hands are tied.

During the Cold War, Japan needed the protection extended by the US, because the alternative would have been a subjugation to the Soviet Union. Today things are much different. China is rapidly growing, casting off its previous backwardness and lack of democracy. It will soon become the largest trade partner for Japan, overtaking the US. The South Korean society is very similar to Japan's society with a wide middle class strata and a well-developed pop culture. China is now following South Korea's suit. For the first time in history, the three East-Asian powers may become natural partners.

(4) A need for an international arrangement for co-existence

Notwithstanding my statement above, a hasty policy change will bring many unforeseeable risks. For example, Japan should not attempt to oscillate between the two super-powers, the US and China. Such maneuver is impossible for a democratic country. It is technically impossible to take an equivocal position toward the location of American troops in Japan. Therefore, changes, if any, can be only gradual (but steady).

The US will not be able to count on its military predominance forever. Firstly, the US society will not permanently approve constant warfare abroad. The US can not deploy its armed forces without the consent of the interested countries either. Secondly, overdependence on military means has dealt a severe blow to the American moral strength to convince other nations. To wage a global war against terrorism without solving the Palestine issue will be very costly too.

Some other form should be engineered for the security of the US and the entire world. It is even more so in Asia where big powers meet each other, but there is no viable collective arrangement like NATO, OSCE and EU. The status quo in Asia is maintained mainly by the security treaty between Japan and the US, or to put it more frankly by the sheer power of the American armed forces with bases in Japan.

For the time being, the US presence in Asia is even welcomed because of Taiwanese and Korean issues. But where there is no Soviet threat, the sole supremacy of the US can not be permanently justified in Asia. The growing power of China necessitates a serious discussion about future collective systems in Asia. Otherwise, we might end up antagonizing China and miss an opportunity to build a collective system for co-existence. We should not create another Soviet Union out of today's China. China can become hegemonic, but by then, we should have created a collective regime, in which big powers like the US, China and Japan can coexist, preventing each other from aspiring for supremacy (this system is very similar to that of the EU).

Perhaps there could be a number of collective security systems in Asia: North-Eastern, South-Eastern, and South-Western parts. With such arrangements US bases and use of American armed forces will have a clear justification. Each regional arrangement will further address issues like: confidence building, mobilization and use of armed forces against terrorism and international armed conflicts.

While the USA is preoccupied with Iraq, a fundamental change is taking place in Asia, the future locomotive of the world economy. We need a discussion on this as serious as the one on Iraq.

(Submitted on January 1, 2005. Reproduction of this article requires the author's consent.)

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