What's China Thinking?

Mr. Wasserstrom is a professor of history and director of the East Asian Studies Center at Indiana University, and a writer for the History News Service.

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What is China thinking? It's a question worth asking because the Chinese government has already defied conventional wisdom not just once but twice this year. First, in the spring, it took a surprisingly hard line toward the nuclear posturing by Pyongyang that has placed North Korea at the center of a diplomatic storm.

Now it's taking a surprisingly soft line toward massive protests in Hong Kong that have directly challenged Chinese Communist Party (CCP) policies and yet have not been suppressed by force.

It's tempting to link this unexpected behavior to the change in leadership that occurred when Hu Jintao replaced Jiang Zemin last November as the leader of the Politburo's powerful Standing Committee. But we shouldn't make too much of Jiang's passing of the baton: he has not really let go of the stick, since he still controls the military.

A better way to view Beijing's recent actions is as creative efforts to ride out a long-term legitimacy crisis dating back to the Tiananmen upheaval of 1989. Seeing recent actions this way will help us better understand what makes the government of the world's most populous country tick. And this should help minimize the volatility that too often characterizes U.S.-Chinese relations.

The Hong Kong crisis (triggered by protests against "Article 23," a series of measures that will limit press freedom and other civil liberties if enacted) and the North Korean one are very different sorts of affairs. Yet taken together Beijing's efforts to defuse the former crisis and take advantage of the latter one illuminate the strengths and limitations of a rhetorical strategy the CCP has relied upon for more than a decade in its struggle to regain legitimacy.

This rhetorical strategy involves playing a two-card game. Domestically, the party plays the Remember-History Card, stressing how much it has done since taking power in 1949 to make China stronger, richer and more independent.

Internationally, the party plays the Forget-History Card, calling attention to ways the current era differs from the chaotic Cultural Revolution decade (1966-1976), when the CCP was less dependable, since it was prone to let ideological dogmatism trump rationality.

The party has often talked about North Korea when playing the Remember-History Card. Beijing's ability to aid a neighbor threatened by "imperialist aggressors" in 1950 is hailed as a glorious turning point in the CCP's transformation of China into a great power.

Even better, according to this line, China and North Korea successfully fought the United States to a standstill in 1953. This "victory" was trumpeted loudly in 2000, when the 50th anniversary of the war's start came during a troubled phase in U.S.-China relations. Now, in the year of the ceasefire's 50th anniversary, the Party has begun to integrate Korea into its Forget-History rhetoric. Beijing suggests that Mao would have rashly sided with North Korea against the United States in such a crisis as today's, but China's very different current leaders realize that the sensible thing to do is to broker talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

While the Korean crisis illuminates the two-card strategy's flexibility, the Hong Kong crisis reveals its vulnerabilities -- and Americans need to understand both of these to make sense of today's China.

This is because, when playing the Remember-History Card, Beijing has insisted that 1997 was a "liberation" for the people of Hong Kong, who were finally freed from colonial rule when Britain relinquished control of the territory.

Hong Kong protesters have called this vision of history into question by claiming that 1997 was a just a moment of transition from one form of colonial rule to another -- the only difference being that Beijing replaced London as the distant capital calling the shots. Some measures included in Article 23 resemble old British treason and censorship laws, they point out, and many local officials seem more concerned now with pleasing the CCP leaders up north than in doing right by Hong Kong's citizens.

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The threat posed to Beijing's use of the Remember-History Card helps explain why the CCP has refrained from using force against demonstrators, tabled implementation of Article 23 and sacked two unpopular local officials.

Students of the Chinese language all learn that there is a character, 'ji,' which appears in both the compound for crisis (weiji) and the compound for opportunity (jihui). What we see with the North Korean crisis is Beijing trying to turn a weiji into a jihui.

In considering these two crises, Americans have a unique opportunity to better understand a regime that often confuses us. We should make the most of this jihui.

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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