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Which “China” Is It? And What Does This Mean?


Below is the text of Dr. Ford’s remarks to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) seminar at the National Defense University on June 15, 2016.

Good morning, and thanks to Tom Blau and the National Defense University for inviting me.  As a long-time Congressional staffer, I have had many opportunities, over the years, to work with GAO and to benefit from the expertise that GAO brings to the table across virtually the entire breadth of the U.S. public policy space.  I must confess I still think of GAO as the “General Accounting Office” rather than the “Government Accountability Office” – a habit which is probably starting to date me – but it’s a pleasure to talk with your group from GAO’s Defense Capabilities and Management unit today.

Tom asked me to speak about how to think about military, economic, and domestic developments in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and their implications for our national security planning, and I’m happy to do so.  Please bear in mind that these comments are just my personal views, and do not necessarily represent those of anyone else in the U.S. Government.  I hope you’ll find my remarks interesting anyway, however, and that they’ll help catalyze a good discussion afterwards.

China, of course, is a huge and diverse country – certainly big and varied enough that a great many things can simultaneously be true that might seem, separately, to point in different directions by way of overall policy conclusions.  I’d like to talk today about what I’ll call the “two Chinas,” by which I mean the two competing narratives of China that exist in the heads of the U.S. foreign policy community, both of which are supported by at least some of the information that really is out there about China.

I.          The Optimistic View

A.        Domestic Affairs

Let’s start with the optimistic view.  In domestic affairs, the PRC is clearly no longer “Communist” in any intelligible way – at least to the extent that Communism is an economic organizational model for state ownership of the means of production that is hostile to the idea of private wealth and market-driven activity.  Communism or socialism “with Chinese characteristics,” as PRC leaders have sometimes called China’s turn toward market-oriented growth, has often seemed to be merely a euphemism for something that is really more like “capitalism.”

What’s more, the PRC’s new, quasi-capitalist economy has boomed over the last generation, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of the abject poverty in which decades of economically irrational Communist planning and Maoist revolutionary insanity had left them, and creating a sizeable new middle class and consumerist culture.  And this new China is becoming a sophisticated place, a vibrant information environment with widespread use of smart devices and Internet-facilitated communications and commerce, and with increasing access to modern – and sometimes nearly state-of-the-art – technologies and techniques.

News out of China in the last few years has also brought much coverage of an anti-corruption drive that is said to be working to identify wayward, self-enriching officials and hold them strictly accountable. On the whole, moreover, the PRC leadership has been characterized in the post-Mao Zedong period by a notably pragmatic willingness to adapt flexibly to the challenges of managing a large, diverse, and rapidly-changing economy.  This pragmatism and flexibility has enabled it, over the years, to handle circumstances that sometimes led outside “China-watchers” to suspect that the end was at hand for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

B.        International Affairs

To continue the optimistic side of the story, it is clear, in the international arena, that the modern PRC is very different from the ideological, reactionary, militarist, and often predatory Soviet empire of the Cold War.  Beijing has been building up and modernizing its strategic nuclear forces, for instance, but with nothing like the breakneck pace or saber-rattling bellicosity of Soviet arms racing, or even that of the Putin autocracy in Russia today.  Thankfully, there is no modern Sino-American analogue to the fraught armed standoff between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces across the Fulda Gap and elsewhere along Europe’s central front.  It has been more than six decades since U.S. and Chinese forces actually killed each other during the Korean War, and it has been many years since the United States and China funneled aid, training, and arms to proxy forces killing each other in Third World conflicts.

In contrast to our situation vis-à-vis the USSR, we are also today economically entangled with China in what are very deep ways – and ways of which millions of Americans evidently approve, such as providing our consumers with affordable products, and buying the bonds that our government sells in order to spend beyond its means on the entitlement programs for which we Americans keep voting.  More broadly, China’s export-driven economy has helped give rise to an expansion of trade and economic growth in the region and around the world. By historical standards, as strategically disruptive, rising powers go, the PRC is nowhere near the worst of the lot.

On their own terms at least, these elements could be read as powerfully supporting a very optimistic narrative – belief in which PRC leaders have tirelessly encouraged for many years, and indeed one that our own China policy community embraced for a long time.  By this account, the PRC’s rise is to be welcomed, and any teething pains associated with Beijing’s arrival on the world stage will work themselves out over time.  Markets, money, and modernization – so the argument goes – will gradually work their transformative magic and bring about political liberalization, eventually turning China into a consumerist quasi-democracy that looks ever more like us, and with which we can look forward to a comfortable future of mutually-beneficial engagement.

II.        The Other Side of the Story

A.        Domestic Affairs

Of course, I’m playing a little bit of hide-the-ball here, for there is a lot of additional information out there which could just as easily be read to point in a very different direction.  China’s domestic situation, for instance, is far from rosy or fundamentally reassuring.  To begin with, Communism or socialism “with Chinese characteristics” may be more capitalist than Communist in terms of basic economic theory, but isn’t our type of politically pluralist, rights-governed, and democratically-accountable capitalism.  Instead, it’s a statist, autocratic, crony-capitalist mutant, which Nicholas Kristof years ago termed “Market Leninism” – with the point of emphasis being upon the centralized political dictatorship that the Leninist organizational model implies.

Corruption, moreover, is endemic and epic in proportion, being all but baked into the CCP’s basic governance model, with fabulous riches accruing to the families of the senior Party bureaucrats who have the influence to protect and advance their clients’ interests within the country’s opaque and democratically-unaccountable power structure.  President Xi Jinping’s much-heralded “anti-corruption” campaign seems to have focused less upon actually eliminating corruption than upon ensuring sterner intra-Party discipline and persecuting those who, while likely indeed corrupt – as most Chinese assume most of their leaders to be – happen to be Xi’s bureaucratic rivals or opponents.  Tellingly, as journalists from Bloomberg detailed before Chinese government pressure led to the disbanding of their investigative journalism unit, the huge wealth that mysteriously flows to the families of top Party leaders has included the extended family of President Xi himself.

Far from liberalizing to suit the presumed political needs of his increasingly middle-class subjects, in fact, Xi seems to be going in precisely the opposite direction – overseeing the fiercest crackdown on dissent the PRC has seen in many years.  Xi has been strengthening the Party’s autocracy through increasingly heavy-handed methods that have included mass arrests of human rights lawyers, harsh moves against nongovernmental organizations, crackdowns on independent thought in the academy, persecution of Christian churches and Muslim religious groups, ever-stricter standards to govern what can be said in the press or the carefully-curated Chinese Internet, and the imposition of more stringent ideological and propaganda discipline across the breadth of China’s diverse information space.  Xi even seems to have abandoned the CCP’s modern emphasis upon cautious, collective leadership, cultivating instead a more personalized style of “strongman” governance that has indulged itself with occasional cult-of-personality flourishes reminiscent of Maoist days.

Meanwhile, promises of political and economic semi-autonomy for Hong Kong – solemnly given upon the PRC’s takeover of the former British Crown Colony in 1997 – are today being steadily betrayed, with the territory’s political structures being pushed into subservience to CCP dictates, accompanied by cross-border police kidnappings of private booksellers and other steps to cow Hong Kong’s hitherto relatively independent-minded media environment.  Meanwhile, Muslims in Xinjiang Province seethe and sometimes erupt into violent protest at their treatment by Chinese authorities, while a second railway is gradually snaking across the mountains to Tibet, where restive locals fear it will help conclude the final subjugation of what remains of a Tibetan culture and society deeply resentful after nearly seven decades of military occupation and repression.

Perhaps most worryingly for the outside world, the Chinese economy is slowing notably – enough, perhaps, even to call into question the sustainability of the implicit bargain struck between the CCP and the Chinese people after the 1989 massacre of protesters on Tiananmen Square, whereby in return for not challenging their deprivation of political rights, Chinese were at least permitted to get rich quickly.  What’s more, it’s becoming clear that China’s economic expansion has been built to a disturbing degree upon skyrocketing debt burdens, with CCP provincial and municipal officials meeting their obligatory growth targets by borrowing for capital-intensive construction and infrastructure projects that show up as growth in short-term GDP statistics but may in time prove more burden than benefit.  (It is also now clear that the technological aspects of China’s economic expansion have revolved in important part around the industrial-scale acquisition of technology and intellectual property from foreign originators, in part through large-scale theft.)  Foreign observers are beginning to wonder how long this economic model can survive, even as they wonder whether the CCP’s political model could survive economic retrenchment and stagnation.

Lacking democratic accountability, the Party has grounded its legitimacy in simple claims of “merit.”  In effect, this argument goes, the Party deserves absolute power because its cadres are uniquely wise, benevolent, and competent – the only people capable of successfully ruling China and steering it to a new era of greatness.  But such virtuocratic conceptions are inherently fragile and unstable.  They do not permit leaders to admit mistakes, and they ill-accommodate reverses.  Moreover, claims to virtuocracy create special temptations for leaders to scapegoat and undertake dangerous and destabilizing witch-hunts against the evil subversives or malign foreign influences who, it is axiomatic, must be responsible for whatever problems have arisen.

B.        International Affairs

And that’s just the domestic front.  Since the early 1990s, the Party has increasingly been cultivating a highly jingoistic Chinese nationalism.  The CCP has encouraged such populist enthusiasms in an effort to provide legitimacy for its rule, but this has entangled China ever more deeply in ugly revanchiste aspirations to return the country to glory and to give a geopolitical come-uppance to an outside world felt to have robbed China of its natural position of global centrality and inflicted a “century of humiliation” upon the Chinese people.

As the PRC’s power and strength have grown, it has moved away from the non-provocative strategic approach epitomized by Deng Xiaoping’s old maxim about the need to “to bid our time and hide our capabilities,” and into a posture of ever more belligerent assertiveness and self-aggrandizement.  Most obviously, Beijing has in the last few years forcibly seized enormous swathes of the South China Sea that are claimed by its neighbors – creating what it hopes will be unchallengeable “facts on the ground,” as it were, by building up small islands from almost literally nothing, encrusting them with military bases to garrison these posts against all comers, and contemptuously rejecting all efforts at international arbitration.  China is also engaged in a massive build-up of its conventional military power, including forces quite explicitly intended to be capable of global power projection, even while its diplomats are increasingly active in demanding deference to China and a norm-setting role for Beijing on the broader international stage.

All these developments, of course, are hardly reassuring.  They point to a China that is becoming both increasingly illiberal and perhaps increasingly unstable – and yet one that is now sufficiently strong to indulge worryingly aggressive instincts and predilections for bullying its way toward some vague concept of future Sinocentric glory.

III.       Implications for China Policy

So which of these “Chinas” is the “right” one?  I would submit that part of the analytical challenge of China policy is that both of these narratives are to some degree true.  This is one reason why our most easily-available conceptual models do not apply well to the question of China’s “rise.”  The PRC is clearly neither just another “troubled modernizer” – to use Ashley Tellis’ phrase – that needs our help in order to become just like us, nor is it just a 21st Century analogue to the former Soviet Union.  Our relationship with Beijing needs to figure out how to cope with the coexistence of “cooperative” and deeply “competitive” elements, and that is tricky new analytical territory for us.

I would argue, however, that as we struggle with China policy today, we need to pay special attention to the “competitive” side of things, for at least two reasons.  The first is that the “competitive” side of the relationship is the one which so much of our China policy has traditionally ignored or downplayed, enthralled by the self-flattering assumption – which Richard Madsen has called the “Liberal Myth” of China – that the PRC would eventually become a liberal democracy like us.  It might well be true that the Chinese people themselves want this, but it has become increasingly clear that this is the furthest thing from the CCP’s mind.  Moreover, if there is a clear sense in which the Party wants China to be “like us,” it is merely that the PRC covets the United States’ stature and position at the hub of the global community, and wishes to acquire something like that for itself.  As we struggle to build a new approach today, we need to make sure we put old myths behind us and focus more upon the competitive aspects that we previously dismissed.

The second reason to focus more upon competitive strategy now is that this is just good strategic sense.  I believe the old conventional wisdom of the “troubled modernizer” was dangerously optimistic, and that it led us to ignore fairly obvious signs of a troubling Chinese geopolitical ambitiousness and revanchisme that riches and military strength now seem to be giving Beijing the chance to indulge.  But even if you are inclined still to stress the optimistic portions of the China narrative more than I am, basic principles of strategic planning would seem to suggest that hardwiring our China policy to that old conventional wisdom wasn’t actually very wise.

From a strategic-planning perspective, non-preparedness for competition only makes sense if you have complete confidence that your environment is not structurally competitive.  The penalties for error in this direction can be quite high, so unless you’re awfully sure there’s going to be no problem, you ignore competitive strategy at your peril.  In our case, we acted as if we were sure there was no real long-term challenge from China’s rise, whereas in fact it was just that we hoped this was the case.  As we finally begin to understand that China’s rise also has a dark side, we’re struggling with what to do.

Unfortunately, we are still finding it difficult to adapt to our growing understanding.  I think a new paradigm is slowly taking shape that appreciates the potential threats presented by the PRC’s geopolitical ambition, but we are still perplexed by what to do about the threats in light of the implications this understanding may have for us at home.

The problem is that to accept that there is a worrying strategic dark side to China’s ambition of “return” is – impliedly, at least – to take a position on a number of broader domestic, technological, budgetary, and strategic questions at a time when U.S. engagement with and policy towards the outside world is contested and controversial in our national politics and public policy discourse.  Such dynamics entangle China policy in these questions, often to the detriment of good China policy.

After all, one of the attractions to the old, optimistic conventional wisdom was that it didn’t require much of us except to sit back and enjoy the strategic windfall from a world of globalized prosperity and peace that would emerge all by itself, through natural economic processes.  (Indeed, to hear some tell it over the years, the only way this cooperative “win-win” future would not occur was if we actually prepared for a competitive one: if we acted like the PRC might become an adversary, it was said, we would make it one.  Thus did unpreparedness rationalize further unpreparedness.)  This absolved us of having to do the hard intellectual work of strategy, and it avoided us having to struggle with challenging issues of planning and prioritization, the management of military and geopolitical risk, and the need to find sufficient resources for our military and diplomatic posture in an increasingly complex environment.

Today, I suspect, our emerging, more realistic understanding of the dark side of the PRC’s “rise” unsettles some stakeholders in our public policy community because it asks us to do that kind of hard work.  The CCP knows this, and it has been an aim of Beijing’s propaganda strategy for years to offer us every opportunity to take the easy psychological, budgetary, and programmatic way out. But I believe we must genuinely struggle with these challenges, however hard work it might prove to be.

That’s why I value the chance to speak with you today.  GAO’s Defense Capabilities and Management group is involved in many of these issues of budgetary and programmatic challenge as our country shapes its planning and posture to the strategic environment we face.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these matters.

Thank you.

-- Christopher Ford

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