Again, the ruthlessly pragmatic Chinese interpreted the Obama administration’s gestures of friendship as signs of weakness, and they demanded American adherence to their aims. When the president went ahead with the Taiwan arms sales and announced the meeting with the Dalai Lama, Beijing predictably lashed back.
The especially vituperative language from the Chinese is partially the result of their worldview, as Brahm argues, and also the product of their newfound confidence, as almost everyone notes. Nonetheless, the primary reason for China’s aggressiveness is its particular brand of Communism. Mao Zedong took the Soviet style of politics and emphasized its unstable features. By promoting internal conflict, he made Chinese Communism unusually volatile.
His successors have tried to institutionalize politics, but they have only partially succeeded. In recent years, they managed to avoid the vicious infighting that characterized the Maoist era, but that is primarily because Deng Xiaoping was able to establish a leadership transition plan, picking not only his successor, Jiang Zemin, but also Jiang’s successor, Hu Jintao, the current supremo.
Now, however, Deng is gone, and the Communist party’s many factions must select Hu’s replacement on their own. Hu is slated to step down in 2012, and the political maneuvering is intensifying. As it does, China’s external polices are veering to extremes. In these tumultuous times, it is generally not safe for any senior Chinese official to take an accommodating position toward the United States, especially since Hu Jintao has for years set a hard line against Washington.
Hu has done so in part to court senior generals for support in his struggle with his predecessor, who was trying to linger in the limelight. Hu’s efforts have largely paid off. For example, the military appears to have backed his somewhat successful effort in the run-up to the 17th Party Congress, held in October 2007, both to sideline Jiang and to pick his own successor. It is apparent that at the massive conclave, Hu managed to obtain the assistance of the more hardline elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in return for ever-larger increases in defense spending and promotions for hawkish officers such as Gen. Chen Bingde, who has become chief of general staff.
Moreover, the current civilian leadership team appears to have been unnerved by the rising tide of discontent, especially the ethnic rioting in Tibet and Xinjiang. Now, more than at any time since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, China’s Communist-party leaders rely on the troops of the PLA and the People’s Armed Police to maintain order — and to keep themselves in power. So it should come as no surprise that the generals and admirals have been able to consolidate recent gains, contributing to the more hostile edge to Chinese pronouncements.
The implications of the shifting of forces inside Beijing are, obviously, significant. Optimistic Chinese watchers — never in short supply in the West — have tended to ignore the internal dynamics of the ruling group, preferring instead to minimize the seriousness of Chinese behavior or to make excuses for it.
Fareed Zakaria, for instance, chalks up China’s arrogance to “growing pains” and refers to ongoing tensions as a “squall,” implying that the hostility will soon pass. The problem, however, is that Beijing’s recent truculence is fundamentally the result of Chinese Communism’s systemic instability and other regime flaws. So President Obama should understand that China, under one-party-but-many-faction rule, is not just another state. No matter how conciliatory he tries to be, Beijing will continue to pose a challenge of the first order to the United States.
– Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. He writes a weekly column at Forbes.com.