Politics & Policy

What We Should Know About China

From the May 2, 1980, issue of NR

In that controversial 1978 Harvard graduation address, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn presented a thesis which, although it is not so frequently remarked upon, is probably accepted by many scholars today. In fact, The New Yorker quoted it, early last year, as perhaps offering a clue to the events in Iran.

The Nobel Prize-winning novelist had observed: “Every ancient and deeply rooted self-contained culture, especially if it is spread over a wide part of the earth’s surface, constitutes a self-contained world, full of riddles and surprises to West­ern thinking.” He lamented the persistent belief that such areas as Russia, China, India, or the Moslem world would somehow follow the Western path toward modernization:

The blindness of superiority continues to support the belief that all the vast regions of our planet should develop and mature to the level of contemporary Western systems, the best in theory and the most attractive in practice; that all these other worlds are but temporarily prevented (by wicked leaders or by severe crises or by their own barbarity and incomprehension) from pursuing Western pluralistic democracy and adopting the Western way of life. Countries are judged on the basis of their progress in this direction. But in fact such a conception developed out of Western incomprehension of the essence of other worlds, the result of mistakenly measuring them all with a Western yardstick.

While the eponymous magazine from America’s largest city, which enlivens my travels with its humor and its com­ments on the current scene, used this as a lead-in for an ex­planation of why we failed to understand events in Iran in 1978 and 1979, it appears to me an equally good starting point for exploring some aspects of today’s seeming re­engagement of China with the Western world. Many equal­ly misleading failures of conception have resulted from the dramatic change in Chinese policies.

The post-Gang of Four leadership (some Chinese would now include Mao Tse-tung himself and refer to the Gang of Five; in either case we can use the acronym GOF), with its pledges of modernization, has evoked fervent hopes that the Middle Kingdom will now take a pluralistic West­ern approach to politics and society. Wall-posters in Pe­king are interpreted as the equivalent of an American town meeting. The visit to the U.S. by Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping had many Americans believing that China could soon be a land of Coca-Cola, Big Macs, coffee breaks, and new deodorants—all, of course, to be accompanied by a new wide-ranging openness of Chinese society to the out­side world.

But the leaders who would now have more contact with the inscrutable Occidentals are still Chinese. They will still think and conceptualize in a language which itself gives them different visual and temporal perspectives. The man­ner in which they expect to carry through the current pol­icies of the “four modernizations,” their expectations, and their interrelations with the outside world will be handled in Chinese terms—and this will from the outset preclude the incorporation of many of those aspects of moderni­zation which Westerners assume to be essential. It will also mean that Chinese approaches to foreign policy are almost certain to be different from what Westerners expect.

Historically, the Chinese have come at the world with different intellectual baggage. As Frederick W. Mote has pointed out in his very perceptive small book Intellectual Foundations of China, the penchant of Westerners for in­serting elements of their own culture into their understand­ing of others “can nowhere be better illustrated than by noting the Western failure to understand the basic nature of the Chinese world view.” He points out, for example, that modern Europeans and Americans have tended to at­tribute to all peoples the assumption that the cosmos and mankind are products of an external creator. “Assuming the fundamental analogy as a fact, Westerners in trans­lating Chinese texts have simply relied on falsely analogous expressions from our culture and read them mechanically into the Chinese texts, perhaps satisfying themselves with the ‘sense’ that they make in the way they echo our West­ern predilections.” But the Chinese have no creation myths (although over the course of time they developed some to please outsiders with whom they apparently wished to pre­serve harmonious relations).

From their view of the cosmos down to the present-day realities of incidents along their borders, Chinese experi­ence has all gone toward shaping a particular intellectual and behavioral pattern for dealing with the world. It or­ganizes human behavior and relations with non-Chinese peoples according to an entirely different set of priorities and weights. Thus, while there is clearly a duality in Chi­nese policies today—in that the leaders are Marxist-Leninists and the purveyors of a twentieth century revolutionary tradition, and at the same time the inheritors of a long dy­nastic tradition—the style and language of that duality are going to remain Chinese, and Western terms are fre­quently inadequate to convey the intellectual roots upon which Chinese Communist leaders may be basing their ac­tions.

The parallels between some of the behavior patterns of today’s men in Peking and those of their imperial prede­cessors have already become standard grist for lectures by Sinologists, many of whom are better qualified to inter­pret the subtleties of poetry than the realities of foreign relations. It is only too easy to find the antecedents for the treatment of President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger in ac­counts of earlier missions to the court during the Manchu Dynasty (1644 to 1911). The mission of Lord Macartney at the end of the eighteenth century and the resultant let­ter from the Manchu Ch’ien-lung Emperor to King George III have been discussed and excerpted in practically every college history text—that is, if China is dealt with much at all. It is possible to gloss many parts of this letter to the British sovereign in terms of the Nixon-Kissinger over­tures. For example:

In consideration of the fact that your Ambassador and his deputy [Henry Kissinger and party] have come a long way with your memorial [a message from Nixon] and tribute [Steuben glass], I have shown them high favor [lodged them at the official Guest House] and allowed them to be introduced into my presence [they even had a visit with Mao at his residence at Chung Nan Hai in the Forbidden City]. To manifest my in­dulgence, I have entertained them at a banquet [a special din­ner at the Great Hall of the People hosted by Chou En-lai] and made them numerous gifts [including two cuddly pandas for the Washington zoo].

And this remains the typical style of handling visitors in today’s Marxist-Leninist state. Like the last Dutch Em­bassy to the court at Peking before the modern era (1794- 95), I myself waited with a group of colleagues in our rooms in the Peking Hotel until the summons came for a meeting with a “very high-ranking official.” We were es­corted in a state verging on “awe” for a personal meeting with Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping. Secrecy, unexplained decisions, an aura of cultivated mystery, strict supervision over the foreign guest, the accent of politeness and cere­mony, incredible hospitality, attention to details of com­fort, and, above all, good food: such are the hallmarks of the Chinese approach to foreign guests, and to foreign relations when carried out in China. These are items which have proven remarkably successful in enabling the Chinese to win their points and gain significant concessions at little cost, as Henry Kissinger’s White House Years and the Carter normalization negotiations attest.

Another aspect of this traditional Chinese approach to the outside world and China’s place therein was presented by that most astute of all present-day China watchers, the Hungarian Jesuit L. Le Dany, in his weekly analysis (China News Analysis, June 14, 1974):

 . . . many other countries, Japan or India, to mention only two Asian countries, are no less important. Yet no myths attach to modern Japan or modern India…This is now the distinction of China alone…contemporary successors of ancient glory have created a sense of mystery enveloping the whole country. To enter China is an event; to have a talk with a high official is a privilege — one not granted to the ambassadors residing in Peking — to be admitted to the intimacy of the inner Sanctum is the treasured good fortune of a chosen few. This projection of an image of unique grandeur has been highly successful. China today is the land of myths of unique achievements.

As a part of its unique sense of grandeur, history, and destiny, China continues to view and judge the world in its own terms. This intense version of ethnocentrism has given rise to the term Sinocentrism, which I take to be an exaggerated expression of the former. For a civilization like China—and it is a civilization, a way of life, and not a modern nation-state—many factors converge to make its own way of doing things more a measure and standard for judgment than is the case for most nations. These factors include, for example, the distinctive and graphic written language of the Middle Kingdom, which carries its own historical memory; the millennia of setting the pattern for neighboring peoples; intense concentration on fixed, cere­monial patterns of behavior; and an authoritarian tra­dition of rule by a learned elite who were expected to pass judgment on all manner of subjects, personal and in­tellectual. For the Chinese, therefore, introspection finds its full measure of expression in foreign-policy behavior.

Scholars in the field of comparative civilization and the interaction of the great civilizations have found the inten­sity of the Chinese superiority complex worthy of com­ment. As John K. Fairbank has noted, “Students of other cultures can, of course, chip away at this thesis of Sino­centrism by citing similar aspects of ‘centrism’ elsewhere in history, but they cannot point to any of comparable magnitude. The tradition of Chinese superiority has now been hyperactivated, both by a new consciousness of the past century’s humiliations and by the peptic euphoria of revolutionary leadership.”

China’s intense concentration on the only entity which is truly worthy of study and of elevation to the status of a model for all, namely China, has resulted in a world view and a pattern of interaction with other peoples that remain distinctly Chinese. Relations with peoples outside of China have been expected to reflect the power, order, and morality within China. Thus the Chinese paid first attention to making their system a model which would en­sure the proper respect and deference from their neighbors. The family of nations in East Asia was not the family of equal nations known in Western international relations. The family was authoritarian, with China the paterfa­milias. And the Chinese expected the world (t’ien-hsia) to reflect the degree of virtue and harmony achieved and dis­played by the head of the family. Hence the Chinese ex­pression nei-luan wai-huan—disorder inside, calamity outside—reflecting the Chinese conviction that if rule in the Middle Kingdom had the virtue (te) and firmness which a good father could provide for the family, there would be little need to be concerned about the rude peoples be­yond the pale; they would eventually follow dutifully, like good children, the Chinese lead.

This traditional Chinese view of the family of nations remains an important source for Peking’s international behavior. As in dynastic times, the leaders of the PRC sel­dom travel abroad. It is the duty of filial children, after all, to call upon the father. Mao Tse-tung only traveled abroad twice, in 1950 and 1957—and both times it was to the Soviet Union, when the Soviets were regarded as the legitimate head of the Communist family of nations. In this respect, Hua Guofeng’s travels in Europe have in­deed been precedent-shattering. As the other side of the same coin, Chinese incursions into Vietnam last year re­flect a past pattern, in which the Chinese have felt it nec­essary to “punish” (and that is the word they used) errant children in the immediate family. As the great Manchu emperors were wont to say, “The great Emperor, sover­eign over all under heaven, looks upon Chinese and out­siders with the same benevolence; those who obey he soothes, those who rebel, he chastizes.”

The goal of international relations for the Chinese em­pire was harmony (ho) of the same order sought in inter­personal relations. That harmony could only be achieved when Chinese suasion was accepted by all who came into contact with China. Even the most intense of modern na­tionalists have felt that the restoration of dignity, power, prestige, and a rightful role of leadership, at least in the Sinitic area, would depend upon traditional values which could support the “Great Harmony.” That ardent revolu­tionary and nationalist Sun Yat-sen held this view:

China had one more splendid virtue — love of Harmony and Peace . . . The intense love of peace which the Chinese have had these thousands of years has been a natural disposition. In in­dividual relationships great stress has been laid upon “humility and deference.” …China’s ancient virtues of Loyalty, Filial Devotion, Kindness, Love, Faithfulness, and such are in their very nature superior to foreign virtues, but in the moral qual­ity of Peace we will further surpass the people of other lands. This special characteristic is the spirit of our nation and we must not only cherish it but cause it to shine with great luster; then our national standing will be restored.

Because of a unique sense of time, in which the Chinese family was expected to continue through generations like a human family, the Chinese did not necessarily have an apocalyptic view of periods of “Great Disorder,” either when the current dynasty seemed about to crumble or when, and usually at the same time, events or invaders around the borders threatened the Middle Kingdom. China had a pattern of thought whose nearest Occidental equiva­lent is the view expressed by the World War II song, “There’ll Always Be an England.” This can be termed the “China’s still there” or hai-yu-Chung-kuo (literally, still have China) pattern. The Chinese have observed the rise and fall of Rome, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, and, they say, the American Empire, and after remarking the fall of each they note that “China’s still there.”

The “China’s still there” syndrome helps us to under­stand why Mao Tse-tung could treat the prospect of a nuclear war in so cavalier a fashion—a treatment which dumbfounded both Nehru and Khrushchev—and how Chi­nese Marxists could opine that on the ashes of “Imperial­ism,” after a Soviet-American thermonuclear exchange, a more beautiful socialist society would be built. There had been in the Chinese past, for example, the devasta­tion and agony, at least initially, of a century of Mongol rule, but the following passage from an early proclamation of the first emperor of the new Chinese Ming Dynasty proved to be accurate:

From ancient times, since our Emperors governed the whole world, the Chinese formed the central power within to govern the barbarians, while the outside barbarians submitted to the rule of the Chinese. We have never heard of the barbarians that gained a footing in China and governed the whole world . . . It is an old saying that the sovereignty of the barbarians never outlived a hundred years. If tested by the present affairs of the world, the saying is only too true. At this auspicious time, the heavenly wheel of Fortune turns in our favor, and the whole of China is reviving with vigor. Among the millions of our countrymen, there would surely appear a mighty sage, who would restore China to her former grandeur, set firmly moral restraints, and save the people from destruction.

The Chinese time frame, which now has incorporated into it the Marxist schema of the successive epochs of production, indeed provides the Chinese with a different view of world events. When Deng Xiaoping assured Amer­ican correspondents that China could wait for a century for the reunification of Taiwan with the Mainland he was speaking in a genuinely Chinese manner. When the same diminutive Vice Premier addressed the Special Session of the UN General Assembly on April 10, 1974, right before his second purging by Mao, he was expressing a Chinese temporal perspective and a view of order and disorder which, although strictly Marxist-Leninist in tone, had a clear resonance with the proclamation of the first Ming emperor quoted above:

At present, the international situation is most favorable to the developing countries and the peoples of the world. More and more, the old order based on colonialism, imperialism, and he­gemonism is being undermined and shaken to its foundations. In­ternational relations are changing drastically. The whole world is in turbulence and unrest. The situation is one of “great dis­order under heaven,” as we Chinese put it. This “disorder” is a manifestation of the sharpening of all the basic contradictions in the contemporary world. It is accelerating the disintegration and decline of the decadent reactionary forces and stimulating the awakening and growth of the new emerging forces of the people.

It is because of this time frame, which enables the Chinese to think in terms of cycles or epochs, generations or cen­turies, that the late Ambassador Kenneth T. Young, who spent more long hours negotiating with Chinese Commu­nist diplomats before the 1970s than any other American, warned in an important book, Negotiating with the Chi­nese Communists, of the difficulties ahead for the United States in its dealings with Peking:

Aged in different histories and cultures, the negotiating styles of the Americans and Chinese Communists operate on utterly different conceptions of time. The Americans hurry, while the Chinese Communists wait. They contemplate historical cycles; the Americans watch the clock. The man from Washington thus consumes time; the man from Peking uses it. The Maoist ne­gotiating style spans time but does not measure it the way Americans do, because the Maoist sense of invincibility is time­less—the Chinese believe the struggle over “imperialism” will extend through a long period of history before achieving victory.

 . . . Being Chinese and Marxist-Leninist simultaneously, the Chinese Communist negotiator implicitly believes that time and victory are on his side. While the historical process may be nudged along, it does not need to be hurried, should that be disadvantageous… In operating in this framework, patience, durability, and imperturbability have epitomized Chinese Com­munist negotiators. Coupled with their sense of time and pro­pensity for patience is their complete discipline in painstaking planning for any negotiation, no matter how trivial the detail or implausible the purpose. They leave nothing to chance. They come with a paper and a reference for everything.

Small wonder that Leonard Woodcock, a United Auto Workers negotiator, who had always worked within the American hurry-up time frame, was no match for the men in Peking when as U.S. envoy in 1978 he negotiated the “normalization” agreement. So hurried was the proc­ess, he even permitted the Chinese to provide the official translation of the joint statement read by President Carter and Premier Hua Guofeng. The PRC leaders must also have found felicitous the appointment by the Carter Ad­ministration of an impatient young amateur, Richard Holbrooke, as Assistant Secretary of State to deal with their area of the world. And the problem was not only with the Administration’s official appointments. So anxious was the White House for a China breakthrough in December 1978 that consultation with State Department profession­als or others with a certain depth of experience in deal­ing with the men in Peking was excluded. Thus many of the misgivings expressed in Kenneth T. Young’s book were borne out. In the normalization of relations with the PRC, as has been the case before in our dealings with China, the deal was one-sided. As George Bush, who had been head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Peking before Woodcock, commented a few days after Carter’s sudden announcement of normalization, “We have given all and gained nothing.”

Other aspects of the Chinese cultural tradition also influence foreign policy today. Many may be subsumed under the heading of style. Even today, Chinese leaders persist in a punctilious attention to hospitality, good manners, and ceremony; they set inordinate store by these items and expect them to pay off. Such items therefore, and not surprisingly, figure in Peking’s long-range power assessments. For this reason the visit to China by a head of state may count more in their calculations than a new weapons system.

Through ceremony and the mixing of official with non-official diplomacy, the men in Peking have been master­ly in making China a center of world attention, gaining a usually favorable press and making the PRC’s views known throughout the world. A striking example of this is the manner in which American academics joined in praising China’s “creativity” during the Cultural Revolu­tion. Or perhaps we should mention Peking’s success in gaining acceptance as a spokesman for Third World coun­tries.

The ceremony which attends the visits of many foreigners to China is a part of the linking of internal and external policies, for Peking uses this as evidence of the acceptance and legitimacy of the current regime and the deference paid to it by the “outside barbarians.” However, such visits, replete with guided tours, group pictures with top Chinese leaders, cultural displays, and glimpses into the glo­ries of a timeless past, may be less ideological than some of us have assumed. In China, culture has long been an essential ingredient in politics. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Chinese have expended tremendous effort and paid what seems to us inordinate attention to the cultural dimensions of international relations. This was true of the Nationalist government from 1927 through 1949 and beyond, but the PRC has intensified efforts along these lines far beyond anything the Nationalists ever attempted.

Peking obviously believes in the long-range value of cul­tural diplomacy. And I should stress here the importance of distinguishing between “cultural diplomacy” and mere “cultural relations.” Peking now makes use of exchanges of information, ideas, art, sports, etc. in pursuit of its foreign policies. Activities which in pluralistic open socie­ties are not a matter of state concern are regarded by Pe­king as an essential state-directed arm of foreign policy. The U.S. carries on a program of cultural relations; for the PRC it is always cultural diplomacy.

In its emphasis on cultural diplomacy over the past three decades, Peking has drawn on techniques borrowed from the Soviet Union during the heyday of the Sino-­Soviet alliance to reinforce its own dynastic traditions. Many of the organizations and institutional patterns for Peking’s cultural diplomacy, including the key coordinat­ing body, the official Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, are modeled after those of Stalin’s Russia. The PRC’s propaganda handouts, such as China Pictorial or China Reconstructs, still have the look of being “Made in USSR.” As in the Soviet Union, an important dimension of China’s cultural diplomacy is the attention it gives to the mass media and its efforts to manipulate—by the skillful handling of visas, for instance— foreign reporting about the PRC.

While China’s emphasis on the cultural component of its policies draws on the tradition of “Great Harmony,” with the traditional expectation that the outside world will come to sing a Chinese tune, early Soviet guidance helped Peking to develop more centralized direction and organi­zation. The combination has made the Chinese use of guided tours, showplace communes, banquets, parades, gifts, ceremonies, and briefings doubly effective. However, as compared with some of the more frenetic moments of the Great Leap (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-69)—and even then Peking’s cultural diplomacy was well conceived—the Chinese seem now to have softened the elements of ruthlessness and rigor borrowed from the USSR. For its new opening to the West, and particularly the United States, the PRC has a sophisticated and formi­dable dimension in its foreign policy, one which uses most effectively the civility of the traditional past.

Peking’s approach to its world relations in the fourth decade of Communist rule, therefore, means that those who negotiate with the PRC are faced with a formidable and skilled adversary—and the PRC’s doctrine and pro­nouncements allow no doubt that an adversary relation­ship continues with those who reject the Chinese interpre­tation of “Great Harmony.” Cultural patterns do persist. Through the centuries the Chinese have shown a prodi­gious capacity to outwait and outwit the outsiders. They are unlikely to change this pattern. If there are lessons to be learned from the Chinese past—and I would insist that there are—it should be manifestly clear that the Chinese will set their own pace, in terms of both the timetable and the dimensions, for the re-engagement with the West. The patterns of behavior will remain Chinese, and the internal considerations of politics within the Middle Kingdom will get overwhelming priority.

There are clear implications in all of this for the United States, an especially impatient suitor to China, which will become crucial in the period of more intensive relations before us. First, we shall have far less impact on Chinese behavior and institutions than our human-rights idealists hope. Second, if we push too hard and too fast with too many people in order to make China’s modernization fol­low a Western pattern, we could push the Middle Kingdom into a period of “Great Disorder.” China’s Boxer Rebel­lion at the turn of the century was an example of cultural indigestion and xenophobia analogous to recent events in Iran. An infusion of too much of the West could result in an even more tragic paroxysm in the Middle Kingdom some years down the road. Part of the tragedy could be that such a “Great Disorder” will be handled with greater long-range equanimity and ability by the Chinese than by ourselves.

Third, China is not the field for impatient amateurs. Diplomatic professionals who have long experience in the Sinitic world, and are not pressured for instant political fix­es, can be most effective in sustaining American policies in our dealings with Peking. Fourth, over the centuries the Chinese have shown fraternal respect for those who have stuck to their principles with dignity. They have displayed a master’s contempt toward outsiders whom they have been able to flatter into one-sided concessions. Our rela­tions with the PRC will be much smoother if we under­stand that they expect to match a quid for our quo.

Finally, the international-relations game with China can­not be run as a popularity contest. The interests of the Middle Kingdom are long-range and hardly likely to be influenced by evanescent swings of popular opinion either there or in the United States.

Such are only a few cautions which emerge from any consideration of China’s cultural thrust into world politics today. The bottom line is, of course, that with China the U.S. should not attempt to do anything in a hurry.

Mr. Walker was President Reagan’s ambassador to South Korea and the director of the Institute of International Studies of the University of South Carolina.  This article originally appeared in the May 2, 1980 issue of National Review.


The Latest