»  National Review Online

July 22nd, 2002

  China: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Let's start with the bad. China continues on its road to become the Wilhelmine Germany of the early 21st century. The Pentagon report released last week shows an intensifying of the nation's military buildup, with an increase in the nation's defense budget of 18 per cent this year, from a base believed to be three or four times the "official" figure. Much of this hardware is clearly aimed at the intimidation of Taiwan, and at raising the military costs for the U.S. of coming to Taiwan's aid. That island, which has now been independent of China for longer than Andrew Jackson's U.S.A. had been independent of Britain, is the principal target of China's imperial ambitions. Current Chinese strategy seems to envisage surprise missile strikes against selected targets on the island: inflicting nothing like enough destruction to cripple Taiwan's economy, cause massive civilian deaths or cause irreparable international ructions, just enough to bring the government to terms.

Reacting to the Pentagon report — which was released in the teeth of opposition from the National Security Council, who had held it up for ten months — Secretary of State Colin Powell said he saw no cause for concern about China's military modernization as long as it does not "reflect any kind of new strategic purpose." This is an exceptionally vapid statement, even by Powell's dismal standards. What if China's "strategic purpose" has not changed, but her ability to accomplish that purpose is advancing by leaps and bounds? Powell, along with the NSC and the rest of the administration, has long since "gone native" on China. President Bush is reported to be pushing for closer military "cooperation" with China, courtesy exchanges between the two nations' military having been suspended after the Hainan incident last year. The advantage China gains from these exchanges is rather obvious. What advantage the U.S. gains, nobody has ever been able to explain to me.

Financing for China's relentless military expansion is provided in part by sales of expertise, materials, and actual weapons to anyone willing to buy. This technology includes a full range of WMD goodies; the purchasers include all the current "axis of evil" nations, as well as nations only slightly off-axis: Egypt, Libya, Syria and Saudi Arabia, for example. Asecond report, delivered to Congress three days after the Pentagon's by the U.S.-China Security Review Commission (which includes NRO contributor Michael Ledeen on its staff), urges a tougher approach to trade and technology transfers, and restrictions on access to U.S. capital markets by Chinese firms.

Nothing of the kind will be forthcoming. The administration is officially grateful to China for her help in the War on Terror, and the President himself expressed that gratitude during his visit to Beijing in February. What, exactly, this help consists of is not clear. Perhaps in the nature of things it cannot be, and we ought to give the administration the benefit of the doubt here, hoping that some significant intelligence is coming our way. (Though Lawrence Kaplan, quoting unnamed "administration officials" in The New Republic 7/22 issue, describes Chinese-supplied intelligence as "poor and exceedingly vague.") One thing certain is that the Chinese communists have seized gleefully on the War on Terror as an excuse to crush the national movement in Eastern Turkestan once and for all, by painting it as "Islamic terrorism," which it is not, except at the lunatic margins.

You will still sometimes hear the old argument, much favored by Bush-41 and Clinton, that as a prosperous middle class of professionals and entrepreneurs develops, they will naturally demand political liberalization. There is no trace of a sign that this is happening. As was the case in the Kaiser's Germany, and in the Japan of the Meiji restoration, China's rulers have the solid support of China's rising urban middle class, who see their personal advancement as depending on the maintenance of strong central control and social stability through repression of dissent. Whether there is any way to cure the Chinese of their addiction to despotic government, other than by the means that proved so effective with Germany and Japan, we shall find out, probably in the next 20 years.

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So much for the bad. Is there any good news? Well, yes. As the second of those reports notes: "The central government is severely limited by its low tax collections and must resort to deficit financing to meet the country's burgeoning demands." This is to put it mildly. China's economy, in so far as any facts about it are agreed on by the experts, dwells in the shadow of a huge public debt overhang. In the best of times this means that the People's Liberation Army has to fight for its share of the national budget; if there were to be a serious world-wide trade slowdown, China would face acute crisis.

The demographic news is good, too. As closely as China cleaves to the Wilhelmine-Meiji model of a rising bourgeoisie yoking its fortunes to those of an authoritarian state, it cannot duplicate the demographic vitality of those nations. In the Germany and Japan of a hundred years ago, large families were the norm; in Jiang Zermin's China they are illegal. They are unwelcome, too, at least among the rising classes. A striking feature of life in China today is the indifference of young Chinese women towards motherhood. One child per couple is the urban norm. To judge from the attitudes of the young professional women I encountered in China last year, one child is one too many. The Pentagon report notes the difficulty China's armed forces are facing getting recruits in a busy economy. This will only get worse; though of course, being a dictatorship, China could impose conscription without any public debate.

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The ugly? Well, the crude, bullying, sneering, self-righteous tone of official Chinese spokesmen can always be relied on to make you wonder who the hell they think they are. "I expect insightful U.S. Congress members to … do their best to avoid a detrimental outcome," sniffed a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, adding that China "unwaveringly pursues peace and independence." You have to be in China herself, watching the Chinese media, to get the full ugliness of modern Chinese communism, though. Just about this time last year I watched a very long TV news program entirely given over to a vast military parade in Tiananmen Square, massed ranks of troops moving in great geometrically-perfect blocks in the center of the nation's capital. The high point came when President Jiang Zemin, who has a major personality cult going (in spite of possessing no detectable personality), drove very slowly through the whole thing, standing absolutely rigid in an open-topped limousine, periodically calling out: "Greetings, Comrades!" To which the massed ranks replied in perfect unison: "Greetings, Comrade Jiang Zemin!" Pure Nuremberg. Let's hope those downward demographics kick in real soon.