Goodbye, 2013... Hello, 2014

Impact of 3 regional trends on China

The China flag at a commercial district in Beijing.
The China flag at a commercial district in Beijing. PHOTO: REUTERS

Changes in the region, especially shifts in people's political expectations, are changing Chinese mindsets

CHINA'S policies concerning the East and South China seas during 2013 have been reported in varying ways. Some are defensive while others are alarmist.

Among the defensive at one end is the argument that China is doing for the airspace proximate to the country's coastline what the United States has done for airspace in the same area a large ocean away from it. So why should there have been such an uproar when China imposed an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea?

At the opposite end are accusations that the Chinese are trying to change the international status quo, which is something that is sacrosanct and must not be altered.

In addition to comments on what internal politics might have determined China's external decisions, there is also much debate about China's security calculations that caused the switch in diplomatic position from quiet to assertive.

In all this, the change in leadership in China has caught the most attention as one of the main reasons for the change. The Hu-Wen team of 2003-2013, comprising President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, was constrained to deliver high rates of economic development and initiated nothing in foreign affairs. It was content to see the US tied down in the Middle East and obsessed by homeland security. China could quietly reap whatever benefits it could find.

The new team of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang promises changes in style and direction. What that means has been the subject of speculation all year.

Clearly, domestic events influence external policies and attention has been drawn to the conditions within China that led the new leadership to sharpen its tone where foreign and defence issues are concerned.

The current position, reflecting new strategic thinking, is for China not to explain but to counter-attack any criticisms of its actions and make accusations in reply. That has attracted finger-pointing at China's assertive nationalism.

There are familiar scenarios here.

Western commentators are reminded of the events in Europe that led to the unwanted World War I that broke out 100 years ago. That alone could lead to sleepless nights.

In Asia, one would recall the change in attitude when Mao Zedong, after years of comradely relations, began to rail against Soviet "big brother" behaviour under Nikita Khrushchev. The USSR also did not like to see a dependent China seeking changes to what it saw as the status quo. The result was increased tensions and a breakdown in relations.

However, there are other dimensions that reflect the external influences that impact on public reactions within China. One example is the perception among most Chinese of America's economic decline since the financial crisis of 2008. Together with the re-deployment of US military power, this is something easy for the Chinese to understand.

China's history since the 19th century shows that the Chinese elite is quick to grasp issues of military superiority and economic strength. The danger is that issues of might and wealth will become the only ones the Chinese take seriously. What is harder for Chinese leaders to acknowledge is that they have anything to learn about successful governance. They are confident that their political culture enables them to cope with any challenge in that realm.

For example, the party-state has replaced the emperor-state.

The ideology of Confucianism-Legalism can be replaced, although the Communist Party failed to do that with Stalinism-Maoism. However, it still hopes to find a pluralist socialist version to establish new canons for the future.

Chinese history suggests that providing law and order, educating the people and ultimately enriching them will satisfy most people's needs. That would assure long-term legitimacy for any system of rule. And should the Chinese Communist Party falter, a similarly structured party could take over.

It may therefore seem enough to look at key domestic changes for clues to explain China's behaviour abroad. But that would underestimate the dynamic external processes that, intentionally or not, impact on Chinese political culture today.

Three indicators call for closer attention.

First, the national elites in China's immediate neighbourhood, notably in Korea and Asean, are collaborating and learning from one another. From their anti-colonial struggles against imperialism after the end of World War II, they have worked together to steer the region through the consequences of the Cold War as well as its aftermath.

Although the US and its allies still seem to behave as if the Cold War has simply shifted its focus from Russia to China, the new nations are more confident about how to deal with global realities. Their current political relations with China are nothing like what its imperial dynasties had with them in the past.

These nation-states are comfortable with the rules of inter-state behaviour developed by the older industrial powers and have their own views about how such norms might, if necessary, be modified.

Second, political expectations among the peoples in the region have risen to the point where people are not passive subjects that governments did things for but are citizens who can ask what they want from their functionaries. It is not a matter of using the ballot box and responding to public opinion surveys. Hopes can be strongly manifested in the streets and public squares.

The Chinese elite knows that the US and its allies had used popular participation to produce regime change elsewhere and would be watchful of any attempt by them to do so in China. But, whether intended or not, the expansion of political expectations requires that modern states be seen as working for the people if leaders wish to bolster their legitimacy. A more demanding culture has come to stay.

Third, the relationship between the individual and any collective is radically changing under global marketplace conditions.

This too has impacted China and is particularly obvious in the cities and towns that are most exposed to external forces. These are also the places where citizens are well positioned to challenge corrupt and abusive authority.

To understand the political ramifications better, Chinese scholars and officials have been studying various models of local and urban government in the developed world. They know that while China has learnt a great deal from abroad, its administrative system still lacks the qualities the Chinese people need to evolve the standards of civility that they now want. The challenge to find shared values in modern urban living has become urgent.

All three indicators point to external forces that are impacting daily on China and its people. They are steadily changing people's lives, hopes and demands. These in turn affect the attitudes people have towards political responsibility.

It is thus not enough to look for specific domestic reasons behind China's diplomatic practices or the actual changes in their leaders' international calculations. We need to add to that a better understanding of how changes in political activism, especially in the region, are influencing the lives and mindsets of the Chinese people.

We also need to monitor the growing diversity of China's dreams and assess the capacity of the more than half a billion urban citizens to inspire fresh attitudes to global affairs.

The writer is chairman of the East Asian Institute and university professor at the National University of Singapore.