China


Much happened at the recently concluded Munich Security conference, but I am particularly interested in the speech by the outgoing foreign minister of Germany, Sigmar Gabriel. Some interpreted the speech as an attack on China and its Belt and Road Initiative, seeing the speech an accusation that China is trying to take over the world. However, if you actually look at the text of the speech, you will see that he has relatively little to say about China or Russia, or indeed the Korean peninsula – except to frame the speech in terms of a substantially changed world. Instead, he is most concerned about the way the United States is disappearing from the scene (as someone else pointed out, it is like watching the collapse of the Roman Empire). Gabriel worries about the fragmentation of the ‘liberal’ – that is, bourgeois – world order, imploring the USA to get involved again and suggesting that Europe as a whole needs to step up. All of this was far more accurately reported by Deutsche Welle.

But what did Gabriel say about China? He does say that China (implicitly Chinese Marxism) has a very different approach to the world, which is not a bourgeois liberal one focused on ‘freedom’, (bourgeois) ‘democracy’ and ‘the individual’. True enough, and I too am against this kind of world ‘order’. However, Gabriel also observes that China is the only global superpower that has a ‘truly global, geo-strategic’ idea, which it pursues consistently. Most importantly, he says that he is certainly not reproaching China for this project, for it is China’s perfect right (das gute Recht) to develop it.

The problem, however, is that Europe does not have a coherent answer. What type of answer? An alternative to China? No, what is needed is a new approach of shared values and global balance rather than a zero-sum game. Sounds remarkably like Xi Jinping’s ‘community of shared future for all’. (Another piece in DW indicates how China and the EU are already moving closer).

On this note, it is worth noting that Fu Ying (chair of the Foreign Relations Committee of the National People’s Congress) made it clear at the conference that China is not interested in a ‘competition of systems’. While she pointed out that the ‘Western’ system so beloved by Sigmar Gabriel (and others) has raised as many problems as it has solved, China is not interested in replacing it. To quote the article further:

But as China becomes stronger, questions and worries outside of China emerged.

What does it mean when China vows to “move closer to center stage”? Does it mean China is prepared to replace the United States and playing a “leading role”? When China offers “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach”, is that tantamount to China exporting its development model?

Fu answered to these worries by saying “We wish to play a role in world affairs and make an even greater contribution to mankind. But it must be done within our means and in a manner consistent with our values.”

She emphasized that China has only offered a new option to countries that seek rapid development while retaining their independence, “but this does not mean that China’s model and ideology are to be exported.”

 

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This one is causing no small brouhaha among reactionary Roman Catholics and others. Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who is chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, made the following observations in an interview:

“Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese,” a senior Vatican official has said.

Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, praised the Communist state as “extraordinary”, saying: “You do not have shantytowns, you do not have drugs, young people do not take drugs”. Instead, there is a “positive national conscience”.

The bishop told the Spanish-language edition of Vatican Insider that in China “the economy does not dominate politics, as happens in the United States, something Americans themselves would say.”

Bishop Sánchez Sorondo said that China was implementing Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si better than many other countries and praised it for defending Paris Climate Accord. “In that, it is assuming a moral leadership that others have abandoned”, he added.

As part of the diplomacy efforts, Bishop Sánchez Sorondo visited the country. “What I found was an extraordinary China,” he said. “What people don’t realise is that the central value in China is work, work, work. There’s no other way, fundamentally it is like St Paul said: he who doesn’t work, doesn’t eat.”

Bishop Sánchez Sorondo concluded by saying that China is “developing well” and now has “many points of agreement” with the Vatican.

I never thought I would be quoting the Catholic Herald, but there you go. All of this is part of a serious historical deal in the making between the Chinese government and the Vatican over the appointment of bishops. For the last few centuries, there have been two Roman Catholic Churches in China. One is officially recognised by the state – the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) – and the other is not. A root cause of their difference is an old problem: who appoints bishops, the state or the Vatican? The officially recognised church has bishops who are recognised by the state, while the unofficial church does not. This has been the status quo for the odd century or three.

Now a breakthrough is in the works. Pope Francis has actively encouraged a deal in which future bishops would be appointed by a process that includes input from the government and the Vatican. Things move slowly in the Roman Catholic Church, since this little conflict goes way back to the efforts by Matteo Ricci and then the ‘Rites Controversy’ of the 17th and 18th centuries. But now it may well be resolved and the two branches of the Roman Catholic Church in China may become one – following the model already in place in Vietnam.

Needless to say, Chinese commentary has seen this as a positive development (here, here and here).

An interesting survey from Gallup, based on interviews and telephone conversations with 1,000 people in each country.

The result: the global approval of US leadership in 2017 dropped to 30%, behind Germany on 41% and China on 31%. Both Germany and China remained at the same level from the previous year, indicating stability.

Some graphs tell the story:

GL 01

Notably, Russia and the USA are quite close to one another. Now for the disapproval rating, which for the USA sits at 43%:

In the Americas it has shot up to 58%:

I am most intrigued by the last graph, which indicates how much the approval/disapproval rates have shifted in different parts of the globe:

 

In much of Europe, the Americas, central and southern Africa, south and south-eastern Asia (including Australia in this last group), it has plummeted, while parts of northern Africa, eastern Europe and Russia have seen an increase! Not sure it will make much difference in Russia.

However, the danger of such graphs is to enhance the idea that Trump’s USA is an anomaly, in contrast to the ‘golden age’ of Obama et al. All manner of concerted efforts are underway to generate this impression, whether blaming the Russians for meddling, questioning Trump’s mental stability, or indeed asserting that his election victory was the result of purely racist elements. Instead, Trump is merely a symptom of a much longer trajectory.

 

While I am on new year addresses by communist leaders, Xi Jinping has given an upbeat address as well. Notably, he has recovered the use of ‘comrade [tongzhi]‘ in all his addresses, after it had slipped out of common usage for a while. For example, in this speech, he begins with ‘Comrades, friends, ladies and gentlemen’. And he is known as ‘Comrade Xi Jinping’.

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The following is the text of the preceding video:

A central aspect of democratic practices in whatever type of democracy we are thinking about is the role of criticism. How does criticism work in the Chinese situation of socialist democracy? A common international perception of China is that nearly all criticism is simply squashed down; it is censored and you cannot engage with it. This is actually not the case.

Criticism works in a number of ways in a Chinese situation. First of all, there is a long socialist tradition of what is called ‘criticism and self-criticism [piping yu ziwopiping]’. This tradition also meshes with Chinese culture in a way that is pervasive and productive. But there is a fundamental distinction between constructive criticism and destructive criticism. Or to put it another way, there are certain boundary lines. So it is very common to identify a particular problem, a shortcoming, and propose a constructive solution to that problem. But what is not accepted is a solution that would lead to the destruction of the current situation in China. So the boundary lines are there: forms of criticism and constructive criticism that are very much encouraged and fostered.

My experience in China as a foreigner, who spends more and more time in China, is that the range of criticism and debate is incredibly wide. But there is a really experience in China. Chinese people are extremely sensitive and can pick up very, very quickly the following: if a foreigner disdains or looks down on China and Chinese culture and Chinese people, they pick this up immediately. As a result the mode of engagement will change. You do not have to say anything, but they can sense it immediately. And you will certainly not get access to many dimensions of Chinese life.

But if people can discern that you are what they call a ‘friend of China’, then everything is different. The range of debate is much wider, the possibilities of constructive criticism are much greater, so much so that contributions from foreigners too are fostered and encouraged.

For anyone who is thinking of spending some time in China, it is very important to be aware of whether you are going there with an implicit attitude of looking down on China, or disdaining or dismissing it, or whether you want to go to China to understand, and at least to try and come through as someone who is open and is a friend.

A snippet from last year’s MOOC, ‘From Mao to Now: On Chinese Marxism’.

Two other aspects of the rural revitalisation under way in China: Red Army primary schools and rural revolutionary centres. Over the last ten years, more than 200 primary schools have been established in rural areas to specialise in teaching children about China’s revolutionary spirit and history – alongside regular education. In the enmeshed socialist market economy of China, much of the funding for the schools comes from donors, especially families with a history in the Red Army.

Further, the revolutionary training centres have been revived in order to engage with farmers about new developments in rural policy and its implications. In an age of easy access to internet information, it is felt that good old face-to-face engagement is still far better. So local party members and officials, often from villages themselves, organise discussion groups in order to discuss and plan new developments – and, crucially, to gain feedback from farmers themselves so as to shape local implementation. These ventures are the modern form of Jiangxisuo (‘teach and study centres’), the Peasant Movement Training Institutes run by the early Chinese Communists, including Mao himself.

These developments are part of Xi Jinping’s and the CPC’s focus on the rural areas, since farmers are, after all, the heart of the CPC.

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