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Demons That Possess America and China

Posted by on 2009/08/19. Filed under Opinions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

By David Kelly, UTS
Aug 19, 2009 – 9:06:22 PM

Furious criticism in both the Australian and Chinese press has been at an all-time high this past week. ‘Australia must bear the cost of the deteriorating Sino-Australian relations’, proclaimed the Huanqiu shibao. This level of acrimony surprises. Having scanned a wide range of Beijing media, I recall few headlines like this one—even from the Global Times, a broadsheet whose nationalism sometimes borders on jingoism. The Australian press has acted little better than its Chinese counterpart. <http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25920872-5013460,00.html>Greg Sheridan told the Uighurs they have to fight it out in China—which is possibly the least diplomatic piece of advice ever offered by a Foreign Editor of The Australian in the history of the journal [LINK]. While this past week set a record for arrogant bluster, by Friday the tensions were eased by placatory statements from both sides, most noticeably the Chinese.

It’s not over, not by a long shot. While blown out of all proportion this skirmish highlights some troublesome issues of information asymmetry and cognitive dissonance in the Australian-Chinese relationship. Information asymmetry is mainly an Australian problem, and I have<http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25777609-7583,00.html>recently discussed it in an editorial elsewhere. The problem of cognitive dissonance needs some explaining, and a parallel with the United States is useful in doing this.

Leslie Gelb is a veteran American policy intellectual. A prolific writer, his career stretches back to two years as director of the Pentagon Papers and he remains a force on the Council on Foreign Relations. His recent addition to the pages of Foreign Affairs, ‘<http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/64966/leslie-h-gelb/necessity-choice-and-common-sense>Necessity, Choice and Commonsense’ argues that ‘the United States is declining as a nation and a world power. This is a serious yet reversible situation’. Gelb offers a striking vision of US foreign policy that is periodically possessed by three ‘demons’: ideology, partisan politics, and arrogance. China’s demons are similar to Gelb’s American demons, inverted in the mirror of Chinese history and institutional path dependencies.

What can you do when you are possessed by a demon? You can always get an exorcism. But exorcists must understand the infernal forces involved before they begin.

One classic symptom of demonic possession is paranoia. Paranoia disarms people’s normal critical faculties and gives them an excuse to misread evidence. Take Rebiya Kadeer’s appearance at the National Press Club in Canberra. In Chinese, the National Press Club is rendered as the ‘State Press Club’. It is difficult to make a clear distinction in Chinese between an organization ‘belonging to the state’ and ‘being nationwide’, so the misreading is understandable. Yet if you ‘know for sure’ that Australia is conspiring against you the actions of a ‘State Press Club’ are sure, incontrovertible proof a conspiracy, and you will warily listen to any explanation that the ‘State Press Club’ is in fact an nationwide entity independent of the state.

Gelb’s demon of ideology includes concepts like the ‘American Dream’, the ‘can-do’ ethos, and blind faith in native formulations of ‘freedom and democracy’. China’s official ideology still has demonic elements to it, even though it lacks the folk roots of American ideology and is largely a political construct. Because there is only a solitary Party in power embodying a solitary set of correct ethical norms, Chinese ideology has relied on a series of rigid formulae like ‘Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’, ‘Important Thought of the Three Represents’, ‘Scientific Development Outlook’, and so on. Many of these concepts are so out of alignment with actual policymaking as to appear practically non-operational. Nonetheless they (along with more recent formulations like ‘social harmony’ and ‘stability at all costs’) are venerated by the media with a cult-like devotion. To the outsider these concepts are little more than feel-good patriotic pabulum. But they can be put to a serious use, for example in propagating negative ideological notions. One of these is the notion that the West conspires to trap China into subscribing to something called ‘universal values’. These must be resisted wherever possible. If Australia’s National Press Club claims freedom of expression, for example, this is re-cast by the ideological demon into an unwelcome enforcement of such ‘universal values’ as democracy, freedom and civil society, the desirability of which has been <http://www.upiasia.com/Society_Culture/2008/07/08/chinese_argue_over_universal_values/1008/>fiercely denied in China in recent years.

Gelb considers America’s partisan politics to be an even more insidious demon than ideology. Partisan politics encourages political actors to ‘out-tough’ each other when taking the international stage. This was a factor in the series of wars which were simultaneously disasters and, in his view, historically vital lessons. The PRC is willing on occasion to take a ‘tough’ line in international affairs, but its major disasters have been of a different nature than America’s. The problem is that in China political manoeuvring is opaque, because leaders are unaccountable and must present themselves with an air of infallibility. This means that when mistakes are made, those responsible rarely pay the appropriate political price. Mistakes accumulate and learning is arrested. Because of this China’s internal politics are inherently more worrisome than America’s.

On a range of international issues China’s leadership wants to be recognised as a great power on par with the US. The demon of arrogance threatens to make the lessons that China draws from the US the wrong ones. For instance, many believe that while the US succumbed to its internal weakness, China will not; that if China decided to prosecute a war on the scale of the American campaign in Vietnam, no emasculating anti-war movement would be permitted; and so on. Once again the Chinese version of this demon is more fragile than the American version yet all more menacing in its practical consequences.

When Gelb introduced his American demons, he was an American writing to an American audience about problems with American politics. It may seem out of place for a foreigner to exhibit China’s demons in the same way. But what China desperately needs now—a need <http://star.news.sohu.com/20090817/n266016328.shtml>acknowledged by a considerable number of people in the Chinese intellectual world—is to step back and ask: how does China look to the rest of the world? There are many ‘others’ to confront when one does this. Yet the Chinese defence against this urge has been to unify all different voices into a single fanhua(‘anti-Chinese’) monotone, and this deafness to the variety of other voices is certainly part of the problem. It is not that fanhua shili (‘anti-Chinese forces’) don’t exist—they do. It would simply be best if China did not give them undue ammunition. China has enough real problems as it is.

David Kelly is Professor of China Studies at the China Research Centre, University of Technology Sydney.


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