China: How Fragile Is the Giant?

20 august 2019

Timofei V. Bordachev, Ph.D. (Political Science)

National Research University–Higher School of Economics (HSE), Moscow, Russia, 

Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs,

Associate Professor;

Centre for Comprehensive European and International Studies (CCEIS)

Academic Supervisor

SPIN RSCI: 6872-5326

ORCID: 0000-0003-3267-0335

ResearcherID: E-9365-2014

Scopus AuthorID: 56322540000

Tel: +7(495) 772-9590 *22186

E-mail: tbordachev@hse.ru

Address: Office 427, Bldg.1, Malaya Ordynka Str. 17, Moscow 119017, Russia

Resume: China is Russia's most important and responsible partner in the international arena. The five years that have passed since the beginning of the fundamental complication of relations between Russia and the West have shown that despite prejudices and lack of trust at the grassroots level, relations between the two countries remain friendly.

China is Russia's most important and responsible partner in the international arena. The five years that have passed since the beginning of the fundamental complication of relations between Russia and the West have shown that despite prejudices and lack of trust at the grassroots level, relations between the two countries remain friendly. Moscow and Beijing and the citizens of both countries, share common approaches toward what rights and freedoms mean in relations between states and have common values ??regarding the future world order. Therefore, it is very important for Russia to carefully consider the internal and external processes in China and to understand in which situations and circumstances our friends and allies will be limited in their actions and in which they may need our help. This is particularly important in regions where China’s foreign policy opponents have resources that allow them to relatively destabilize the situation.

Amid the mass rallies that have been going on for several months now, comprised of a significant portion of Hong Kong’s disgruntled urban population, the Chinese authorities have demonstrated incredible restraint and staying power as they continue to withstand these confrontations with protesters without resorting to the use of tough military suppression measures. However, at the same time, these events show numerous “bottlenecks” or vulnerabilities in modern China, at which its geostrategic opponents – primarily the United States, Great Britain and Taiwan – can strike. The governments of these international actors do not hide their long-term negative feelings about Beijing and its foreign policy. For the United States, China is a strategic adversary of its own making. For Great Britain, this is a good opportunity to prove its worth to Washington and to lend a helping hand in achieving the most delicate goals of US foreign policy.

Washington and London are fully aware that they are unlikely to be able to destabilize the situation in China until major problems ripen from the inside. Therefore, the importance and threat that the events in Hong Kong may have for the Chinese state’s stability should not be exaggerated. However, it is an excellent illustration of the fact that the benefits China has been receiving for decades from its integration into the global economy have a flip side as well.

China emerged as the main beneficiary of globalization and open international trade. But its state and governance model is not equipped to easily cope with challenges arising from globalization and openness. To some extent, the Chinese experience is a very good lesson for those who preach the effectiveness of a centralized development model, one that places to the forefront finding effective solutions for tactical problems, rather than the long-term health of society as an aggregate of people capable of democratic self-organization. All the more so as the present-day West shows us its willingness to creatively search for ways to overcome the existing challenges of political development. Whether the states with a more centralized leadership model are capable of doing so remains to be seen.

But these are likely the fundamental problems of the Chinese and all other societies trying to catch up with world leaders. We, as friends of China and its potential ally in rebuilding the world on a more equitable basis, are interested in learning what particular global problems of China are reflected in the current situation, to what they are attributable and what the outcome may be in the end. After all, it is absolutely irrelevant for Russia what Chinese state’s stability will be based on. What is most important is that the Chinese state remain Russia’s reliable friend in its difficult military and diplomatic relations with the West. Here, it is vital to know whether Hong Kong can undermine the stability of China and what difficulties, which China faces as an international player, these developments reflect. Let’s make it clear right away that, purely technically, the actions of the Chinese authorities are still an order of magnitude better than how most other countries of the world would have responded to riots of a similar magnitude.

To begin with, Hong Kong is, of course, not Tiananmen Square, and unrest in Hong Kong reflects only local politics and includes a significant number of citizens who were brought up under British colonial rule and whose thinking is susceptible to clichés and slogans instilled by the West. In 1989, things were different, and Beijing students and the working class were the main driving force behind the protests in Beijing. They needed actual political changes amid the policy of reform and openness that began 15 years after Mao’s death.

The protesting residents of Hong Kong are, rather, a disoriented mass which has already left behind the historically familiar lifestyle of servants that existed under colonial rulers, but hasn’t so far found its place in the new greater China, where Hong Kong, as an economic and transport and logistics center of regional and global scale, is facing an ever increasing number of competitors. Overall, the role and place of Hong Kong in the Celestial Empire as it strives to achieve the “Chinese dream” promoted by Xi Jinping, remain unclear.

For the more than 20 years since Hong Kong returned to China, national authorities and ideology masterminds were unable to offer Hong Kong residents any intelligible paradigm of their future existence in a united China, a paradigm that would replace the model of Hong Kong being a “bridge” between China and the capitalist world, which suited everyone for some time. This, of course, is a problem to be dealt with by the Chinese authorities and ways to resolve it have not so far been identified. Although, to reiterate, the scale of this problem is indicative of its purely local nature. What is happening in Hong Kong does not reflect the development problems of all China and, therefore, cannot affect the continent. Therefore, it really doesn’t make any sense for the government to use really tough measures against the protesters out of fear that the wave of pogroms and rallies will spread to the rest of China.

Second, Hong Kong is, of course, a distorted miniature image of mainland China. Over more than four decades of reform and openness, China found itself linked to the United States by millions of economic, cultural, academic and people-to-people ties. Truth be told, the United States was the main sponsor of Chinese reform and thunderous economic success in the late 1970s and the 1980s. The strategic confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union started this process. The actual victory in the Cold War between the East and the West was, in fact, achieved by Henry Kissinger, who convinced the US establishment to reject clichés of ideological differences with Beijing in order to defeat a more important adversary in Moscow. President Nixon’s visit to China in the early 1970s put an end to strategic plans of the Soviet Union.

Clearly, this historical period is coming to an end. And the main difference between China and the United States has begun to fully manifest itself and has thus increased Beijing’s vulnerability. For China, its relations with the United States, primarily economic, were closely integrated into the national development strategy and these relations were critical for the implementation of it. For the United States, these relations were important, but not critical.

No matter what, Washington believes its relations with its European allies are much more important as they are based not only on economic ties, but also on a common civilization, values ??and a military-political bloc. Therefore, Beijing finds competing with the United States much more difficult. It is no coincidence that many in China are wondering whether any policy that leads to Washington’s discontent is justified.

So far, the Chinese authorities have sought, quite successfully, to combine soft competition with the United States and the benefits derived from economic relations with that country. Hong Kong – part of the “one country, two systems” model – is a symbol of such a policy. These days, the ability of such a policy to survive and be effective is being called into question. Hong Kong and what is happening there is, of course, a serious signal for official Beijing. And, to no lesser extent, these developments offer food for thought for China’s friends abroad and a chance to gloat for its detractors, the number of which shows no sign of decreasing. How the Chinese authorities will overcome this situation will show their ability to strategically confront yesterday’s benefactors.

Valdai International Discussion Club

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