China's Small strategy: Beijing faces many hurdles to shape a broad, consistent international approach

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed Jan 9 14:27:33 UTC 2008

China's Small Strategy (1)

Beijing faces many hurdles to shape a broad, consistent international approach

 by Francesco Sisci

Professor Wang Jisi in a[1] groundbreaking paper suggests that China
should consider drawing its own grand strategy and throws some initial
suggestions about the main points of this strategy. The idea of the
paper is already revealing as it implicitly admits a few things. It
says that China does not have a grand strategy. Moreover, what may be
described as grand strategies of the past imperial times cannot work
in present circumstances. In the past China did not try to expand its
limits of influence and was happy to be self contained within its
historical boundaries. The world beyond the Chinese world was non
important for many reasons. Presently, with the globalization of trade
and the global search for resources, this ancient formula simply
cannot be re-enacted. Thirdly, the Maoist dream of expanding the
Chinese influence through revolution and the export of "volunteers"
world-wide is too irksome, to say the least, to other countries and
also it can't work. Modern China does not have the ideological drive
of Maoist times, and its present sense of national interests is too
strong to win over convincingly other countries to its goals.

Wang mentions that some "internal factors" make difficult for China to
have a grand strategy. We can try to spell out these internal factors:
They are China's weak "publicity" stand on some contentious issues
like human rights, Taiwan's independence, the return to Tibet of the
Dalai Lama, the pro-independence forces in Xinjiang, et similia. We
can almost see it: whenever Chinese leaders and ambassadors are at an
international conference they first pray there are no dissidents
shouting protests at them. Before these protests they feel often
inane, responding to them with arrogance, force or stunned silence.

In either case the international audience feels that even Chinese
officials know that they are wrong in cracking down on these
dissenters at home. This, in turn, reinforces the feeling at home and
abroad, that the system does not work as it makes every Chinese,
leaders and normal people, lose face with foreign audiences. This
predicament presently is redressed only by the sheer weight of Chinese
economic and political might. Everybody tries to be polite with the
Chinese guest, clear the premises of controversial issues and people,
otherwise the Chinese will be unhappy and retaliate. But this behavior
vexes everybody, including the Chinese, and it ultimately strains the
deep fiber of international ties, nobody can speak frankly, behave
naturally for fear of the Chinese unreasonable spoilt brat.

China may have many reasons for its stand on human rights, on Tibet or
Taiwan, but often these reasons are either not spelled out or
expressed in a manner that cuts no ice with the international
audience. In some cases China's reasons can be simply wrong, and thus
sooner or later the country will have to change its stand if it wants
to win the hearts and minds of the global village. Without those
hearts and minds, which thanks to international communication include
also some Chinese hearts and minds, there could be too much pressure
to bear even for mighty China.

Perhaps also in order to cope with these problems, Wang suggests that
China should learn from the past US experience, and cites the cold war
as a seminal moment for the US foreign policy. Certainly if China
wants to become a world power it has to learn from the past
experiences of other world powers. Chinese past history offers little
lessons on the subject. Chinese emperors never aspired to a global
reach, and even in their region of influence they were happy to be
surrounded by buffer states, which dealt with farther threats. They
were happy to build some kind of political cocoon shielding them from
distant troubles. The Maoist ambitious thrust abroad was a byproduct
of the Soviet one with the goal of global ideological indoctrination.
Both failed miserably, and not for lack of effort.

Wang then rightly points at the cold war US as successful example to
follow. But China perhaps, should not take this example alone. The
"American empire" was built also on the foundations of the British
Empire, and the British imperial vision left an important ideological
legacy to the US. American present fondness for human rights derives
from the original messianic drive of many of the first settlers, and
it stems partly also from the Imperial British strong respect for the
rule of law and the principles of humanitarianism that brought London,
for instance, to abolish slavery in 1833. Another common element of
both "imperial" visions is the sought cultural continuity with the
Roman Empire exemplified also by the lasting influence of the
revolutionary 1781 (eight years before the French revolution) Edward
Gibbon's "History of the Decline and fall of the Roman Empire".

This monumental work was accompanied by the rendition in English of
all classical Latin and Greek literature, that in turn directly or
indirectly, were fed into the imperial educational system and thus
contributed to mould the way of thinking of all those who have been
approaching the empires.

Presently China has recognized the political importance of cultural
influence, and sitting on thousands of years of history it is uniquely
positioned to project its influence far and wide. It is opening its
Confucius Centers teaching Chinese all over the world, and youngsters
are swarming in, eager to learn the difficult language. Yes, compared
to the language of incumbent empires, Chinese is just that: difficult.
English can be mastered in a couple of years of intense study, Chinese
can take twice or three times that time.

Moreover, as English is becoming more an international language its
grammatical standards have been lowered, to adapt to the lower
language proficiency of non-native speakers. Modern Chinese, although
simpler than that of one hundred years ago, is far from lowering
expectations. A crowd of set phrases (chengyu), obscure cultural
references to Zhuge Liang or Li Kui (who are these guys?) still riddle
Chinese common parlance. Chinese is not simply a language; it is a
different cultural world where an expression like "pyrrhic victory"
(used all over Europe, from Lisbon to Moscow, referring to the 282-275
BC war between Rome and Tarentum) means nothing. India, through
centuries of British colonization, has learnt to be bicultural and
bilingual. China escaped colonization but it remained monolingual,
although in the past century it translated in Chinese most of western
classical and modern culture.

Here we have a huge cultural gap hindering the spread of Chinese
cultural influence in the world, and also the full participation of
Chinese people to the global intellectual and political debate. More
foreigners learning Chinese will help, but in the short and medium
term it will not cut down significantly the distance between the
Chinese culture and the Anglo-American one, nor will it significantly
expand Chinese cultural influence.

For this, the shortest and safest way would be the systematic and
authoritative translation in English of all Chinese classics. This
could begin from the detailed and massive dynastic histories, and all
historic literature, which could shed also light on many world events.
Moreover, China should embark on a massive program to make young
Chinese bilingual in English, enrolling native English language
teachers and sending them to backward areas, where education can
really make a difference. At the moment, some 200 million Chinese are
studying English, many on their own, and the result is showing, but
much more is necessary.

The massive presence of Chinese classics in English and of fluent
English speaking Chinese people could help foreigners to understand
better, more subtly and deeply, the Chinese way of thinking and China

However, this opens the even more sensitive home front.
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