by Michael Hammerschlag Feb ‘97
Although Russia’s descent into poverty and criminality is the greatest short term threat because of their thousands of nukes (which will escape), China over the next 5-50 years will be the greatest geopolitical threat to world peace. China is now an incredibly unstable place- a spectacularly corrupt booming market economy run by ex-communist dictators with a 3 million-man army splintered into many semi-autonomous corporate fiefdoms. Fueled by 2 centuries of foreign colonialism and humiliations and the rising wealth and confidence from a 11% annual growth rate, the dictators have been using nationalism as a unifying opiate: doubling military spending in 10 years, threatening their neighbors, and occupying distant islands in strategic shipping lanes. At some point the moral vacuity and illegitimacy of the regime will bring it crashing down, with unpredictable consequences. Meanwhile the leadership spits on human rights, sentencing critics to decades of prison and torture, while the Clinton Administration, stroked by an army of lobbyists and multinationals, has tossed in the towel on both human rights and trade issues; approving MFN status regardless of China’s actions-- likely to be regarded as simple weakness by Beijing.
China is now growing by 20 million citizens/year, or 2 new Chinese every 3 seconds- a new United States every 14 years, without any real rule of law. All these people need more room--talk among neo-conservatives in China has been of “survival space”, a chilling echo of the lebensraum (living space) of Nazi Germany. Over half of China is uninhabitable, only 10% is arable. The Communist system was so oppressive and pervasive that crime was rare- as it evaporates so does any control of crime, as in Russia.
Nothing illustrates China’s subtlety like it’s relationship with Taiwan, “which China considers a renegade province”, as every news account dutifully tacks on. Baloney. Taiwan is a another country: separate for over a century, 84% native Taiwanese, boasting a 1st world per capita income of $12,000/yr, life expectancy of 75 years, 1 telephone per 2.4 people, and a (now) free democratic system. China, despite it’s boom, is still a 3rd world country-- a police state with 350 million people in poverty, 120 million displaced roaming migrants, pitiful sanitation, 1 telephone per 77 people, and an income of $2200. Last March, to signal it’s displeasure with the most independent Presidential candidate and terrorize the voters, China fired missiles into the ocean only 22 miles from Taiwan’s ports (only 2 degrees of angle would have caused them to hit the port). Missiles. China is a nuclear armed country (with 15 8000-mile missiles that could hit anywhere in the US, mobile 5000-mile missiles, + over 300 strategic nukes). Firing missiles at neighbors at the end of this century is not cool. Teng-hui won overwhelmingly, the Taiwanese mustering the courage that the US and UN couldn’t when we evicted them in 1978 for the crime of being small. Clinton correctly sent 2 carriers to Taiwan then- with the current craven chumminess I wonder if he would be that resolute. China also spent months staging amphibious armored landings and parachute drops with 150,000 men across from Taiwan, the biggest movements since the Korean War--they’ve gone so far as to list reasons that would provoke armed intervention- refusing to hold reunification talks, for example.
China has long been given a pass on civilized conduct- as an inexperienced member of powerful nations, but their international weakness has only existed 200 years, they had a previous 3300 years of experience with power politics. When they act like thugs and bullies, it’s not because of an Orient/Occident perception gulf,... it’s because they are - they are well aware of its effects. Since invading Tibet in 1950, the PRC has killed 1.2 million (according to the Dalai Lama) pacific Buddhists out of 5.4 million, a genocide on the scale of Cambodia. They also destroyed thousands (90%) of monasteries and packed the region with 5.5 Han Chinese. Tibetans are to be assimilated. In Hong Kong, in the first voluntary turnover of territory to the Communists, China will kill the Golden Goose, unable to avoid destroying the free in free market and never understanding the linkage. Macau will share Hong Kong’s fate in 1999. The Chinese have also sold cruise missiles to Iran and nuclear plant parts to Pakistan.
China has seized islands in the South China Sea- the Paracels, off Vietnam, where they built an air base, and in 1988- 6 oil-rich disputed Spratlys, where they’ve installed garrisons and in ‘95 on Mischief Reef -fortifications, thousands of miles from China, but a scant 135 miles from the Philippines, who’re likely regretting their hasty eviction of the American military. Indeed, because of the travels of a 14th Century admiral, the Chinese claim sovereignty over water up to Borneo, 3000 miles from Beijing (farther than Moscow from Gibraltar), and have threatened American carrier groups crossing the area, through which the bulk of the world’s oil sails. Against 106 major ships and subs, 870 patrol craft, and 5900 aircraft; the local nations are relatively powerless, and America hasn’t been more than “concerned”.
Trade deficits with China have mushroomed to $50-70 bil./year, matching those with Japan, while their markets remain essentially closed, through barriers, bureaucracy, and poverty. All we sell them is planes and food, but try to find a pair of nonexpensive shoes not made in China: out of 50 brands and styles, I found 1. This shifting of jobs has cost 700,000 American jobs- workers making $7-10/hr can’t compete with those making 30 cents/hr, and such economic dominance limits our freedom of action towards China, especially as China’s economy expands to exceed the US’s in 23 odd years. Executives, lured by the Holy Grail of 1.22 billion... consumers, have accepted astonishing inequities. America’s squandered it’s influence on the nebulous issue of “intellectual property”. I can’t understand why a $2 CD should cost $14... why should the Chinese?
Appallingly, US firms have helped modernize the tools of China’s oppression. Globalstar is building a cellular phone network that beams signals back through “gates” that can be tapped by police goons--another company is building a China-wide Net controlled by the government--the real Internet has way too many dangerous notions. All the security guards who seized dissident Wei Jingshen, sentenced to a 2nd 14 year sentence, carried Motorola cellular phones.
The most frightening thing about China is the mindless political swings it takes at government urging-- from the greatest human slaughter in history during collectivization in the late 50’s (30 million starved), to the destruction of education, leaders, and history in the self-immolating 10-year Cultural Revolution from ‘66, to the disgrace of the “Gang of 4”. Each time government exhortations have been able to provoke tens of millions into psychotic excesses via blatant propaganda. Now the leaders are promoting a fervent nationalism along with foreign vilification. They actually publish an encyclopedia of foreign abuses since 1800. One moment America is proclaimed a good friend, the next denounced for “blocking” the Chinese Olympics and entry into the World Trade Org., “meddling” in Hong Kong and Tibet, selling arms to Taiwan, and conspiring to “contain” China; leading to “an inevitable test of strength”, according to a Chinese political scientist. Such paranoia is 2 parts normal Chinese + Communist xenophobia and 1 part shrewd political game-playing (the crazier they are the more circumspect our actions)... but still has the potential of becoming self-fulfilling. “In Mao’s time he was able to precipitate a crisis and then control it. Even Deng could do that. It’s not clear this government can.”, worries a Beijing scholar. 4 aggressive new generals in their sixties have taken over military reins; their limited political experience and rural roots could make them dangerous, especially as central control crumbles. The leaders of Tianamen Sq. were a tiny upper crust segment- now largely crushed, imprisoned, exiled, or hiding: the longing for freedom has been mostly subsumed by the longing for wealth.
1.22 billion people, 1/4 of the world... It should engender respect but not cowardice. Sure, if their leaders ordered everyone to run East at Noon, they could change the rotation of the earth. Hopefully, that won’t be found to be a historic sphere of influence. The Clinton administration, fighting the last war, is intent on expanding NATO against an inconceivable Russian threat (They couldn’t beat Chechnya!!), while China gathers unimpeded aggressive momentum. Perhaps linking China to the world economy will have some moderating effects, but more on the world, it seems. To date a host of reckless aggressive Chinese acts have borne no costs, though we are half their market and have enormous influence.
Although we can’t and shouldn’t prevent China’s emergence as a world power, with only minimal effort, we can limit their depredations and make things better for millions of Chinese--more importantly, when the collapse of the corrupt Communists comes, we can ensure that the people who could shape a civilized society are free men, not broken prisoners. Henry Kissinger claims we should do nothing to alienate China, because, absent a permanent American presence, regional countries will of necessity.. back Beijing- so we’d risk driving them into China’s arms. Maybe. But lack of a firm and resolute position towards Beijing will force those countries into China’s embrace faster. Unopposed aggression grows exponentially.
In over 2 years in the Soviet Union, Russia, + Eastern Europe-- I was most struck by how much they admired and even loved Americans, partly because of the secrets of wealth we supposedly carried, but more for the dreams of freedom we’d inspired. Carter was pilloried for elevating human rights above real politic, but in the end it’s the most essential, crystalline, and viable American ideal.
Michael Hammerschlag wrote for Moscow News, Guardian, + Tribune, and We/Mui while in Russia from 1991-4, as well as previously for Providence Journal, Seattle Times, and Columbia Journalism Review.