Politics, Law, and Resentment on the China Coast

China’s simmering discontent with its place in the world—and, more specifically, its relationship with the West and, more specifically still, with the United States — has bubbled to the surface in several recent incidents. Forced to land on Hainan Island after a mid-air collision with a Chinese military jet, an American spy plane and its crew become the objects of protracted and acrimonious wrangling about violations of international law, the need for an American apology, and the terms for returning the craft and its crew — topped off with Beijing’s presenting the U.S. with a bill for $1 million. Having ventured across the border into Shenzhen (one of China’s most open and heavily traveled coastal cities), Li Shaomin— a Princeton-educated Hong Kong business professor and naturalized U.S. citizen—is detained on charges of espionage, joining several other Chinese-born scholars with U.S. ties who have been held on similar grounds in recent months. While Li is ultimately convicted and deported, the others remain in limbo, the non-U.S. citizens among them at significant risk of fates worse than expulsion. Having seen the chance to host the 2000 Olympics slip through its fingers a few years earlier, Beijing works hard and makes nice in a concerted and successful drive to win the Summer Games for 2008.

In installments in longer running dramas, the U.S. role in Taiwan has been a source of new, if broadly familiar, irritations. During the first months of the Bush administration, Beijing reacts with predictable indignation to new U.S. weapons sales and to the president’s apparent suggestion of a possible sharpening of Washington’s commitment to the defense of Taiwan. The People’s Liberation Army also undertakes the largest cross-strait-focused war games since the 1996 maneuvers that prompted the dispatch of American naval forces to the area on the eve of Taiwan’s presidential elections. During the same period, China plays gracious and accommodating host to an international summit of trade ministers, in the hopes that it will smooth the path to the PRC’s speedy entry into the World Trade Organization. These Shanghai meetings produce new PRC concessions that satisfy remaining U.S. demands and pave the way for what is expected to be a final round of negotiations in Geneva in late summer and final approval by WTO members of China’s accession before year’s end.

What ties these seemingly disparate events together is that they all reflect a deep-seated and well-nurtured sense of aggrieved nationalism that colors the PRC’s interactions with the outside world, and especially with the U.S. and other Western powers. Hypersensitive to any perceived encroachments on China’s sovereignty, bristling over any sign that China is not being treated as an equal, and fervent— almost desperate — in grasping for recognition as a great (or at least normal) power, this assertive and prickly Chinese mindset has surfaced in each of the recent episodes.

Old Wounds

This strain in Chinese nationalism that runs through Beijing’s engagement with the issues of the day traces its origin to the Middle Kingdom’s unhappy encounter with the West during the dying days of China’s imperial era, and particularly to the middle and late nineteenth century. From the Opium Wars of the early 1840s to the Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Rebellion at century’s end, China suffered a series of defeats and indignities that fueled the protracted nationalist revolution that the Chinese Communist Party ultimately rode to power.

At the time, the Western powers clearly and explicitly regarded China as an inferior state, not worthy of membership in the society of civilized nations and not entitled to equal rights and protections under the systems of international law and international relations which the West imposed and which ostensibly proceeded from the principle of the equality of states. Western powers required China to accept the intrusion of Western nationals into the internal workings of the Chinese state (including, for example, allowing foreigners to head the economically important Customs Service). The great powers also insisted upon sweeping immunity from Chinese laws for their nationals in China. In the foreign enclaves that dotted the treaty ports along the coast, even Chinese nationals sometimes could escape their own government’s jurisdiction under arrangements the Qing government was obliged to accept. In a still-deeper encroachment on Chinese sovereignty, Great Britain and Japan exacted formal cession in perpetuity of Chinese territory in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many of these blows to Chinese pride and sovereignty were in the service of another of the foreign powers’ demands: that an economically illiberal and closed China allow international trade on the outside world’s terms. The price for limiting and moderating these intrusions were, first, that China conduct its relations with the outside world under the rules of the international legal and political order crafted (and interpreted) by the West and, second, that China undertake reforms in its domestic order to conform more closely to Western norms and sensibilities.

These humiliations that China endured more than a century ago and the particular variety of nationalism they spawned still resonate — often in eerily specific ways— in the controversies of the moment in the PRC’s external relations.

Spies vs. Spite

When a Chinese fighter jet collided with an American surveillance plane that it was shadowing, causing the forced landing of the U.S. plane at a Chinese airstrip and the loss of the PRC craft and its pilot, Beijing’s reaction tellingly evoked the nationalist concerns rooted in China’s pre-revolutionary encounter with the West. That the U.S. undertook remote spying by aircraft was hardly shocking and gave rise to relatively little protest. The gravamen of the complaints lay elsewhere: when the crippled plane entered Chinese airspace and landed without prior permission, the U.S. exhibited a cavalier disregard for Chinese territorial sovereignty much as Western powers treated China in the bad old days. American advocates had the temerity to suggest that the plane and its crew enjoyed sovereign immunity, a stance that reeked of the nineteenth-century system of extraterritoriality and the protection from Chinese jurisdiction that it conferred on foreigners.

From the PRC’s perspective, there were three other points of friction in this incident that signaled the kind of double standard and unequal treatment in international law and international relations that had rankled in Chinese encounters with the West from the beginning: first, despite the U.S.’s Cold War practice of taking apart aircraft delivered by defectors, Washington complained about China’s dismantling of the plane; second, despite a long-standing U.S. practice of restricting or regulating aircraft that approach within hundreds of miles of sensitive areas of American coastal airspace, U.S. sources scoffingly dismissed Beijing’s suggestion (outlandish under international law) that its limited economic jurisdiction over a 200-mile coastal zone gave it some authority over the spyplane before the collision; and third, despite extensive demands from the U.S. for access to and good treatment of the American crew, Washington was recalcitrant in apologizing for the death of the Chinese pilot and the incident more broadly.

The recent instances of more terrestrially bound alleged espionage have followed a broadly similar pattern. Beijing has not responded with much outrage to American complaints that the evidence offered by PRC sources has provided scant support for charges that Chinese-born academics with U.S. ties are spies. One must look beyond any substantiated worries about the theft of state secrets for much of the offense that the PRC has taken on this issue. Here, the rather unexceptional concerns and seemingly unexceptionable demands that the U.S. pressed with respect to U.S. citizen Li Shaomin grated on PRC authorities in ways that suggest a perceived (or at least asserted) parallel between what the U.S. sought and the old system of foreigners’ immunity from Chinese justice for crimes committed in China.

Given Li’s status as an ethnically Chinese former PRC national and given the especially sharp reaction from Beijing to American expressions of interest in and concern with the fate of Gao Zhan and other PRC nationals with U.S. ties who face similar charges, there also seems to be in China’s expressions of discontent with American actions and statements an echo (whether real or contrived) of resentment over the problematic Western encroachments on the late Qing state’s ability to reach and regulate the behavior of Chinese nationals in Chinese territory.

There is, in short, a non-trivial element of spite over nineteenth-century injuries and insults in Beijing’s approach to the varied spying controversies of the first half of the twenty-first century’s first year.

War, Trade, and Other Sports

For the PRC, anything relating to Taiwan’s status inevitably raises issues left over from China’s era of humiliation. After all, it was the 1895 accord ending the war with Japan that removed Taiwan from Chinese sovereignty and that constituted one of the last and most offensive of the despised “unequal treaties.” Also, the recovery of Taiwan stands as the last unaccomplished goal in the quest for territorial reunification that has been a defining mission for all heirs to the Chinese nationalist movement that took shape largely in response to the quasi-colonial incursions that marked the decades following 1840. Moreover, there is the inescapable fact that the decisive impediment to reunification on Beijing’s terms is the American commitment to Taiwan, which the PRC views as the worst form of nineteenth-century-style imperialist interference in China’s internal affairs.

In this context, the PRC’s rather muted response to recent developments in the U.S.’s Taiwan policies— including the latest round of weapons sales and the president’s much-chewed-over remark that the United States would do “whatever it takes” to defend Taiwan— seems to be a bit paradoxical or even to refute the notion that old affronts to national dignity and sovereignty figure significantly in Beijing’s current positions and posturing. But the relative calm—which may be explicable simply as a reflection of a realistic assessment of the limited significance of Bush’s comments or a degree of relief that the arms transfers did not go further— may not mean much. Indeed, the less-than-hysterical response to American moves and statements seems less moderate when juxtaposed with the PRC’s turning down the heat in mainland-Taiwan relations, adopting a snub-and-wait approach toward Taiwan’s rookie president and leader of the long-derided “pro-independence” DPP Chen Shui-bian, and apparently deferring new initiatives until after the island’s year-end legislative elections. So viewed, the PRC’s relative upset at foreign “interference” in the Taiwan question certainly has not dropped— at least as compared to the PRC’s line on the broader issues of cross-strait relations and reunification.

Whatever one makes of such subtle and likely evanescent shifts, Beijing’s response to what Washington has said and done with respect to Taiwan policy during the first months of the Bush administration does not represent a lasting retreat from the PRC’s fundamental and recent stance on U.S. involvement in Taiwan. It remains Beijing’s officially stated view that U.S. weapons sales violate legally binding pledges that the U.S. made to the PRC in the three Joint Communiques (and most specifically in the 1982 communique on arms sales), showing— in Beijing’s view— the kind of double standard and disregard for international legal commitments to China for which the Western powers were infamous a century or more ago. More broadly, the PRC’s currently definitive statement on the Taiwan question— the White Paper issued during the run-up to the election that brought Chen Shui-bian to office— warns sternly (and more clearly than its otherwise no-more-intemperate predecessor) that “foreign interference” to separate Taiwan permanently from the mainland is a causus bellum. Putting the thinly veiled reference to the American role on the short list of reasons for scrapping peaceful reunification suggests that, for the PRC, the presence of such alien influence adds a special sting to the problem of national disunity — one that harkens back to the nineteenth-century period when the two phenomena were closely fused in the Chinese experience. Still more broadly, the PRC position on the basic question of the island’s status remains that American involvement in Taiwan is the equivalent of, say, a Soviet presence in Florida (rather than, as U.S. sources often suggest, Cuba)—something that neither the U.S. nor any other major state could be expected to tolerate, and something that therefore manifests a nineteenth-century-style disregard for China’s great power status and, indeed, its sovereignty.

The PRC’s seemingly asymptotic approach to WTO membership looks at first like an important instance of China’s setting aside old resentments. After all, a major plot line in the story of China’s national humiliation a century and a half ago was the Western demand that Qing rulers accept more open and liberal trade and play by the rules of an international economic order that the West largely created and that Western states sometimes self-servingly disregarded in their dealings with China. By the end of the 1990s, Beijing seemed poised — even eager— to do just that, albeit in a new millennium edition. Under the bilateral agreements reached with the U.S. and the EU, the PRC promised to bring its laws and practices into compliance with general WTO rules in relatively short order, even as Beijing made significant concessions to allow Western powers to cushion the impact that China’s access to the privileges of membership would have on vulnerable sectors in developed economies.

Nonetheless, the legacy of outrage over China’s nineteenth-century experiences is clearly present. The current moderate tone may reflect the importance that Beijing attaches to the economic gains it expects to reap from WTO entry. These include expanded and more secure access to foreign markets, which was a major goal when the PRC’s quest for GATT membership began a decade and a half ago, but which has faded amid general liberalization of global trade and the gradual recognition that the U.S. was not going to strip China of MFN status in the annual trade and human rights review. They include also the set of legally binding mutual commitments between the PRC and WTO members that accession agreements and protocols entail, which reformist leaders in Beijing seek to use as a lever in their struggle to press forward with an agenda of painful market-oriented changes in domestic economic policies.

However one reads these particular tea leaves, it remains the case that Beijing’s cooperative stance at the eleventh hour came only after many years of the PRC’s seeking entry into GATT and then the WTO under concessionary terms. It also remains the case that more than a few of the arguments for cutting China a break evoked the wrongs of the past. Some did so directly — for example, pointing to a repetition of past imperialist arrogance and penchants for double standards that disadvantaged China in Western demands that China enter under standard terms or undertake extensive reforms as a precondition to accession. Other arguments involved more indirect connections, for example, demanding for China the advantages accorded under GATT to “less developed countries.”  These were claimed on the basis of China’s poverty which, on the official CCP account, is largely the result of foreign powers having reduced China to semi-colonial status in pre-revolutionary times. (Notably, even if one rejects the official history and even if one focuses on economic issues alone, the shadows of the nineteenth century are still discernible. The principal near-term beneficiaries of China’s more secure and extensive engagement with the world economy are the booming coastal provinces from Shanghai to Guangdong which trace their position as China’s economic leading edge to their days as the sites of the treaty ports.)

Of more direct and immediate relevance, some of the reasons the PRC has attached such importance to entering the WTO have little to do with economics (whether trade-related or internal) and much to do with international politics. Not surprisingly for a regime that deals extensively in political symbols, the PRC has continued to address the question of WTO accession as, at least in part, a matter of according China the international status that is its due as a great power and a major economy. Anything less, Beijing’s arguments suggest, is to perpetuate or to resurrect the evils of China’s earlier encounter with the West when it was wrongfully treated as a state not entitled to the respect and equality of treatment that were routinely accorded to other states, including far lesser ones, within the Western (or Westernized) club.

The 2008 Olympics bid is a broadly similar, but less complex, story. Opponents of Beijing’s candidacy pressed the analogy to the 1936 Berlin Games, seeing a decision to select the PRC’s capital as handing a repressive regime a propaganda windfall at home and abroad. Proponents of thoroughgoing engagement, in contrast, perceived a golden opportunity to transform China by deepening its international integration and openness and by subjecting the regime’s actions to greater outside scrutiny. The Hitler analogy is overblown, as asserted parallels to the Nazis usually are. Although pursuing and winning the bid have required Beijing to pledge to abide by the IOC’s rather unconstraining rules and (in connection with the Games at least) broader international norms of press freedom and the like, any visions of a Beijing Olympics contributing significantly to liberalization in China are extravagant, as Western dreams about radically changing China — and Chinese leaders’ fears that the West will change China—generally have been. James Lilley (the American ambassador to South Korea and, then, the PRC during the tumultuous middle 1980s through the early 1990s) has suggested a more sober and measured comparison to Seoul in 1988, noting that China’s Olympics-coveting leaders may be in a position similar to the ROK’s then-ruling generals who underestimated how quickly the political ground was shifting beneath them.

But, for Beijing, there is a different, no less important parallel to Seoul `88 and, similarly and more compellingly, to Tokyo ’64— and to many other postwar Olympics as well. Especially for East Asian and other non-Western nations, the Tokyo and Seoul Games have made hosting a first Olympics something of a badge of arrival — a moment of formal recognition— as a modern, internationally acceptable and significant state. The many Games hosted by the United States, Japan and major European countries during the last several decades (as well as the former Soviet Union’s rather unhappy experience in the Western-boycotted 1980 Olympiad) makes a broader, more important point for Beijing: great powers and respected countries get the Games. Given the lingering memories of Tiananmen and the spotlight they continue to throw on the PRC’s human rights record, there is also a non-trivial likeness to the Munich Games of 1972 (and, to a lesser degree to the Tokyo and 1960 Rome Olympics) as a moment of renewed international acceptance after ostracism for past sins. These Olympic analogies all coalesce around the same set of points: for the PRC, landing the 2008 Games symbolizes recognition as a great, normal and internationally accepted power.  Or, perhaps more accurately, being snubbed again would have been taken as signaling international reluctance to acknowledge China’s claim to such status— much as would further long delays in WTO accession or deepening American entanglement in Taiwan.

The Unsufferable Heaviness of Being China

In addressing these diverse contemporary controversies, the PRC’s approach has included a sense of a heavy burden of history and a weighty demand for redress or at least non-repetition of past wrongs visited on China, primarily by the West and Japan.

There is surely some sincerity in the express and implied sense that pre-revolutionary China was forced to endure unbearable slights and therefore is entitled to make what many see as insufferable complaints. Lest one doubt the deep and continuing relevance of the nationalist status-and-dignity-restoring imperative that grew out of China’s nineteenth-century experience, recall what Mao’s signal proclamation was from atop Tiananmen, when he declared the foundation of the People’s Republic: “China has stood up!”Note also the Deng and Post-Deng leadership’s frequent and shrill invocation of patriotic themes.

Whether or not such sentiments are truly held, it would be naive to think that they are not invoked and manipulated to instrumental ends. Internationally, the PRC long has shown itself adept at deploying claims of historical wrongs and outraged nationalism to increase pressure on Western governments to adopt a more accommodating stance, whether out of a sense of guilt about what China is “owed” or because Chinese arguments are accepted as a signal that Beijing regards an issue as non-negotiable or profoundly important.  Also, the PRC at times has demonstrated considerable skill in using the same sort of moral-historical argument to cultivate — or at least to provide principled cover for— solidarity with the leadership of the many states that were once colonies and, increasingly in a one-superpower world, with Russia as well. At home, the same hand of cards has held out a vital promise of enhancing the regime’s continuing claim to a right to rule where Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought has become a hollow ideological shell and where the harder, later stages of economic reform and a slowing global economy have made a rapidly and continuously growing economic pie a somewhat dicier basis on which to stake the regime’s legitimacy.

As Beijing’s recent moderation and cooperative stance on issues ranging from obstacles to WTO accession, to the competition for the Olympics, to aspects of the Taiwan question amply demonstrate, the PRC leadership is capable of turning down (and perhaps turning off) the politics of resentment and aggrieved nationalism. Nonetheless, the legacies of the wounded nationalism that was born in the nineteenth century are clearly durable, often predictable and sometimes effective elements in the PRC’s approach to its relations with the outside world, and particularly the West and especially the United States.

The Awkwardness of Advances

We must look further than the PRC’s penchant for self-indulgent rhetoric, or Beijing’s skill in playing the politics of national victimhood, or the CCP elite’s need for internal legitimacy if we are to find a full explanation of China’s behavior and positions — and particularly of the sometimes ham-fisted or over-reaching ways that China’s wounded nationalism has surfaced in recent controversies, arguably delaying WTO entry, damaging U.S.-China ties, and missing opportunities in cross-strait relations. Whatever the relative roles of sincere belief, honest misperception, tactical calculation and indifference to foreign policy consequences, Beijing’s approach to the outside world, as reflected in the varied controversies of recent months, suffers from being out of synch with China’s international circumstances.

The economist Alexander Gerschenkron wrote famously of the“advantages of backwardness” — of how latecomers to modernization can achieve development more rapidly because they can advance quickly along the paths that their predecessors blazed through long processes of trial and error. But rapid exit from backwardness has its downsides as well. Contemporary China clearly has encountered some familiar forms of what might be called the awkwardness of advances. These including demographic ones— specifically, soaring populations where public health and general economic gains lead to plunging death rates without an accompanying adjustment in the slower-to-change cultural and social factors conducive to high birth rates. They also include socio-economic ones — for example, sharply rising gaps in interregional and intraregional affluence, massive rural to urban migration, an escalating environmental crisis, and accelerated obsolescence of economic sectors and the skills of those who work in them.

The motley collection of incidents involving the downing of the U.S. spyplane, the detention of U.S.-based scholars, the disgruntlement at the U.S. role in Taiwan, and the quest for WTO accession and the Olympics Games all suggest that the PRC also suffers from a political-diplomatic version of the disadvantages of rapid advancement. In the mere half- century of the PRC era, China has advanced to the ranks of the world’s most important handful of nations. The key elements in this new-won international gravitas are familiar and in many respects closely interrelated: rapid economic growth through industrialization; the CCP’s ability to redress the political-organizational deficit that plagued terminal imperial and Republican China; the acquisition of a substantial nuclear force and a huge and relatively modern military; and the sheer size of a population of 1.3 billion.

Less obvious are some of the effects of this warp-speed rise. While the advent of a new great power is almost always disruptive, in centuries past the leaders of an up-and-coming nation typically have had substantial periods of time— often several political generations — to develop and adapt their state’s mode of dealing with the world to accord with its changing place in the international system. This has not been the case with China’s emergence. (Nor, arguably, had it been the case with the international system-shaking ascension of the ultimately maladaptive Soviet Union.) The revolutionary generation of Chinese leaders who passed from the political scene only in the last several years were members of the May Fourth Generation—named for the 1919 movement that forged modern Chinese nationalism in direct response to the injuries and insults that foreign powers had been inflicting on China for several decades. With the past so palpably present, ways of approaching the outside world that are more suited to old issues than to new ones predictably and problematically persist— whether as distorting lenses through which to view the world or as tempting rhetoric with which to try to manipulate it.

Two additional factors — one arcadian and the other anticipatory— have magnified the speed of China’s rise, exacerbating the “out of synch” character of Beijing’s current political-diplomatic engagement with the outside world and, in particular, entrenching the extraordinary emphasis on China’s being treated with the respect due a great nation and a major power. First, the humiliations that China began to suffer in the middle of the nineteenth century had themselves brought a radical rupture from the way Chinese elites had long, but increasingly unrealistically, perceived China’s place in the world —that is, a position at the political center and civilizational apex. The notion that China’s desires and demands warranted accommodation and even deference was hardly a dim memory when the contours of modern Chinese nationalism began to take shape. It was, rather, seen as a state of normalcy from a golden and recent past. Second, the near-superpower status (or even full-fledged great power status) that the contemporary People’s Republic has apparently enjoyed has been the result of a projecting out of the steep trend lines of the last few decades. That is, the idea that China is a supremely important economic actor is based in part on where China will be after decades of continued high growth from its current base as an upper-middle-level industrial power with a less-developed-country level of per capita income. The notion that the PRC is a top-tier conventional military power is similarly derived from assessments of where it will be after a massive modernization program has gone much farther in transforming armed forces that cannot yet credibly threaten to take over Taiwan and that were badly embarrassed barely two decades ago when they undertook a punitive expedition against Vietnam. And so on.

At least until China has fulfilled such projections, the approach to foreign affairs, rooted in the Opium Wars, risks being an opiate of the self-proclaimed Party of the Chinese masses, distorting its priorities on international issues and, at times, poisoning China’s external relations. For the PRC, this approach has had its uses, lulling or pressuring other states into accepting Chinese positions or demands. Its potency for such purposes, however, is surely fading as the period of China’s “semi-colonial” suffering recedes, the era of China’s resurgence as an international power continues, and, perhaps, other states’ policymakers become more attuned to the subtleties of the lingering influence, the use, and the abuse of the legacies of the nineteenth century in the PRC’s foreign policy today.