Fretting over systemic tension while ignoring the substantive reasons for worry: China is run by people not by ‘forces’

Recently, a friend attended a conference on Sino-American relations in Singapore. He perceptively remarked that, amid all the talk of rising tension, no one seemed to dare to mention why countries around the world are getting wary of China. Although there are plenty of reasons to highlight systemic causes for tension between a declining United States and a rising China, I argue here that the stress on the systemic can turn into a pretext not to have to talk about the substance.

We can find enough Chinese academics who anxiously remark on the risks of structural tensions as Beijing grows more powerful in a world hitherto dominated by the Washington consensus. The problem here is that many of the answers that this kind of analysis suggests in response to the question posed by a resurgent PRC consist of encouraging various forms of temperance and self-discipline. But this view treats the development as natural and something to be managed by virtuously restrained behaviour. Such an approach is obviously in the interest of the rising power. It also conveniently excuses the scholars from having to seriously engage with the reasons why, not just the US, but many different countries are rather wary of China these days.

Because, there are plenty of substantive reasons to be scared of China under the Chinese Communist Party, reasons that go beyond systematic tension. Beijing is currently ruled by an authoritarian regime that continually stresses the importance of strengthening the control of the Party over ever greater parts of life. China runs concentration camps in Xinjiang that hold more than one million Uighurs and other muslims in an effort that can be described as cultural genocide. The CCP regime has not only refused to denounce its totalitarian past, but is bringing back historical lessons from the Mao period as its oppression continues to expand nationwide. In economics and international trade, it applies different rules to Chinese and to foreign firms. Abroad, Beijing maintains its irredentist ambitions, with a list of territorial claims not limited to Taiwan, the South China Sea, and large parts of India. At home, the Party hones an aggressive and entitled nationalism, fed by revanchist narratives of National Humiliation.

Many people have good reasons to be scared in the prospect of a more powerful China, beyond fearing for their relative power.

China’s nationalism brings us to a second point. For all the systemic causes that might compel China to expand its role in the world, it also stems from policy. No matter if you dress it up as ‘peaceful rise’, there is a contradiction when Beijing claims to want to maintain and protect the current international system and at the same to want to ‘democratise’ the international system by offering the miracle concept of a community of common destiny for mankind. Regardless of the content, regardless of the claims that it is not revisionist, there is an active policy in place whose goals cannot but include an aim to change the international system. China’s behaviour is not merely passive, there is an active element to it. It does no good to cover up this agency.

Sacrificing the Uighurs on the altar of your grand theory might make you an admirably restrained realist, but it turns international politics into an abstract game of chess. For too many Chinese and Americans who live in ‘Chimerica’, the main problem seems to be to suppress the ‘irrational’ squabbles between both sides. But, in the battle for humanity there is not such an abstract thing as chess. At the same time, an obsession with the systemic tension of the ‘power transition’ lets nationalist Chinese International Relations scholars get away with too much. It allows them to naturalise China’s ‘rise’. By stressing the American or Western responsibility to not be too anxious about China, they avoid having to deal with the unpleasant reality of the current regime in Beijing. Instead, they get to place the onus of restraint on the ‘West’. But China is a country too, with its own agency.

When we discuss the ‘Rise of China’, it is easy to fall into tropes and abstractions. Let us not forget that in the end, the world is made up of people. We should care about their suffering and our analysis should concern their actions. Systems shape the people, but people also shape the system.

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