Since November 2021, Lithuania has been China’s enemy Number One. How did a country with 2 million inhabitants manage to provoke Chinese leaders to the point of ending diplomatic and commercial relations? The Lithuanian government dared to allow Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius, the capital, using the name Taiwan, instead of Taipei, the term that China prefers. Taipei is a city whose existence the Chinese regime cannot deny; Taiwan is a dissident republic that isn’t supposed to exist. The Lithuanians, fiercely anti-Communist after enduring Soviet Union occupation, acted deliberately. Perhaps they underestimated Beijing’s aggressive reaction—but then the West sometimes has difficulty grasping what appears to be Chinese paranoia.
In trying to understand China, Henry Kissinger observed—and he practiced this advice—one should put oneself in its place. Chinese leaders, haunted by a desire for international recognition, perceive the slightest breach in diplomatic protocol as a resurrection of imperialism. China was once the world’s greatest power, but it was late to recognize the West’s rise, as well as the importance of science and industry in fueling that rise. This blindness led to China’s effective colonization in the nineteenth century—by Europeans, Americans, and, in a supreme humiliation, the Japanese. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Chinese emperors had to sign treaties of surrender in bunches and to surrender territory, before the Empire collapsed totally in 1911.
Then followed a half-century of violent struggle between warlords, until the victory of the Communist army, led by Mao Zedong and supported by the Soviets, which put the Communist Party in power. The real reason Mao and his successors found acceptance among the various peoples of China was not due to the new leaders’ Marxism; it was because they ended the civil wars. They replaced the wars with the eradication of the middle class, totalitarian constraints on private life, the destruction of ancient customs, and the crushing of religions—but for the Chinese, anything was better than the horror of ceaseless civil strife. Too often in the West, we believe that the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy is based on economic growth, but this didn’t take off until 1979. More fundamental than growth is order. The Beijing regime is, in a way, akin to Franco’s Spain, more fascist than Communist, though any classification should be historically contextualized.
China under the CCP wants to maintain order, then, but it also wants to erase the stain of the colonial period. The official historiography blames the colonizers for all the woes that brought down the Empire. Chinese historians thus greatly exaggerate the importance of the Opium Wars (fought between 1839 and 1860), which were merely local conflicts, intensified by commercial rivalries between Chinese and British businesses. In reality, the Empire was a victim above all of its incapacity to modernize—a task that Japan, during the same period, accomplished.
If we consider this mind-set today, we’ll be less surprised that a rising China is indignant that international institutions, international laws, and human rights are imposed on it, while it had no part in their elaboration. If we were Chinese, we would not easily accept the presence of the American fleet patrolling our coastlines. As a Chinese ambassador to France asked: How would the Americans react if they saw, every day, the Chinese war fleet along the California coasts?
The Chinese, including in intellectual circles, bristle when Westerners put them under a microscope and judge them. When I traveled extensively in China in the mid-2000s for my book The Empire of Lies, my interlocutors would ask why I was writing about their country and not my own, France. It is true that Westerners have published countless books on China; there are comparably few written about the West by Chinese authors.
This Chinese indifference to the external world characterized the Empire, as the story of the admiral Zheng He illustrates. In 1405, the Yongle emperor of the Ming Dynasty tasked Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, with exploring the world beyond the seas. Was this curiosity, or a will to conquest? The project was without precedent for this rural empire, which had never before even had a maritime fleet. Admiral Zheng He would head up a gigantic squadron, carrying, at its apogee, nearly 30,000 warriors on 300 vessels, and undertaking seven expeditions from 1405 to 1433. These journeys took Zheng He from what is today Indonesia to the Horn of Africa.
Zheng concluded that none of the civilizations he encountered was of comparable power to China or, indeed, of much interest. At no point did he envision taking possession of far-off lands. After the Yongle emperor’s death, in 1424, his son, the Hongxi emperor, ordered the maritime explorations stopped (though Zheng He conducted one last voyage under the Yongle emperor’s grandson). The construction of new boats was banned, and the existing fleet destroyed.
The memory of these expeditions remained largely effaced until 2006, when a great exhibition in Beijing resurrected it. The contemporary goal was ideological, not historical: to show how China, unlike the West, had always respected other civilizations, never imposed its religions or norms, and never colonized distant lands. This was intended to reassure Africans and Asians about the presence of Chinese maritime bases, which the newly assertive government was seeking to establish around the globe.
“There is nothing to learn from others,” the Ming emperors had concluded. This haughty stance reemerged when European religious missions, beginning in the seventeenth century, and then diplomatic and commercial missions, failed to forge relations with the emperor. Over three centuries, all emissaries—Jesuits, ambassadors, and business interests—were sent away for the same reason: China had nothing to learn from the outside.
This indifference has not totally disappeared. It was not until the regime of Deng Xiaoping, after Mao’s death, in 1976, that China began watching the West closely, careful to import only techniques and not cultural and political ideas. It was then that the number of Chinese students in American universities surged, mostly in technical fields. President Xi Jinping has been explicit in this emphasis, continually repeating his hostility to liberal ideas; piracy of Western technologies, on the other hand, is encouraged.
The Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye popularized the term “soft power,” denoting various nonquantifiable cultural values of universal significance. The soft power of nations depends on their ability to win the admiration, and even the allegiance, of people in other countries. By this measure, the United States remains the leading soft-power nation, thanks to its incomparable cultural vitality, both popular and elite—from Disney to the Metropolitan Opera. France and Italy also possess considerable soft power, as one can see in their ability to attract tourists and the worldwide appeal of their fashions. Soft power can also be ideological: the Soviet Union’s draw came not from Russian literature but from its model of society, which propaganda presented as a shining alternative to capitalism and colonialism. It was all a deception, of course, but it fooled many for a long time.
Chinese leaders’ aspiration to international legitimacy demands a soft power as attractive as that of the Americans and Europeans. Mao realized this as he exported the revolutionary ideology that bore his name, inspiring movements that shook India, Indonesia, Peru, Italy, and France during the 1960s. Western intellectuals flocked to Beijing seeking enlightenment, just as an earlier generation went to Moscow to bow before the dictatorship of the proletariat. Maoism was eradicated after Mao’s death. Since then, China has exported almost nothing immaterial, whether ideas, films, or books. (Only Chinese science fiction has found an international audience, in the translated works of Cixin Liu and a few other writers.)
China’s soft power has dropped to near-zero because the Communist Party systematically destroyed Chinese civilization. Mao began the destruction. In a speech delivered in 1949 from Tiananmen Square, he called for “an ocean of smokestacks” in the capital, which had been known as the “city of a thousand pagodas.”
In the early 2000s, one could still find the old pagodas here and there, surrounded by factories. Today, the ancient city has been leveled. Only a few vestiges, such as the Forbidden City, survive as tourist attractions, and these are badly restored amid Beijing’s ordinary buildings and urban highways. Beijing is not only among the most polluted capital cities in the world; it is also the ugliest.
The poverty of contemporary Chinese culture holds true in literature. When Gao Xinjian, the greatest contemporary Chinese writer, received the Nobel Prize in 2000, the Chinese government, far from celebrating his achievement, let it be known that he did not represent China—it pretended that he was not truly Chinese but French, as he was living in Paris when awarded the Nobel. (In reality, Gao writes in Chinese and does not speak a word of French.) Then Beijing pressured the Nobel committee to honor a true Chinese writer—that is, one selected by the Communist Party: Mo Yan. The Nobel jury gave in, crowning him in 2012. When I met Mo Yan in Beijing that year, I noted that, in his books, he denounced the destruction of the Chinese patrimony but had never mentioned the 1989 massacre of students in Tiananmen Square. We were in a busy café, and, nervously looking around, he responded: “It is much too early to speak of that.”
Back in 2006, it was still possible to find traces of religiosity in a nation once profoundly religious. In China, religion must be spoken of in the plural, such as it lives on in Taiwan. Before the Communist conquest, the Chinese adhered to Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant forms of worship. The Communist Party, after trying to eradicate these spiritual traditions by assassination of religious leaders and other repressive measures, decided to tolerate them, as long as they accepted party control. As Xi Jinping declared in 2017, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party: “Religious personnel or leaders in China must be Chinese in orientation and provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society.”
The result has been a kind of two-level religious practice in temples, mosques, pagodas, and churches, with an officially sanctioned form and a continuing illegal fervor. The Communist Party succeeded in bureaucratizing the two largest official Chinese religions, Taoism and Buddhism, the oral teaching of which depends on the quality of masters, who were exterminated, exiled, or replaced by patriotic personnel. Islam is no better tolerated, though it is practiced by some ethnic Chinese, whose families converted centuries ago. The fault of the horrifically oppressed Uighurs of Xinjiang is to be both Muslim and of another race. As for underground Christianity, from what I have seen in its secret gatherings, it is a hodgepodge of beliefs borrowed from various Christian sources—more reflecting a desire for Westernization than expressing a coherent faith.
“Xi is betting on China’s vast construction of new infrastructure in other countries to expand its influence globally.”
I emphasize the disappearance of religions because they were constitutive of the old China and because the Communist Party fears them more than it does democratic dissidents. Liu Xiaobo, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, who died under guard in a Chinese hospital in 2017, managed to convince his Western interlocutors, including me, that democracy was compatible with Chinese civilization; but few know of him outside of university circles. The same is true of Wei Jingsheng, considered the leader of the Chinese democracy movement. He was freed from Chinese captivity in 1997, following pressure from President Bill Clinton, but since then, he has lived in exile in America and is without a significant audience in China. The most destabilizing recent protest against the Communist Party, by contrast, was of religious origin: in 1999, 10,000 members of the Falun Gong Buddhist community occupied, in silence, an area near the party’s Central Committee compound in Beijing. The sect was subsequently crushed in China, but party leaders still ask themselves how it could have escaped their vigilance.
What form of soft power, then, is to be exported, and how, given the rest of the world’s lack of appetite? There is, of course, the Chinese language—the official Mandarin—useful in business; and also an economic model that some think is more effective than the West’s liberal capitalism.
The exportation of Chinese soft power goes partly through the so-called Confucius Institutes, which the Communist Party has sought to spread across the world, especially on university campuses. Since the institutes are unencumbered by any academic ethic and censor truths unpalatable to the party, leading American universities refuse to host them. But some schools, needing the funds, accept them.
One might be surprised by the institutes’ name. After all, Confucius is, in principle, hated by the Communist Party, since his thought exalts a lost paradise—the antithesis of the progress that the CCP promises. True, Confucius counsels obedience to rulers, but he also argues for revolution if their behavior is immoral. But the party is of the view that, beyond China’s borders, Confucius is a recognizable brand.
Still, China’s soft power, at a low ebb since the Tiananmen massacre, has continued to decline with Xi Jinping’s rise. The limited creative freedom in Communist China that had emerged before Xi has now vanished. The relatively predictable rules of succession that Deng Xiaoping established—collegial leadership, a maximum of ten years in power—have been replaced by a new personality cult and a government that, in some ways, is as oppressive as that under Mao. It is a regime unlikely to win over people in China or outside of it.
Xi is betting on China’s vast construction of new infrastructure in other countries to expand its influence globally—the new silk roads. But the Belt and Road initiative, as the project is known, hasn’t always gone smoothly, especially when poorer countries in Africa or Central America discover that they must pay back Chinese loans at rates higher than those in the world markets and that the specific building projects are directed, and often executed, by Chinese expatriates, who frequently despise the locals.
When Kissinger asked about China’s plans for conquering Taiwan, Deng replied, in essence, “We are in no hurry.” At the time, China had other priorities—above all, its economy, as the country was still very poor. With Xi, Beijing seems to be in more of a hurry. In official talk, Taiwan is an obsession—much more so, in my experience, than among the general population.
This recurring obsession has many facets. One is historical. In 1949, the last troops of the nationalist armies, with their leader, Chiang Kai-shek, took refuge in Taiwan, escaping from Mao, who had no navy. To take Taiwan would be to complete the Communist military victory. It is also the party’s view that no historically Chinese territory should escape Beijing’s authority. This notion is important for understanding Chinese geographic claims over borderlands conquered by earlier dynasties: Tibet, eastern Turkestan (today Xinjiang), the frozen deserts of Himalaya, the lost islands in the China Sea, and a few rocks disputed with Japan. Yet Taiwan, one should note, was not always Chinese but frequently independent, peopled by Austronesian aborigines—and later, by Dutch and Japanese colonists.
Yet, for party doctrine, whatever was for even a day Chinese must again be Chinese. This puts in question a large part of Siberia, which Russia today occupies—though Chinese leaders don’t say this aloud. Having crossed the Amur River, which forms the border with Russia, I observed that Chinese peasants and traders in this part of Siberia acted as if it were their home—indeed, the Chinese consider eastern Siberia to be rightfully China’s, but they are in no hurry in this case, either—while the Russians, few in number, pretended not to notice. Both sides remember the deadly 1969 military engagement on the Ussuri River, when the Soviets beat back the Chinese army, at the cost of many casualties on both sides.
Another reason an independent Taiwan infuriates Beijing: it is a prosperous democracy, right at China’s doorstep, and is more authentically Chinese than the mainland. In fact, Taiwan is a conservatory of Chinese culture. As he fled the mainland, Chiang Kai-shek took with him all the treasures of the Imperial City; the National Palace Museum in Taipei contains major works that the emperors accumulated over 1,000 years. Imagine the treasures of the British crown removed by the Irish and exhibited in Dublin! Beyond these material artifacts, Taiwan is home to the arts and traditions of classical China at its peak: music, opera, calligraphy, lacquered and ceramic artwork—all that has disappeared from Communist China. Similarly, all the religions banished from the mainland are freely practiced in Taiwan, especially Taoism, the Chinese religion par excellence. It is in Taiwan (and, until recently, Hong Kong) that the books censored in Beijing appear. These works find their way clandestinely from Taiwan to the mainland, sold underground or published on the Internet, in simplified characters, as only Taiwan preserved the ancient calligraphy of classical China.
In Taiwan, the Taiwanese language, imported from Fujian province, is spoken by those who have inhabited the island for several generations, while Mandarin, the official language of Communist China, is spoken by more recent immigrants. This linguistic difference, a cultural form of democracy, obviously displeases Beijing, since it reminds people that China was once a federation of peoples, cultures, and languages, as India remains today.
In any takeover, Beijing would not hope to confiscate Taiwan’s riches—these would vanish with the flight of entrepreneurs, just as Hong Kong is being emptied of its financiers. The objective would be to eliminate the example of a free, authentic, and prosperous China—one without the Communist Party.
Is a military move likely? It may seem to Xi that the time is propitious, with America seemingly weakened and less inclined to rush to anyone’s aid—and such concerns are even more amplified now, given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war in that country. That Xi continually references Taiwan in his speeches seems designed to prepare global and local opinion for a military operation. An attack would also demonstrate that China now has a powerful military, helping to obscure the memory of a number of external defeats—in Korea in 1950, in the 1969 Russian conflict, and against Vietnam in 1979.
Would war with Taiwan make it possible to rally the Chinese people around a national cause? For Xi, nationalism could serve as a substitute ideology for Marxism-Leninism, which now rings increasingly hollow. But this would be a Western importation, since the Chinese have never practiced nationalism; traditionally, each person was from his own province, the language of which he spoke, while also seeing himself as a subject of the emperor. With Mao, a conversion to permanent revolution was required—but not to nationalism. By supposing that the Chinese people would endorse en masse the taking of Taiwan, which I doubt, and supposing further that the Chinese army would prove to be up to an unprecedented combat, there remains the question of Taiwanese forces and, in the possible absence of the Americans, an intervention by the Japanese army and fleet, among the world’s most technologically advanced. In the geopolitical scenarios surrounding China, we often forget Japan—and that is a mistake.
Most troublesome for the West is something still emerging: a formidable political innovation, which Chinese leaders consider an unrivaled alternative to Western democracy. Call it technological despotism. Until the regime of Xi Jinping, the post-Mao Communist Party had sought to combine economic growth with public safety, while deploying a security force that worked to ensure that nothing escaped the party’s grasp. But now, the collecting of personal data is taking despotism to a new level, with high-capacity computers enabling the government to keep files on every Chinese person and assign each an algorithm that tracks behaviors and expectations, establishing a “social-credit” score. The state will thus know what every person hopes and fears and will be able to deliver customized goods and services—or sanction every deviation from the party line—with precision.
This system already exists for attributing credits for consumer goods or for obtaining lodging, especially in China’s large cities. Abetting it is facial-recognition technology, which is highly advanced in China, allowing the government to identify unwanted behavior and monitor non-Han persons, including Uighurs and Tibetans, who are, by definition, suspect. In the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, the cameras that proliferate across the city make it possible immediately to identify the Uighurs by their physiognomy and to arrest purported Islamic troublemakers and incarcerate them in reeducation camps.
Chinese leaders mock Western democracy for its disorder and inefficiency. But without a real alternative, the Communist Party long mimicked the external forms of democracy. The people elected representatives, mayors, and assembly members—but the elections were parodies, with unanimous results. A few attempts at genuine local elections in villages occurred in the early 2000s. I witnessed several, along with Jimmy Carter, whose foundation financed the purchase of ballots and printing of bulletins. The experiment proved disastrous for the Communist Party, with independent candidates regularly beating the party choices. After a year or so, the government returned to the simulacra of elections, closing a rare opening that made it possible to see what many Chinese really thought of the party.
National sentiment remains mysterious today, at least to the outside world. If I trust my own observations, which are far from scientific, the Chinese I know have renounced political action and taken refuge in family life. Resistance to the Communist Party still shows up privately. When Deng Xiaoping, seeking to limit China’s population growth, mandated that families have only one child, many couples had two, despite facing fines. Then Xi, worried about a rapidly aging population, ordered families to have two children; but many parents decide to have just one.
Even the parody of democracy will soon be abandoned. In a new technological despotism, what the Chinese continue to think in their hearts will escape the algorithms—but the party won’t care. What will matter is outward behavior: conformity to the party line, enforced by omnipresent surveillance. Xi claims that this will allow society to flourish; as he puts it, the Communist Party “really strives for the happiness of the Chinese people.” We might scoff at this science-fiction-like project, but China’s leaders see in it a future that will guarantee the eternal power of the Communist Party.
What is most probable in China, however, even in an era of algorithmic control, remains the unexpected. A virus that began infecting people in Wuhan in late 2019 wound up severing the supply chains linking China to the world, cutting the growth rate in half for a time—and launching a global pandemic that killed millions and has transformed economies, altered political arrangements, and left social and cultural ramifications that will take years to absorb and understand. (And Covid-19, whatever the truth of its provenance, will do no good for China’s soft power, either, such as it is.)
Moreover, Covid is far from being done with China. Indeed, the pandemic—along with the government’s ambitious “Zero Covid” policy in response to it—brings together examples both of China’s growing technological despotism and of the possibility of widespread unrest. As of late April 2022, Shanghai, a city of nearly 25 million, was in its fourth week of a near-total lockdown enforced by barriers, checkpoints, legions of hazmat-suited police, and flying drones instructing residents to “control your soul’s desire for freedom” even as they struggled to secure deliveries of food and other essentials. At the same time in Beijing, cases were rising, and its nearly 22 million residents were bracing themselves for a similar fate.
Nor can we exclude the possibility that new social movements could arise in China, perhaps of a religious inspiration. The history of China is haunted by religious revolts that brought down dynasties.
Ten years ago, no one foresaw an economic ascent as astounding as what China has experienced. Two-thirds of the population have reached the standard of living of the middle classes of Western countries, at least in appearance.
Nevertheless, housing is mediocre, health services are archaic, and life outside large urban areas is difficult. Despite an average annual pre-pandemic economic growth rate of 8 percent, a quarter of Chinese peasants live in poverty. The villages of western China are no better off than the poorest in India or Africa, but the more vigorous inhabitants have the opportunity of leaving for worksites in the east or the south. They will be exploited there, and they lack rights because their domestic passport, or hukou, ties them to their place of origin, where the police can return them at any moment.
This reserve army of the proletariat, to borrow Marx’s vocabulary, exerts downward pressure on Chinese salaries, contributing to the international competitiveness of the country’s industries. Communist China has, in this regard, remained a model of classical economics.
Deng Xiaoping was the first Chinese leader to understand that China could not invent an original model for growth and that it would have to bend to the scientific laws of economics. The government returned the land that Mao had collectivized to the peasants, who, property owners once again, went back to work. They succeeded in feeding themselves, supplying food to the cities, and reaping surplus value and freeing up part of the labor force. This allowed factories to run at low cost and to begin to export to Western consumers. The profits thus accumulated made it possible to modernize production methods. There never was a Chinese economic “miracle” but only the application of the laws of classical economics, applied to a society eager to escape poverty, with workers prevented from rebelling against abusive work hours and low pay.
“Despite annual pre-pandemic economic growth of 8 percent, a quarter of Chinese peasants live in poverty.”
Beyond what it borrows from classical economics, the model has distinctive characteristics that cannot be reproduced. Are we so sure that the Communist Party wants the impoverished quarter to be absorbed into the general economy? A recent example makes me skeptical: Shein, a world leader in low-priced fashion, has an office in the city of Guangzhou and copies new styles within 48 hours of their appearance in Paris, London, or New York. The copies get assigned to thousands of subcontractors, who subcontract, in turn, down to the most isolated villages, where labor costs are minimal. In less than a week, the completed styles come back to Guangzhou and are then exported to the world, at a quarter of the price of European or American competitors. The unknown village workers remain unknown, with no right to future orders or social protection. The head person at Shein, an American of Chinese origin, acknowledged that the clothing line was made in the “far west”—that is, China’s extremely poor west. Shein’s method of production is widespread in China, which now exports more to countries of middling development in Asia, Africa, and Latin America than to the advanced West.
The Chinese economic story exemplifies the classical theory of the division of labor, identified by Adam Smith in his 1776 book The Wealth of Nations. What may be truly miraculous is that China’s conversion to classical economics coincided with a historically unprecedented globalization of trade. It is access to the global market, in the absence of a liquid domestic market, that has spurred so much annual growth.
The Chinese have also borrowed from the classical model the key role of innovation. Growth, on this view, is based first on an exodus from rural areas, which improves productivity, and then on innovation, which takes up the baton. But innovation costs a lot before yielding marketable goods and services—unless one takes a shortcut, as Japan did in the 1920s and South Korea in the 1950s: copy what others have done. The Chinese did not invent the pirating of patents and intellectual property, but they systematized it on a grand scale and even improved it.
High-speed trains are an example. In the 2000s, the Chinese asked global leaders in building such trains to submit project proposals for a Chinese system, which they did. Chinese engineers closely examined these models and combined elements in order to devise an improved Chinese version. This method of recombination or “tweaking” has become an oft-deployed method in China. The Chinese do not see themselves as copying, and they even file patents so as to give their approach legal protection. This helps explain why the Chinese appear to register the greatest number of patents in the world, though these are recognized only in China. To measure China’s true capacity for innovation, one should refer to the patents called “triadic”—that is, recognized in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Under this classification, the U.S. is still well in the lead, followed by Japan and Europe. China, as well as India and Russia, is more or less invisible. The future will not be written in China, but in America.
At the end of 2021, under the guise of restraining monopolistic behavior, Xi Jinping curbed the expansion of the two largest service enterprises on the Chinese Internet: Tencent and Alibaba. They were forbidden to raise further funds or to extend further offers of service without government approval. Western observers were stupefied, as these businesses and their founders had earlier been celebrated and held up as exemplars of success for Chinese youth.
On reflection, however, this power play—even with the cost of slowing down the national economy and its technical capacities—is consistent with the nature of the regime. It is permissible to make money, as long as no aspersions are cast on the dominion of the Communist Party. The sanctioned firms were also gathering data on the Chinese people, but the party considers itself alone authorized to control such data, which are a major tool for the emerging technological despotism.
Everything by the party, for the party, and under control of the party—that could be the regime’s motto. But what is the party? It is not the state. The state functions as an administration, as in the West, but every decision that it makes is supervised by the party’s delegates—political commissars inserted into all the organs of political, economic, and judicial power. All leaders, public and private, are generally, though not necessarily, party members. What matters most is that they report to the political commissars above them.
At the Communist Party’s summit, one finds mostly men and engineers. You find few philosophers or sociologists; the party is in the hands of a technocracy very different in its recruitment and temperament from the mandarinate of the Empire, which was made up of learned men, versed in literature and political philosophy. For a party that views itself as Marxist, one finds few women or workers in its decision-making echelon.
Another particularity of the party is its dynastic character. The leaders are almost all sons of leaders, including Xi himself. If one had to synthesize to the extreme, China is in the hands of technocratic dynasties, for whom nothing is more important than holding on to, and transmitting, power. If, by chance, the party changes course, which happened often in Mao’s day and after, this is the result of palace revolutions—fights to the end between ruling dynasties.
An effective way of getting rid of rivals, perfected by Xi, consists in accusing them of corruption. The accusation is easy enough to back up because corruption is widespread in the party—from the “red envelope” slipped to a low-level apparatchik to give him the right to open a shop or build a building to the granting of stupendous contracts at the top, passing through a family member or a mistress in favor at court. Once, long ago, I was designated by the French government to hand over an important envelope to a Chinese courtesan, so as to obtain for a French business the contract to build an opera house. Alas, the courtesan’s name had a homonym, and I approached the wrong recipient. No matter; I was asked to make another trip and hand off a second envelope, and the business was concluded.
This example, apart from the blunder, is not isolated but a common practice in commercial relations between the Western business world and its Chinese interlocutors. The key to success is to identify the right intermediary to bribe, who will then take care of everything. This practice likely helps explain Western business executives’ enthusiasm for the Chinese model, since, for a certain sum, they can break through bureaucratic barriers and violate all the rules. It’s simpler than in today’s United States or Europe, where one must now fulfill so many social or environmental requirements.
In relations between China and the United States, American leaders, along with many commentators, seem to invert the famous formula of John Quincy Adams in 1821, warning against going abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” It suffices to analyze China, such as it really is, to see that it is neither the enemy, nor even a true competitor, of the United States. In every domain, China is significantly behind the United States. As testimony, consider the more than 300,000 Chinese students in the United States who enjoy freedom and learning unavailable in China. China often serves as an imaginary threat distracting Americans from their domestic quarrels, in the same way that Chinese leaders accuse Americans of interference to distract their own people from their lack of freedom, the mediocrity of their cultural life, the oppression of workers, and rural poverty.
The proper realist attitude for the United States to adopt must, it seems to me, be founded on two pillars. First, it would be well to know the Chinese better—the people as well as their leaders, their frustrations and their ambitions. The second pillar might take inspiration from a strategy that proved effective in confronting the Soviet Union: containment. China has the right to develop itself, and its inclusion in the global order is a net benefit for the Chinese, as it can be for non-Chinese. China has the right to be present in all international institutions. But it has no right to aggression. To encourage economic development and discourage aggression—this seems to be an attitude toward China that the United States and Europe could share. China as a monster to destroy, on the other hand, would be an error of analysis. China does not fit the role; it cannot be compared with the USSR. The Soviets wanted to conquer the world and to export their ideology. China has no such ambition. It only demands the place that, according to its leaders, it deserves. This is of the order of negotiation, not of war.
Top Photo: Chinese president Xi Jinping has amassed Mao-like authority. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)