How to Think About China

Commentary No. 273, Jan. 15, 2010

If one asks throughout the world the question, what do you think of the United States as a country and a world power, you will get very clear answers. Everyone has an opinion – North and South, rich and poor, men and women, politically on the right or the left, young and old. The opinions vary enormously from extremely favorable to extremely hostile. But people do feel they know how to think about the United States.

Thirty years ago, the same was probably true about China. But it is no longer true. Many people, perhaps even most people, around the world are no longer sure what they think about China as a country or as a world power. Indeed, it is a subject not only of uncertainty but of sharp debate. It is useful perhaps to review which issues people outside of China tend to debate when they discuss China. There are three principal ones.

The first and perhaps the most well-known debate is whether to think of China as essentially a socialist country or as essentially a capitalist one. China of course still proclaims itself to be socialist. China continues to be governed by the Communist Party. On the other hand, China seems to be basing the actual operations of its internal economic operations, and certainly its world trade, on market principles.

Views on the world political left and the world political right are not at all unified on this issue. There are those on the right who insist that the market operations are a mere facade for what continues to be a government intent on pursuing the historic objectives of a traditional Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zedong ideology. But there are many on the political right who see a country in “transition” to a fully market-based economy and regard the ideology, not the market operations, as the facade.

The same is true on the left. There are those who see China as still governed by the same socialist objectives and see the “market” operations as either a tactical retreat or as the facade. But there are others on the left who are either cynical about China’s current policies or openly disillusioned.

The next issue that divides opinion is whether China is still part of the South or has now become part of the North. Thirty years ago, there was no doubt. China attended the Afro-Asian conference in Bandung in 1955. China presented itself everywhere as a militant promoter of the geopolitical views and interests of the South. But today, China is classified as the strongest of the “emergent” nations and the second strongest economy in the world. The world press speaks of the G-2 (the United States and China), who in effect share world power. How different from the late 1960’s when China spoke of the United States and the Soviet Union as the “two superpowers” against whom everyone else should unite.

So there are many in both the North and the South who today regard China as essentially part of the North. But there are also others, in both the North and the South, who continue to consider China as a leading voice of the South. After all, they say, a very large part of the population of China still live at a quite low economic level.

Finally, the perhaps most controversial question is whether to continue to think of China as a leading anti-imperialist power or to think of China as itself an imperialist power. This is less debated in the North than in the South. There are many who insist that China continues to play a crucial role in undoing U.S. imperialism, which they say continues to be the major imperialist force in the world.

Furthermore, they point to the ways in which Chinese economic assistance to countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is given without the strings that U.S. and European aid is normally given. The Chinese, they say, offer much needed economic leverage for countries in the South – a prime example of socialist cooperation.

But there are others in the South who see Chinese aid as a mode of guaranteeing access to key raw materials in ways that do not necessarily meet the optimal needs of these countries. And there are some who are disturbed by the outflow of small Chinese merchants to these countries, asserting that their activities undermine small local merchants, and constitute a form of settler colonization.

Today the debate is murky and the dividing lines uncertain. This is unlikely to continue for too long. Probably ten years from now, certainly twenty years from now, everyone will know once again how to think about China. Opinions (pro and con) will become firm once again.