Comprehending China: where Communist surveillance meets the American dream

China drives technological innovation, controls its citizens like few other countries and keeps the US Trade Department busy. Should the West be frightened? Some personal observations.

When foreigners (like the author of these lines) enter Chinese territory, they quickly apprehend the first rule of modern-day China: nothing works without smartphones, particularly without WeChat. Wish to hail a taxi? Use an app. Want to converse with the receptionist at the hotel? Translate in real time with an app. Need toilet paper on a public toilet? Scan the QR code to get it. Yes, literally.

Technological advancements make other countries look backward in comparison. Yet the heavy reliance on technology is not only the fruit of aspirations to be a leader in the digital sphere but also of the drive to control the masses. The recent protests in Hong Kong will only reinforce the belief that uprisings have to be contained in order to protect China’s position in the world.

Meanwhile, the government’s fear of unrest meets a social mindset which traditionally has been associated with the (formerly?) most powerful country in the world, the US. The “American dream”, namely the belief that hard work will be rewarded, spurs the population to study, work, push harder. The social credit system, which awards citizens with points for good behaviour, is an obvious expression of the quest to make people behave as the Communist Party wishes.

If you support the opinions of Mill or Popper on individual freedom, this is your absolute nightmare. Round the clock surveillance and capital punishment – but roaming the country feels incredibly safe. No formal political opposition – but decisions are swiftly executed. Limited personal freedoms – but remarkable income growth.

Deep waters

Miraculously to Western observers this mentality has propelled China from being a poor, largely agrarian economy in the 1970s, via the world’s “Made in China” sweatshop in the 90s, to a technological powerhouse whose products even rival South Korea (i.e. Samsung) and the US (i.e. Apple). No wonder Trump considers Chinese competitors the enemy. American intentions to install missiles as defence against China would even suggest that the US feels more than just economically threatened.

President Xi Jinping entertains an insatiable desire for greatness and historical legacy, as his writings suggest. It therefore should be no surprise to Trump or anyone else that the drive for global influence and relevance does not stop with economic power. Currently, this drive finds its clearest expression in the militarization of the seas surrounding China.

In Hainan, the largest Chinese island in the South China Sea, the quest for global power reflects such dimension. Large housing and infrastructure projects around the capital city Haikou underline the importance of the region in extending the country’s influence and building a protective maritime belt around the mainland. A few hundred miles to the south of the island, artificial military bases convey Xi’s intentions more openly.

In many Western media outlets, Chinese actions – not only the maritime expansion but also the treatment of minorities – are considered aggression and intimidation. In China, things are regarded differently however. Diplomatically speaking, equidistance is the name of the game where all countries ought to win. Any state can ask for China’s financial and human capital, at least as long as Chinese interests are guarded. On the way to becoming a superpower, the boundary between soft and hard power is increasingly blurred.

Lost in translation

Perhaps because China historically is unique in so many senses, or perhaps they use old indicators to measure a country’s social and political strength, Western observers have often forecast the end of the socially restrictive but economically open system. In the absence of greater democratic rights, which Western societies use to demand with increasing wealth, they expect the decay into protests and civil unrest.

But can we really measure the state of China’s society and politics by applying Western standards? We know the workings and pitfalls of Socialist societies on the one hand as well as of (successful) capitalist economies on the other. The combination of both systems, as is China’s case, highlights the limits of Western concepts and theories.

Our expectations of how an economy and a political system sustain each other are unable to capture what happens in the world’s most populous country. Whether one likes it or not, China is setting new standards, including in government and politics. A new language to understand the nexus between society and economy in China is needed. Without such language or theory, any forecasts about China’s aims or weaknesses will be inaccurate and any reports about its demise premature.

To say that dialogue and diplomacy with China is required more than ever might be a superficial and 20th-century-style conclusion but should certainly lie at the heart of any attempt to approach the country. After all, channelling China’s quest for power peacefully while respecting the fears of other nations is something that not even WeChat can solve.

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