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  • The Communist Party of China as a heat shield
    Posted by Bradley Perrett 1:35 AM on Dec 14, 2010

    Readers may have seen the Economist's set of reports last week on the challenges that a rising China will bring. The writer, Edward Carr, did a good job.

    Although Ares is a defense technology blog, I'll add my tuppence on that issue. (I'm Aviation Week's Beijing correspondent.)

    People who live outside of authoritarian states often imagine that the governments in such countries are in control of everything and that those states’ firm or aggressive behavior internationally stems from the hard attitudes of the people in charge.

    But in China the average person probably wants much stronger defense and foreign policies than the government has. This attitude is rooted in intense and rising nationalism, which is itself encouraged by the ceaselessly nationalistic propaganda of the media, even the media that the government does not strongly control.

    Chinese children are also taught at school to be nationalistic.

    Even without propaganda, Chinese people would probably be highly nationalistic, anyway, because of their grand and ancient culture, the size of the country and knowledge that it is becoming great again.

    As a result, the idea of extraordinarily aggressive foreign policy, or even war, comes up in ordinary conversations with ordinary people.

    So, while the Chinese government was badly criticized abroad for the strength of its reaction in the recent flare-up of its dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands this year, at home it was widely criticized as gutless.

    From casual conversations with several Chinese friends, I got the impression that war with Japan would have been a perfectly satisfactory policy to them. Obviously they were not thinking things through. But the point is that ordinary Chinese believe in strong measures to protect China’s interests. And it must be stressed that most of them only have those thoughts when China’s interests are at stake.

    Readers in Western countries might remember the 2008 street marches by Chinese students studying abroad who were angry at what they saw as Western bias amid riots in Tibet. The anger that you saw was a good insight into the strength of nationalist feeling here.

    This leads to a surprising conclusion: the Communist Party of China is to some degree a heat shield between the rest of the world and the Chinese people. A democratic China would have no such heat shield. It might be a lot hotter to handle.

    If the party gradually loses its control over China, we can probably expect it to listen more to the people. I expect that they will demand better public services, less corruption, lower tax, more social security—and a more aggressive foreign policy.

    The party, if it felt it were losing its grip, could also be active in exploiting nationalism to rebuild public support. An attempt to recover Taiwan would be a wildly popular move. The Falklands War is an unsettling precedent.

    One senior Western diplomat put it to me this way: “The party basically relies on economic performance and nationalism to keep itself in power. My worry is that if the economic performance weakens badly, it will only be able to rely on nationalism.”

    Despite the dangers, I see no sign that the Chinese government is easing its nationalistic propaganda.

    Nationalism in this country, whose importance will rise with the relative strength of the economy, will probably become one of the key issues in international relations this century.

    Tags: China

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