The Rising Dragon: Ready for Global Leadership?

In my last post, I chronicled the history of Chinese leadership in the twilight of the Qing Dynasty–a period when Imperial China faced both unprecedented internal and external threats to its sovereignty. Chinese leadership has historically existed, and I called on today’s Chinese (both young and old) leaders to “step up” and rise to current global challenges. Global leadership is sorely needed, especially as the United States and Western Europe deal with the after-effects of unregulated globalization and financial speculation. With China now possessing the world’s second largest economy–and her (self-imposed) historical position as the “Middle Kingdom”–it is simply natural to demand such leadership and statesmanship from her.

The following essay by my good friend, Ryan Kellogg, challenges such a notion. Ryan argues that Chinese leadership is a misnomer. Ryan enunciates four distinct political and humanitarian objectives that China leadership must embrace before she could be considered a legitimate global power. Without further ado… this is a must-read.

The Rising Dragon: Ready for Global Leadership? – by Ryan Kellogg

Since the beginning of the Great Recession four years ago, the story of American decline and Chinese ascendance has become a dominant theme in international affairs. On the surface, the transition of the United States in the public discourse from an unstoppable “hyperpower” and imperial overlord in 2004 to a broken and ungovernable idiocracy a mere four years later has a certain emotional resonance. When global financial markets collapsed in September 2008, there was a distinct feeling that this was different—not like previous economic downturns of recent decades, but more similar to the earthquake of 9/11 in its epoch-changing potential.  The financial crisis had laid bare the rot that had been accumulating for decades in the US politico-economic system: a predatory banking sector devouring economic resources and human capital with no accountability, an ideologically paralyzed Congress incapable of dealing with big problems, overextended state governments forced to slash funding in education, and an anemic labor market that offered little benefit to the majority of its participants, all seemed to offer definitive evidence of America’s decline. When contrasted with the images at that time of a supremely confident China, fresh from hosting the stunning spectacle of the Beijing Olympics and 30 years into breakneck economic growth, it is little wonder that the current picture of US-China power dynamics emerged.

Many, both outside and within the US, have embraced this comeuppance for America after the divisive years of the Bush administration. According to this oft-heard storyline, Anglo-American laissez faire economics and warmongering in the Middle East have invalidated the fiscal and moral authority of American leadership first established in the post-WWII era. In contrast, China’s authoritarian-capitalist system and mercantilist foreign policy seemed to offer the world a new model for prosperity that didn’t involve often messy democratic reforms. The “Beijing Consensus”, an idea originally fulminated by Time editor Joshua Cooper Ramo that encapsulates this governance approach, has been embraced by China’s leadership (and Tom Friedman) in an increasingly assertive bid for global influence. According to a recent Brookings report, the leaders of China believe that the “Middle Kingdom” will be restored to its rightful place as the world’s preeminent power in part because of the appeal of this new development model.

This idea of America following Britain into the shadows of history, while a resurgent China fills the void is now a common part of political rhetoric in the West. Never really examined too closely, this dynamic is often implied in commonly held opinions about how China now “owns” the US (based apparently on the fact that China holds 9% of US Treasury bonds), the dominance of its economy (53% of Americans believe China’s economy is larger despite being half the size), or the rapid growth of its military (As of 2011, total Chinese spending is still 1/5th of the US). But setting aside for a moment this difference in perception versus reality, we should ask ourselves, given this moment of Western weakness, whether more assertive Chinese leadership in the world is desirable or not?

First let’s attempt to define the aspirations we have for a ‘global leader’.  Based on the lessons of the 20th century it seems that an ideal global leader should pursue goals that are not limited to economic growth alone, but should include political and humanitarian objectives as well. The following is a partial ‘to-do-list’ of any responsible would-be superpower: a) prevent large worldwide conflicts, b) support open trade and help secure the sea lanes for this trade, c) encourage the values embodied by the UN Declaration of Human Rights both through example and, when necessary, intervention, and d) coordinate collective action through established organizations to address international problems (e.g. global warming, nuclear proliferation, natural disaster relief, threats of genocide). Given this list of duties, I would offer that current Chinese leadership, as embodied by the unelected Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, has neither the ability nor the will to meet any of these demands for responsible global leadership.

China’s aggressive actions throughout Asia over maritime rights are highly worrisome. In the past few years China has butted heads with Japan, Vietnam, and most recently, the Philippines over territorial claims that have no basis in international law. China currently claims the bulk of the South China Sea, embodied by the ‘nine-dashed line’ map, and has attempted to enforce these claims, driven mostly by the prospect of rich oil and gas deposits, through intimidation both militarily and economically. When combined with longstanding claims over Taiwanese sovereignty and continued support of the world’s most reprehensible regime, North Korea, Chinese leadership has been the primary catalyst in making Asia a powder keg reminiscent of Europe in the 1900s.

While China has benefited enormously from the system of liberalized international trade setup by the United States and her allies after WWII (Bretton Woods), the nation has frequently fallen well short of its obligations since its ascension to full WTO membership in 2001. Beyond currency manipulation, stringent conditions on FDI, and significant government subsidies for many industries—it is the complete disdain for intellectual property that is most troubling. While tariffs and other forms of protectionism are understandable strategies for a developing nation, the aggressive, state-led policy of computer hacking and corporate espionage is not.

Human rights abuse in post-Mao China hardly needs exposition given its infamy in the West. From the bloody crackdown of the Tiananmen uprising to the recent intimidation of human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, Chinese leadership has a long and sordid record of oppression to those that challenge its authority. This is a nation that has severe cultural and religious repression of its ethnic minorities, leads the world in extrajudicial killings without due process, and greatly limits free speech and access to the internet. Although the Chinese record can attempt to hide behind the concept of “Asian values” first espoused by Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew to counter the Western thesis that the principles of the Enlightenment are universal, such a defense flies in the face of neighbors like South Korea, whose citizenry heroically fought a decades long battle with their authoritarian government to win increased political freedom.

Finally China, although only recently reengaged on the world stage, has shown itself to be in constant opposition to the ideals of human freedom and security.  As a staunch ally of the world’s most vile regimes in the last decade it has stood on the wrong side of history in support of a rogue’s gallery of sociopathic leaders: Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Kim Jong Il, and, most recently, Bashar al-Assad.  While China may not possess any colonies, its increasingly large presence throughout Africa has led to rising resentment from locals seeing neo-imperialism at play.  On major areas of shared global concern from climate change to disaster relief, China’s willingness to offer token levels of support demonstrate a nation, much like America of the late 19th century, not ready to expand its focus beyond domestic concerns.

All of this isn’t to say that the United States is without flaws by comparison, or that modern China ruled by the CCP is the reincarnate of Nazi Germany, but given what Chinese leadership has demonstrated through action, as opposed to rhetoric, do we really think this brand of “global leadership” is a step in the right direction?

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