Behind the ‘Modern’ China

Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes on the Washington Post:

China can go for great stretches these days looking like the model of a postmodern, 21st-century power. Visitors to Shanghai see soaring skyscrapers and a booming economy. Conference-goers at Davos and other international confabs see sophisticated Chinese diplomats talking about “win-win” instead of “zero-sum.” Western leaders meet their Chinese counterparts and see earnest technocrats trying to avoid the many pitfalls on the path to economic modernization.

But occasionally the mask slips, and the other side of China is revealed. For China is also a 19th-century power, filled with nationalist pride, ambitions and resentments; consumed with questions of territorial sovereignty; hanging on repressively to old conquered lands in its interior; and threatening war against a small island country off its coast.

It is also an authoritarian dictatorship, albeit of a modern variety.

…These days, China watchers talk about it becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. But perhaps we should not expect too much. The interests of the world’s autocracies are not the same as those of the democracies. We want to make the world safe for democracy. They want to make the world safe, if not for all autocracies at least for their own. People talk about how pragmatic Chinese rulers are, but like all autocrats what they are most pragmatic about is keeping themselves in power. We may want to keep that in mind as we try to bring them into our liberal international order.

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