By Sam Beatson.

Soft semantic shifts in the rhetoric used in China’s foreign policy procedures betray the clandestine nature of internal decision making processes. That ‘China’s peaceful rise’ has become ‘China’s peaceful development’, proliferation of Confucius institutes flourished and diplomatic focus been on ‘harmonious relations’ and ‘non-interference’, all convey China as unassertive and non-threatening. Yet the yin (阴) of exerting soft influence on outside policymakers contrasts with yang () actions like the Syrian veto and criticism of Western politicians’ plans in the ‘10s’ opening years.  Not unlike the soft opening pawn moves of chess, the end-game remains mysterious yet sublime. What will define China having been ‘restored to its rightful place’, an unspoken long-term objective?

We can only imagine the veiled dialogues taking place behind lion-guarded, scarlet double doors and dragon-embossed walls forming the dark, smoke-filled rooms of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) big-dogs’ inner sanctum. However, official discourse does reveal that we must ‘observe carefully; secure our position; deal with other nations wisely; desist in claiming leadership and bite our tongues, ’ en route to a destiny in which growth and development, cohesion and stability create comprehensive national power.

If there is a historical benchmark from which we can solve the enigma of China’s ‘rightful place’ though, it must surely echo the dynastic conviction of China as a Middle Kingdom (zhong guo中国), the Emperor as the son of heaven (tian zi天子) and the Imperial court as having the privileged position of carrying out the mandates of heaven in all that lies beneath it (tian xia天下).

At a glance, the basis for the Tao-given function of the Imperial hierarchy appears a mere concept, but the symbolism has legs when China’s achievements under Imperial Chinese rule are considered.

On the face of the record, developing China is a country whose cumulative failures under the latter-day Manchu system, especially those ‘lack-of-insight’ mistakes causing humiliation after the European enlightenment, were compounded through the disaster spots of Maoist communism. On the detail though, prior to the industrial revolution, indeed prior to the first Opium War, China experienced glory and respect extending beyond borders and recent rapid growth seems to reflect the historical position.

Take for instance the seventh century Tang dynasty, advancing an exam-based civil service recruitment and deployment system, the institutionalisation of Confucian principles, systematic management of the agrarian population and production, not-to-mention metallurgical techniques and waterways. While we barbarians were still hitting each other over the heads with clubs, Chinese society was replete with splendour from 600-1700 anno domini. Recall Napoleon’s one-liner on the ‘…sleeping giant…’ a century later.

Whether or not the ‘Imperial benchmark’ plays a part in the Chinese political psyche when it comes to ‘restoring China to its rightful place’, there are parallels between historical problems, expectations and solutions and the present state of play. Policy-makers would do well to make reference to such comparators, particularly during attempts to understand the actions of the Chinese government.

The following three parallels can be drawn for their benefit. By promoting harmonious society and swiftly managing even small hints of ‘uprising’ domestically, the government demonstrates it knows how to act to maintain ever-important stability, ugly though the method may appear to Western humanitarians. There exists in addition, the argument that the CCP wishes to pacify the West in order to extend hegemony in the East. At least, Beijing has Ma Ying-Jeou kow-towing and Hong Kong anxious about its identity. Thirdly, China’s soft power strategy and ‘harmonious’ rhetoric betrays an underlying suspicion, agenda and influence which require closer supervision.

Considering, for example, Hong Kong and Taiwan as quasi-governance role models, having achieved developed, stable societies with a modified democracy to suit Chinese culture, the Chinese government might do well to be more flexible around Confucian ideals. After all, the legalist standpoint of neo-Confucian code has become the Great Scholar’s Achilles’ Heel, because it is precisely archaic bureaucratic coercion which now undermines rules of law and proper process and holds China back from greatness. If the Chinese government marries its planning expertise, prominent throughout Chinese (including CCP) history, with more evolved administration, the desired status will be closer at hand.

Sam Beatson is a Ph.D. Candidate at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.

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