Written by Edward Friedman.

How would a realist IR theorist describe the purposes and actual behavior in a CCP claim that PRC foreign policy is premised on a principle of non-interference? How would a PRC leader comment on the realist analysis?

From a realist IR perspective, “the strong do what they will; the weak do what they must.” This holds for any state. The PRC’s post-2008 territorial expansionism in Asia which is experienced by neighboring governments as a  threat to the sovereignty and future of China’s Asian neighbors is but a recent instance of a ubiquitous reality. Of course, the CCP’s foreign policy is not premised on a principle of non-interference. The strong intervene and often prevail.

Soon after Deng rose to power, he visited SE Asian heads of state with offers of friendship and economic cooperation. Leaders of these neighbors of the PRC pointed out to Deng that the CCP had long turned some of its territory over to groups which were aiming to overthrow these Asian governments, broadcasting incitements to violence by radio daily. Did Deng not know about this CCP policy which continued even after Mao’s death? Or was Deng so self-deluded (ideological!) that he could not help but believe that the PRC practiced non-interference even while it actually supported groups trying to topple the governments of its neighbors? There seems no escape from ideology no matter how much of a realist one tries to be.

Realist IR theory assumes that states try to advance their own interests. Mao, in treating the USSR as the number one threat to China and to all that was good, supported a movement in Angola allied to the Apartheid regime in South Africa, because it was opposed to a group backed by the Soviet Union. I would love to know how Mao responded when Tanzania’s President Nyrere flew to Beijing to tell Mao that China must stop such immoral activity. The PRC policy did not stop and Mao’s policy alienated African nationalists.

When Deng became paramount leader, he continued China’s support for the anti-Soviet, anti-Vietnam, Khmer Rouge, a Cambodian movement which was a world leader in mass murder. The CCP government clearly has not practiced a foreign policy premised on non-interference. As with any world power, the PRC has a lot to answer for from the perspective of values of non-interference or human dignity.

Yet I doubt that paramount leader Xi would recognize the above sketch as a description of CCP foreign policy. He would probably dismiss this persistent pattern of PRC behavior as an anomaly. He would give himself a good conscience by persuading himself that, in contrast to the USA and Russia, China uniquely embraces a principle of non-interference.

In like manner, I assume that the American Secretary of State, in condemning Russian interference in the Ukraine, persuaded himself that the 2003 Bush-ordered invasion of Iraq was an exception which obscured the basic reality that the USA embraces the international norm of non-interference. In realist IR, the appeals to lofty principles by world powers seem instances of hypocrisy and camouflage.

Of course, the weak, who are vulnerable, do embrace the principle of non-interference. Their survival depends on adherence to that norm, at least as long as they are not dealing with yet weaker states. All governments create narratives to persuade themselves that their government has clean hands. The big question is whether these better narratives ever have any causal power.

While the PRC proclaims its support of non-interference, it is not a secret that the CCP government bullies and bribes all around the world. It has tried to blackmail Norway by blocking imports of Norwegian salmon because Oslo gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the peaceful supporter of gradualist democratization, Liu Xiaobo. The PRC bribes and bullies the government of Nepal to crack down on exiled Tibetans trying to call attention to the CCP policy of forced assimilation which threatens Lama Buddhist Tibetans with cultural genocide.

At worst, the CCP leaders would describe their actions as defensive responses to aggressive US policies aimed at undermining CCP rule so that the USA could be an unchallenged global hegemon. In the PRC’s backing of cruel regimes from Zimbabwe to Uzbekistan, the CCP leadership will persuade itself that it is helping independent governments working for good governance- stability and prosperity- without subordinating themselves to the power-hungry American government.

In short, world powers doing unconscionable things easily persuade themselves that they are acting in good conscience. Rather than describing these governments as hypocritical or lying, we should take seriously the question of whether ideology has consequences beyond camouflage and self-delusion.

Even a realist should see a conversation between promoters of freedom and authoritarian regimes as more than an empty ritual or a dialogue of the deaf. Moral progress happens. Slavery was once presuppositional. So it has been with patriarchy and military expansion. Long entrenched evils can be de-legitimated and defeated. While moral progress can happen, it usually comes very slowly and at a high price. In remembering Tan Sitong, Song Jiaoren, May 4th, Wen Yiduo and Liu Xiaobo, one is acting on the side of those who struggle and sacrifice for human dignity.

It is not impossible that the powerful can split, and their children can turn against tyranny, oppression and repression. It has happened time and again. While our age may be one that is not propitious for the cause of freedom and democracy; while this may be an age in which human rights and human dignity are in danger or decline, I have faith in the triumph of that cause because I believe it is at one with the core of human nature. Still, I do not know how to ground that faith in realist IR. I only know that I could not do my work without that faith. I would like to be able to persuade both of us that this freedom-based ideological orientation better serves humane purposes than does the ideological constructions of repressive world powers.

Edward Friedman is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Friedman was the chief editor and organizer for the 2012 translation and publication of Yang Jisheng’s study of the worst famine in human history, “Tombstone.”


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