Scholars' Blog

29 June 2022
Brian Wong
By Brian Wong

Past, Present and Future of China
Rhodes Scholars Conversation on China: Brian Wong with Rana Mitter

This is a transcription of Episode #1 of the Rhodes Scholars Conversations on China series hosted by Brian Wong, DPhil student in Politics and Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. It was transcribed with the permission of Brian and his guest Rana Mitter, Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China, St. Cross College, Oxford.

The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Brian Wong (BRIAN): Well, thank you very much. You are watching the Conversations on China series, a series that hopes to provide an opportunity for the Rhodes community and the wider Oxford community at large, to engage and make sense of one of the most challenging, exciting phenomena in global politics today, the rise of and developments in China. We’re incredibly honored to be joined by Professor Rana Mitter, plausibly the foremost expert on Chinese contemporary history in the UK, and a leading voice globally contributing towards the ongoing and rapidly evolving debate on China’s rise. Rana, thank you so much for joining me. It’s a real pleasure.

Rana Mitter (RANA): Brian, it’s lovely to be here and I look forward to a very stimulating conversation today.

BRIAN: I’m Brian, I’m a DPhil in Politics at Balliol College from Hong Kong, 2020, and one of the co-curators for this ongoing series. I just want to get right off the bat: this question concerning the role of history in making sense of contemporary Chinese politics. Rana, you’ve written a lot on the Republican period of Chinese history and how it pertains to what we see today in China. There’s a school of thought that says, in understanding China, you have to go all the way back. This concept of shangxia wuqiannian 上下五千年, that it’s 5,000 years of civilization, and in order to judge it properly, you need to get to grips with all of it. What do you make of that view? Do you think it has the salience and grounding to it, or do you think it’s sort of this culturally essentialist view that doesn’t really map onto what we actually need to engage in real time political discourse?

RANA: Thanks, Brian. Well, actually in a sense, by contrasting those two chronologies, you put your finger on what I think one of the primary dilemmas is, in terms of trying to understand what is Chinese, and what is Chinese-ness. And as someone who is not Chinese, of course, I have to tread very carefully in terms of walking into a garden in which I was not born and brought up, but actually one which perhaps for that reason has proved endlessly fascinating.

You mentioned the Republican period of Chinese history, which is the area that I’ve done the most specialist research on. And for those few who may not know, it’s just worth saying that’s between 1912 and 1949, between the fall of the last emperor, and the victory of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party in 1949. So overall, as Chinese eras go, the Republic is a very short period, although a lot happened during it.

And it’s insignificant contrast with that very long period of history… now, you might find that a current phrasing in a lot of places, that it’s 5,000 years – you just used it yourself – but that number has been growing, over the decades. If you look at it a while ago, I think it’s sort of crept up. It always goes by sort of units of thousands, I think. You never had sort of 3,652 years of history, which might or might not be relevant, but it’s really a way I think of partly making a claim in terms of the idea of unbroken civilization. And that, I think, is one of the areas where we have to both talk about what is valid about the claim, and also delve a little deeper, which is one of the things I know that Rhodes Scholars are supposed to do, so we’ll have some fun doing that today.

In terms of talking about what’s useful about the claim, there are some things that I think it’s indisputable have a very long continuity, when it comes to that tradition, that heritage – we’re not so keen on the word civilization these days, but it’s out there so we could put it into the mix, even if we’re going to query it, that people associate with China. But one of the things that I think is worth noting, is that there are areas such as the development of a unified writing system using the very distinctive system of Chinese characters, that do have a long tradition. There’s also a philosophical tradition: Confucius is probably the brand name thinker in Chinese history, and we may go back to that, but it’s certainly true that he perhaps has some claim to be the longer standing, most central figure, in something that could be regarded as a Chinese philosophical tradition, but in the end, he’s also one very important figure.

There are other elements that one could bring together in terms of a series of unified socioeconomic phenomena, including development of particular types of agriculture, in some parts of the Eastern end of Eurasian land mass. But the reason that I don’t want to go too far beyond those in giving too much validity to a very uncomplicated idea of China as one entity, is that China is a plural noun, even if sometimes many people, including as we said, many in charge at the moment, like to portray it top-down, as being essentially one clearly definable thing, and actually that’s never been the case. Whether you look at the way in which a whole variety of different cultural and religious traditions come together and have come together over thousands of years to create the mixture that is China, or the fact that many of the things which are most distinctively Chinese today, actually emerge from outside.

Let me just give two quick examples of what I’m talking about – one from the longer history of China. Buddhism emerged in what we now call India, and yet it emerges in what we now think of as China in the early parts of the common era, 100-300 CE, AD, as was. A lot of figures associated with that, most notably perhaps, the great translator from Pali and Sanskrit into Chinese of Buddhist scriptures. They’re translating foreign works and putting them into Chinese, but today you’ll find millions of Chinese Buddhists, whereas you actually find very few in India. And the one parallel example, of course, I throw to you much more recent, but each equally important, is Marxism. Thought up by a thinker from central Europe, but very much incorporated, absolutely woven into the story of 20th century China. So, anyone who can tell you in clear definition they know exactly what China is, hasn’t been doing their homework.

BRIAN: That’s a very fair point. I’m actually quite skeptical of this whole “Civilization can explain it all”, the view that civilizational theory, so to speak, can explain all political machinations from the current regime’s approach to politics. And the reasoning for that is, I think there’s a lot of picking and choosing going on here: it’s often a process of selective construction, where as you said, there’s a massive repertoire and a backdrop of historical narratives, religious narratives, theological doctrines, and even within philosophies, you’ve got Mengzi, Confucius, and other legalist, philosophers and traditions. The picking and choosing of these thinkers, and highlighting of what constitutes salient Chinese identity, or the most distinctively Chinese category – that to me is little more than just a political power play.

Obviously, there are manifestations of local resistance and also organic bottom-up challenges to that, and anthropological reasons why, culturally speaking, the people would be reluctant to embrace, say, a wholly distinct and suddenly superimposed narrative of non-Chinese democratization. Yet even then the assertion that China is anathemic to Western democracy, in my view, is little more than just post-hoc rationalization, as opposed to a necessarily true justification that’s rooted in culture. And on that note, I’d also like to sort of just bring in a recent discussion concerning changes to Chinese nationalism.

You’ve written a lot on nationalism, I’m a massive fan of your books, of course, on both the role played by nationalism and construction of nationhood in China, throughout World War II. I’m more curious, though to hear though about your thoughts on Chinese nationalism throughout the latter half of the 20th century, till now, e.g., from the late Deng to Jiang, to Hu-Wen, and now to Xi Jinping’s era.

RANA: I think you’ve put your finger on one of the really important issues during this period, which is the rise of a system of nationalism, which in some ways is very different from what you see in the previous period, but also is powerful, because it has so many strands in it. So just to differentiate it from what comes before, I think nationalism in the sense of being a modern doctrine, a political system of thought that takes the nation, and indeed the nation state, as its central object of attachment, and also links to that the idea of the people as the site in which legitimacy is embodied. That is something that is not in and of itself a traditional, whatever that is, traditional Chinese way of thinking at all. It certainly wouldn’t have appealed to the great emperors of the Ming or the Qing. But does emerge the late 19th century along with other varieties of Western thought at that point.

And then it’s endogenized through a whole variety of great thinkers at the time – I’m thinking of transformative figures like Kang Youwei, one of the great intellectuals of the late 19th century. Then you get the mid-20th century communist revolution, and it’s important to note that the Communist revolution, Mao Zedong’s revolution, is a nationalist revolution, too. It is of course about violent class struggle at home that defines it, but it’s also about the creation of… Well, it’s the fulfillment of that old dream of the late 19th century, which is the idea of a rich country and a strong army fuguo qiangbing 富国强兵 . The idea that China somehow has to get its act together and become, in some ways, a dynamic power in the world. And for Mao, that was very much through the force of the emergent communist revolution.

After Mao, a new generation of communist leaders came to power, actually an older generation were finally finding their place. Deng Xiaoping, and others – they were thinking, “Well, what does nationalism mean in the modern era?” And it’s that conversation, since the 1980s that’s going on still today, that means several things. The first one is that it is above all, I think, based on the idea of securing China’s borders. In other words, the idea that the nation state, as opposed to just the nation, has to have this very clear definition. That’s one of the reasons why amongst the most contentious areas that other countries find when dealing with China today, is the question of borders, both land borders and maritime borders. We’ll make it back to that. But then there’s a contradictory element to that, because within that, you also have, I think, a stronger sense that’s emerging that people of Chinese heritage, in a broader sense, are also somehow part of the project.

It’s not always very clearly defined how that is, and it’s not necessarily a question of citizenship at all. It is a question of having some kind of connection with that 华侨, that Chinese diaspora community, that today’s China also makes part of the nation as well. And whether they want to be, or not is another question, but they’re certainly defined in those terms by the state. Then beyond that you have this very strong sense that in some senses that China has to define itself by including a whole variety of different groupings, ethnic groupings in particular. There’s a very top-down framework about how exactly that type of identity gets defined.

And finally, at least in my list, but I think one of the most under-examined is the fact that Marxist doctrine and its framework still remains tremendously important.

Not in terms of class struggle anymore, I think that’s no longer on the agenda, certainly in the classic sense, but in terms of looking at the development of the nation as the product of a kind of dialectic, the idea of different forces coming up against each other, antagonism, contradictions, these are ideas that Hegel would’ve recognized, Marx would’ve recognized, Mao would’ve recognized. Indeed, China’s current leaders, including Xi Jinping, actually speak about explicitly today in the 2020s, in a way that in some ways they were rather quieter about in the 2000s and 2010s, but that framework never actually went away, and it too is part of nationalism.

BRIAN: There’s something interesting to be said about that dialectical dynamic, because I think what the CPC does very well is a very flexible and dexterous interpretation of 主要矛盾,which means primary contradiction, and what counts as 次要矛盾, secondary contradiction. So perhaps in Mao’s days, you had the classic class-based manifestation of the primary contradiction, but Mao also interpreted the proletariat to include the agrarian rural workers and farmers, which was a point of substantial departure and divide between him and others who were more radically Soviet-aligned members of the CPC. And then Deng Xiaoping came along and said, “Ah, actually we need to look at development, and we need to look at the many different stages of socialism.” Deng very deftly reconciled his pro market reforms and liberalization, with a shift in interpretation of contradiction.

The following is my hypothesis: Rana, correct me if I’m wrong, but if we look at the changes in nationalism over the past 20 years, maybe we could say that there’s a new primary contradiction that’s being spun into, or woven into party rhetoric, which is, I guess as you said, not necessarily completely absent from Mao’s days, but certainly latent and underplayed, and that is one, in terms of the so-called Global South and North. In a previous interview we had, you pointed out the fact that it’s not clear if China could claim, as it is currently stated, to be the Vanguard of the Global South, just as we have grounds to doubt whether the enemies of China must therefore be the oppressive and evil Global North. There are loads of problems with the Global North, but it’s not entirely clear if this polarization, or diametrically constructed contradiction between the North and South, is indeed valid. So that’s my normative evaluation of that contradiction… but more descriptively, do you see this shift in terms of more of a development and developed world versus developing world? Do you see that as now integral elements of say Xi Jinping’s nationalism that wasn’t necessarily there in the CPC ideology 20 years ago?

RANA: I think that the idea that China in some ways is a leader of the Global South is one element that is certainly being pushed very hard, and it comes not necessarily in that phrasing, but through ideas such as the “community of common destiny”, and also the idea that China’s own global aspirations in terms of economic and social change might fit in with goals such as the millennial development goals of the United Nations. In those terms, I think that is there. The problem is from the Chinese point of view, or at least from the official party point of view, that there is a fundamental contradiction.

China wants to juggle two particular views of the world. One is the view that no country should be telling any other country how to run affairs within those fiercely guarded borders. But also, and within that, the China, for instance, in a phrase that we’ve all come to know if we deal with China, 中国特色的道路. The claim is, China has Chinese characteristics, and therefore its type of socialism couldn’t be copied elsewhere. But to then marry that with a much more contemporary idea that somehow there’s something that’s often-called Chinese wisdom, which in some ways is also applicable elsewhere. So that I think stands in some ways in contrast to what we had back in the days of Mao Zedong, the theory of the Three Worlds, in which actually Mao Zedong was pretty frank about what he wanted other countries to do, particularly in what we would’ve called the Afro-Asian bloc in those days, which was revolution. That was what it was about.

By basically taking Chinese advice, not only would they be seeking a revolutionary destiny like that of China, but they would also be pushing back against the forces of capitalism. Not just the United States, but of course actually the Soviet Union, which Mao despised much more than the United States at that particular point. That doesn’t really map onto the much more complex view that the China of today has in terms of its role in the global south. And I think there’s also an additional issue we should just bring up, which is that it’s all really well having a discourse about yourself, but it has to have some sort of resonance with the target group, and my overall sense, and this is a very, very kind of broad way of putting it, and feel free to push back against it, is that with a few exceptions, Pakistan might be one example of that, but with a few exceptions, most of the relationships that have been built up between China and the global south still remain quite instrumental and quite pragmatic.

They are about issues such as economic, development, and growth, which to be absolutely fair, China has in some cases been rather effective at stimulating, but this has not created, I think, a sort of ideological confluence, in the sense that the old Cold Warriors, the Americans, the Soviets, and indeed the Chinese of that era, would’ve seen. In that sense, the leadership role in the Global South is more by default of being the country that has coffers with coins to offer, some very large numbers of coins, rather than necessarily having a worldview that can be sold.

BRIAN: I think that’s a fair point, although I would note that if we are to classify Chinese relationships with different countries in the Global South, we could do so along a conceptual spectrum. On one hand, you’ve got a purely instrumentalist, economic transactions view. On the other, there’s the normative, worldview-oriented, almost fanatic-in-style ideological propagation of norms that people would subscribe to and buy into. I would suggest that China, over the past six to seven years, especially since the inception of the Belt and Road Initiative, which I guess was a concept that was coined by Wang Jisi, when Wang spoke of developing the Great West in 2013, has been shifting towards the ideological end in three distinctive directions.

The first is, as you said, the argument for a which is to say a 人类命运共同体. It’s essentially China’s way of saying climate change, global public health, economic development, these are shared challenges. The argument goes, “China can give, China can offer, and perhaps the Chinese way of doing things is a suitable supplanting alternative to the Western way of doing things.”

The second aspect to it though, is more of a multi-polarity, multipolar world view. And I’ve been seeing this a lot in Chinese commentary in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, where lots of writers have been talking about a 多极世界, where Russia rises to become this sort of part of this multi-polar world. The reservation I have, of course, is that presumes some degree of parity and acceptability from the rest of the poles. Anyway, that’s an aside. Of course, multi-polarity and multi-nationalism are different concepts, and that in itself is another tussle to be had.

And a third element, I guess, is China’s attempt to reclaim democracy, or to provide its own interpretation of democracy, which was quite a nascent phenomenon in terms of international propagation; yet not necessarily so nascent or new, if we look at the internal documents – it’s always been there, where the CPC when it was founded had in its documents, and also the initial statements, “We are a democratic nation.” It was only really until 2021 where we had this claim of 全过程民主 or whole-processual democracy. I am unsure as to what this entails… I guess these are attempts by China to shift towards that ideological influence you’re talking about. Has it worked out? Has it not?

RANA: Well, not really. Not so far. Let’s take the last point first, the idea of trying to redefine democracy. When you find yourself as an entity, a political entity, seizing terms, and trying to define them according to your standards, you are losing. Because basically if someone’s once said it in terms of politics, when you’re explaining, you’re losing, and if I’m saying, “Well, we are a democracy really, but we don’t really look like a democracy, but actually if you think about this, this, and this, then we really are a democracy.” Then you’re explaining, and you’re spending a very long time doing it while basically people are looking elsewhere.

China has spent a very long time setting up a very distinctive political system. It doesn’t really look like any democracy, liberal or illiberal, anywhere else in the world. And look, there are lots of places that have multiparty electoral systems, but have horrible rights when it comes to say media freedom – Philippines would be a good example of that. Or places that have not-horrible records, but have deteriorating records… Hungary, would be a good example of that too. But those countries can still make some claim to being essentially illiberal democracies, which have at least some civil societies, some space for operation. If you are basically putting forward a model of yourself as a democracy, a democracy that has no competitive multiparty system — technically there are minor parties in China, but they don’t really have any say anymore, no real freedom of media, and again, a system where actually the leader comes to the central television station and says “Your duty is to serve the party, East, North, West, South.”… It’s very clear. It’s not really ambiguous, I don’t think.

Where civil society is essentially forced into a framework that means state supervision, you could argue perfectly well that is a system that’s effective in terms of its own goals, but it is a system that needs some other name to define it. And I think actually in this particular case, it’s probably more worthwhile, for the Chinese Communist Party to be thinking of how it is that they want to define what they’re doing in their own terms, rather than basically borrowing terms because they think they’re going to be in some way effective in some sort of global discourse, because they’re clearly not, in that case. In those terms, I think people like Daniel Bell, the political theorist, have talked about China as at least aspirationally a meritocracy.

Just to be very clear to Daniel Bell’s position, he doesn’t claim that the China of today is a meritocracy. Rather he claims that the premises on which the governance is based seek to be a meritocracy, and I think that’s quite an important distinction that he seeks to make. That strikes me potentially as a more productive way of trying to work out what China’s doing, rather than basically making up terms that don’t really have much purchase anywhere than in a very inwardly directed debate, which is really with people trying to find a sort of way of describing something for publicity purposes, rather than a sort of theoretical discussion a political scientist would want to have.

BRIAN: Picking up on your point about political meritocracy, there are many intellectuals like Bell and Zheng Yongnian, and also, to some extent, Zhang Weiwei and Neo-Confucian philosophers who engage in philosophisation within China… who, in terms of their methodology, are essentially drawing upon what we call, as political theorists, ideal type interpretivism. They’re trying to interpret principles, extrapolate an ideal type, and then portray and set this up as not just an aspirational vision, but also what the ideal end conclusion of political evolution is.

Now, the interesting observation I’ll make here, which ties into my next question, is that China used to do this. It had this period of time when it was like 我们要走出我们自己的道路来, “We have our own path to go down”. And I think there was certainly this fertile soil for that discussion. Is it economic liberal? Is it politically liberal? Is there room for more grassroots democratization in villages?

RANA: It’s not politically liberal, to be clear.

BRIAN: Yeah. So, the next question here is the palpable shift over the past four to five years – with the rise of what some political scientists or commentators have dubbed the Wolf Warrior Diplomacy. I just want to unpack this phenomenon a little, because I keep hearing folks write about and talk about it. Now, in my view, it’s a heterogeneous entity, just when you say, Rana, there’s a plural to China, yeah – just as the Chinese are a pluralistic entity, this new kind of diplomacy from China is also plural, in several ways. You’ve got on one hand, this increasingly belligerent defensiveness, concerning things that are construed to be of domestic interest, that you can’t touch that because it’s an internal affair of China 外人不能说三道四.

But there’s a second level to that as well, when you think about essentially the criticisms level towards the West – which are largely centered around comparisons concerning the West and China’s respective COVID track records, on public health, on money politics, some of which I guess are valid, some of which aren’t, and some of which are blatantly hyperbolized.

And there’s a final element of just, I would say, a general sense of bellicosity that’s never been seen before – e.g., the language used, as evidenced by the spat between Chinese diplomats and their French counterparts, one and a half years ago, I think, over some completely innocuous affair that genuinely had no political stake. I was just wondering: these are complex and often interlocuting, but ultimately non-equivalent trends. What do you think precipitated the shift in rhetoric over the past five years or so?

RANA: Well, a couple of things to say, I mean, first of all, and you’re right, the rhetoric is often very, very belligerent, although not universally so across the diplomatic corps. But I think it’s not unprecedented, and if you go back to the diplomacy of Mao’s China, a very great deal of that actually was not only highly aggressive, but also couched particularly in the terms of revolutionary overthrow. I mean these were diplomats, but there were also people who had an ideological mission, and they were looking out to make it, which is one of the reasons I suspect, one of many reasons why, in I want to say 2012, when Xi Jinping made one of his first speeches, I think in Mexico or somewhere actually, one of the things he said was we don’t export revolution, in explaining why people shouldn’t be worried about China.

It was an attempt to actually counter that earlier feeling of real ideological bellicosity, in that sense. In terms of now, I mean, first of all, it’s really worth noting that there are quite a few people involved, both at a diplomatic level and political level in China, who quietly or not so quietly have really been pushing back against this stuff, and making it clear to both internal and external audiences, this isn’t a good way to go. There are academics who have been giving pointed messages, such as “China’s youth is getting far too nationalistic.” I don’t think they really mean China’s youth, although rather they do, but they mean there are some people who are not so young, but also definitely do push a nationalist line.

And there are people who actually are either liberal diplomats, who have said more or less openly “Look, this really isn’t actually very much in service of China’s interests.” That trend, much more sort of active pushing back, is very notable in the last five to seven years. Regarding how Chinese diplomacy got to here, well, I think there’s a couple of reasons. One actually was the presidency of Donald Trump, because American diplomacy around the world at that time took on a tone, which frankly, was very different from that of any US president since 1945, whether Republican or Democratic. I mean there had been loud voices at various points across the cold war and beyond, that’s not unknown. But in terms of the sort of general sense that American diplomacy, I mean, Mike Pompeo himself, I think, actually sent out a message to diplomat saying that they should “Swagger”. This was the term being used, and that term is in turn mirrored in the Chinese argument concerning 自强, a kind of self-confidence.

So, in some senses you can see a sort of mirroring of the emergence of a more outward looking… Well, not outward looking, but kind of a confrontational US diplomacy, and a confrontational Chinese diplomacy during that time. I think it also has to do with what has become a narrowing of the space in which serious policy questions could be discussed in public, in China. It’s not clear to those of us who don’t move in high circles, how much still actually goes on behind the scenes. But in terms of some of the very active debates about what is the right way to deal with the US, what is the right way to deal with climate change, and whatever it might be, those sort of think-tank discussions are just harder to have in the China of today. And one manifestation of why that is, is the social media environment. By the way, that’s where most of these statements get made, and they’re being tweeted out for a huge domestic mix, in many cases, that fuels the difficulty of having a serious conversation about these sorts of areas where China actually does have to operate in an international community, rather than being autonomous.

BRIAN: Going back to the point about the youth, so this is a point I’ve been reflecting upon a lot to someone who sort of tries to interlocute with all sides, all different parties, in this very complex situation… that is, how the attitudes of the youth have hardened considerably over recent years, and soured towards the west in certain segments and quarters. Yet, at the very same time, the disillusionment that they have towards the social political structures, the economic situation, the hyper competitiveness of the labor markets in China, is also under appreciated.

It’s not the case that all Chinese youth are proverbial 小粉红, who stereotypically think everything’s grand in China. I think there’s much more to it than that, where there’s genuinely a sense of “Look, things aren’t great here, but we can fix it, and things are definitely awful in the West”, in many of their eyes.

And then the standard response I have when I communicate this with many of my counterparts and friends here in the west, is they say, “Well, it’s brainwashing, it’s propaganda.” I think there certainly are elements of top-down media and discursive control, but I was just wondering Rana, what do you make of Yan Xuetong’s claim that some amongst the Gen-Z of China, feel that China is in its strongest ever position, that it is on an unstoppable rise?

RANA: In some ways, I think there’s a more existential set of questions that come together in a very strange, but in some ways, not uniquely Chinese mixture of euphoria and despair, and I think that’s what’s coming together. I’ll make a comparison actually with Japan. I’ll explain why. If you went back to the 1980s, the late, great, wonderful scholar of east Asian society, Ezra Vogel, of Harvard, who had both the Chinese and the Japanese worlds very much at his fingertips — and is much missed — wrote a book. One of the most famous, probably the most famous book of Japanese sociology in the world, Japan as Number One.

And it was a book that in its time was a best seller in the states, also actually unsurprisingly in Japan. People wanted to hear this, and it also gave rise, later on, I should say, to a whole bunch of things that have nothing to do with Ezra Vogel, in China, titled “China is Number One.” “China Can Say No.”, so on and so forth. So, the point about Japan is that it fell from being a position where emotionally, it felt that Japan was number one.

I mean, Japan was never number one in terms of the size of the economy or military, whatever, but it was the Asian country, non-Western country on the rise, which led to Americans getting very concerned at various points about whether Japan was going to take over all American industry, buy Rockefeller Plaza, and all this sort of stuff. And then the financial bubble burst in the early 1990s, and with it, a lot of that sense of Japan as being a country on the up, went.

But it had an emotional effect, and that has been less noticed outside Japan, because what almost happened, I mean, Japan today is the third biggest economy in the world. It spends hugely on military. It’s a really important player, but people in the West don’t talk about Japan very much anymore in a way that they used to, a couple of generations ago. And one of the reasons is that Japan seems somehow, particularly amongst its youth, to have become more inward-looking. This is partly the demographic crisis, basically Japanese families just not having kids enough anymore, and Japan is a very low immigration society, so the population is big, but over the decades, inexorably in current trends, is going to shrink. And that’s creating also a youth that doesn’t want to get married, doesn’t want to have kids. I mean, not everyone obviously, but the number of young Japanese wanting to have children certainly is declining. They also don’t much want to go study abroad.

That’s certainly not true of young Chinese when there’s no pandemic, they still may not like the west in some emotional ways, but they still very much want to be in western universities. But the number of young Japanese who do that these days is much, much, much, much lower. And I can see a scenario in which an increasingly disillusioned middle-class youth in the mainland, begins to think not “We hate our government,” or “We hate the West.” I mean, they may think those things, they may not, that’s up to them, but actually end up thinking, “Oh, what’s the point?” I’m thinking of phrases, I mean, you’ll know many of these that are going round on the Chinese social media world, what is it, 毕业就失业 graduate, then unemployed. 躺平 has become pretty famous now, lying flat.

In other words, “No, I don’t want to go to work nine hours a day for six days a week for the sake of GDP and Alibaba, all this. I just want to sit back and play video games, so get lost!”

All of this is clearly very worrying for the government, because clearly it’s not the attitude they support at all. But it’s not dissent in the traditional sense. These people aren’t kind of turning up in the streets with banners demanding a new government or anything, they’re just saying, “You know what? We’re checking out of society. We don’t want to do this pathway, this 道路 that you have found for us, we’re going to do our own thing.” And that, which in a sense, echoes some of what happened in Japan over the last few decades with the youth there, I think is more problematic, in terms of not any kind of one moment overturning the society. China’s, I think strong enough to get through that, but there is just that slow draining way of that confidence that they were boasting about just a few years ago.

BRIAN: So, there’s part of me that feels this is a China-specific phenomenon, and then there’s also part of me that says, I can see something comparable happening right now in America, with the great resignation, and a walkout on this neoliberal logic.

RANA: And actually, elsewhere in East Asia too. So, in South Korea for some time, had the phenomenon where basically middle-class kids can’t get jobs, and just think that actually, South Korea’s not providing the kind of opportunities that they should have either.

BRIAN: So maybe this is actually a more universal problem, to some extent, than we might think. Although I guess uniquely when it comes to China, there’s a demographic question, and also to some extent, more, I guess, because demographic deficit is a long-term problem.

RANA: I think there’s something that is unique about China. It’s a combination of those things. So, it’s a phenomenon for the most part of what you might call highly developed economies, which tend to have fewer kids anyway, where industries maybe have sort of settled, to kind of a groove where growth rates continue, but they’re slow and steady, they’re not mega bucks rates. And then there are economies around the world, particularly in the global south, again, where actually things are kind of bounding ahead much more quickly. The difference is that the vast majority of the countries where this sort of anomie, if you want to call it that, has begun to set in, have already become rich, at least not universally so, they’re not always very equal, but they are overall pretty rich. The United States, much of Western Europe, Japan, South Korea.

Now China has got itself in that situation, partly forced that way, because of the one child policy, which has basically created a demographic downturn that didn’t need to happen as quickly as it did, but China has not got rich enough to be able to support that kind of lifestyle yet, because it doesn’t have a good pension system, doesn’t have any unified pension system at all. It has let’s say 35 different provincial and city pension systems, plus a certain number of corporate and workplace ones. It doesn’t have a healthcare system that’s been fully worked through, nor does the United States, but US is richer overall. And all of those things, I think do make the Chinese situation unique in that it’s getting the demographic crisis of Japan or west Germany, but it’s doing it on the income of Indonesia, and that doesn’t really work.

BRIAN: As someone who believes in the power of dialogue and conversations at large, rather, what do you think is the path forward for folks who believe firmly in resolving mutual disagreements through more communication, engagement, and cross-cultural understanding? Is the future a grim prognosis? Are there things we can do? Can we push back against the isolationists and pro-decoupling sentiment to some extent that we see in China, but also elsewhere?

RANA: Well, I think for those who are interested, particularly in that kind of trajectory of US China relations in particular, I can do a brief plug if I may, but for a free product, which is a documentary I presented on BBC Radio Four earlier this year, it’s called The Great Wall. Sorry about the cliche. But it’s actually subtitled 50 years of US China relations since Nixon. And we got to speak to some really interesting people, actually, on both sides of the divide. I mean, on the American side, we spoke to people of every persuasion in terms of pro-dialogue, to actually probably not so much pro-dialogue. Bob Zoellick, who used to run the World Bank; H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor… people who were very involved with that first phase in the 1970s of opening US-China relations in a big way.

And on the Chinese side, we had various people include the world known think tanker Wang Huiyao from Beijing, from the Center for China Globalization. So, a lot of different voices in there, I think, giving different viewpoints, and I think the vast majority of those people would say that there’s a lot to disagree about… but actually keeping dialogue channels open is a really important thing to do.

And I think it’s notable that from what one can see, the Biden administration has been more assiduous about making sure there are different channels of engagement open to be able to do that.

I will say at the moment that there are two things that really do need to happen. One is, to some extent, everyone is going to have their own take on how the west should engage with China. Some people will be more hawkish, some people will be more dovish. The one thing that really needs to happen is a lot more knowledge of China. We don’t have enough people, I mean, we certainly don’t have enough people studying Chinese, but that’s language, but that’s a long term and quite serious undertaking that not everyone’s going to have the time to do. But we don’t have enough people who actually read books, to actually understand what goes on inside the Chinese political system. I mean, again, to use sort of a slightly glib line, but one I’ve used before, and I think is helpful sometimes.

When you look at the Chinese internet, the first thing you amazed at is about how much is censored, the second thing you amazed at is how much is not censored.

Because actually it’s a really, really interesting place to take the temperature of what’s going on. But unless you do something like that, your commentary on China won’t be informed by understanding what Chinese people are thinking about. And I was explaining to someone else the other day, actually on a podcast, what an awful lot of working-class Chinese people unsurprisingly wake up worrying about is: are my savings safe, or are they about to disappear in a financial scam, which as we know are frequent and far too numerous in China. These sorts of issues on a day-to-day basis are terribly important. Being able to actually talk comparably about those sorts of issues from the Western point of view, I think is a good starting point.

But if I were to flip the other way, and talk about a whole variety of issues that are happening in China, that are making things very, very restrictive, one is at a basic level, — don’t make academics and students have to register their Zoom calls, or the equivalent thereof before actually talking to a foreigner!

You know what? Talking to foreigners isn’t particularly dangerous, and you might even have a pleasant dialogue. The restrictions that China is putting in terms of entering and then out of the country, are making dialogue very difficult, because we all know that virtual conversations through video links, Zoom, Tencent meetings, whatever aren’t the same. They’re great, I’m glad we’ve got them, I’m glad we live an era when we can do that, but it’s not the same thing as showing up.

And I know there are reasons, reasons concerning Zero-COVID, but the problem is that now that the rest of the world is opening up, and even the real strict regimes of Australia, of New Zealand, of Japan, all these places, are now finally opening the doors again. And if China finds itself in a situation where it’s the only major country that hasn’t got that ability to get people in and out quickly, it will reduce the space for serious dialogue, and anyone who advocates serious dialogue knows that space for dialogue in a literal sense of physical presence, just needs to come back, and come back quite soon.

BRIAN: I think that’s absolutely right. And I guess on top of that, there also needs to be a greater broadening of empathy and willingness within China to accept that you might disagree with the amorphously named West on certain issues, without it being an existential threat or structural risk towards a narrative of legitimacy, that they can indeed be a more balanced and open multipolar world with multiple valid governing ideologies, right?

I’ve always thought that value pluralism, of all the tenets that the CPC can pull out of Western liberal political thought that would work to the interest of China as it seeks to make sense of the world. It doesn’t have to be the Chinese way of doing thing is the only way that works out, or indeed, that the American way of doing things is the sole path forward. Maybe both systems can work out, and their own distinctive manners as well.

QUESTION FROM AUDIENCE: I just have a question concerning meritocracy – the concept you mentioned in relation to China. I was wondering if you could just talk about that a bit more. I think that’s a good thing, I guess, and also how that fits in with this kind of the checking-out of society that you’re describing in young people.

RANA: Here I want to refer back to Daniel Bell again, a theorist most associated with the idea that you might want to think of China in a different sort of way. I think his idea is essentially that in terms of its sort of internal framework, is that if you look at the Chinese system of governance as one where essentially people are made to basically get promotion only through how they’ve performed, in terms of governance. If you run a township well, and you get to perhaps work as a kind of mayor, and then you have to work your way up to the provincial level. You won’t get to something like the national political bureau level, unless you’ve been through quite a few series of tests that show that you’re able to juggle the economic, social, political, and other constraints of your job.

And I think the implication is that the system that exists in the Western societies, by which anyone randomly can put themselves forward for election, if they get elected, then that’s who gets to rule the country, is something that that system would find simply way outside the norms of what they would either want or permit. But that system is by definition, not one that has any space for competitive electoral democracy.

That’s one of the reasons why I think trying to sort of frame the term democracy on top of it, is probably not a very helpful idea, because it then sends the discussion off in a very different direction from what the phenomenon actually puts forward. If you are like many people in the Chinese Communist Party, and believe that an ordered system of governance in which finding out about public opinion is useful to do, but in the end, the public does not have a direct say in terms of exactly who was chosen to govern them, but the results in terms of economics, and order, and stability, repay the sacrifices made through not having that kind of democratic system, then you’ll think that kind of system, if you believe it’s meritocratic, is basically okay.

But if, either on principle or pragmatically, you believe that actually the ability to have both a freer discourse, and a free choice of rulers, is much more important for maintaining the stability and the ethical integrity of the system, then however meritocratic it is you will not support it as a system of governance. I think Bell’s point is that the vast majority of people outside China who discuss these issues, start from the point of saying that the Chinese system is in itself illegitimate, because it’s not democratic in a pluralist sense.

BRIAN: On that front, I would say Bell’s more recent writing offers a rather promising shift, I guess, towards a mixed model, where you have sort of grassroots democratization or actual village elections are unfettered. So, you have low-level democratization and village elections, you have mid-tier experimentation, and sort of mingling and drawing upon different ideas to make that governance work and click, then finally at the top, you have meritocracy. Now, obviously this is an ideal type, and the extent to which is idealization, and also because of idealization, you don’t see practical implementation. These are very salient questions, but I think Bell is aware of them, and these are sort of questions that other folks responding to and engaging with his work have I’ve pointed out.

Onto the final questions here… Rana, which is, are you feeling optimistic and bullish about China? Because I remember that profile series that you did with, I think, Quartz, where you said “No, we’re moderately bullish, moderately hopeful about China.” That was a year and a half ago, I think, so –

RANA: Yeah, probably.

BRIAN: Would you say you haven’t changed since in terms of your stance?

RANA: No, but then I’ve always been sort of moderately optimistic about China. I think, well, put it this way. I sometimes, I mean, first of all, I think that there are a whole variety of things. I mean, when you do look at the variety of voices, and opinions, and so forth on Chinese social media, when you look at really some of the astonishing, sophisticated, political thinking that comes out in a variety of areas, not all of it necessarily approved by state, but nonetheless it’s there, I think it does show there’s a sort of irrepressibility, in terms of people who want to sit, want to think, want to talk, and want to debate what’s going on.

There are also a variety of other qualities, and without going in to sort of national cliche, there is an entrepreneurial quality about Chinese society as a whole. It’s partly to do with economic factors, such as a massive market that enables you to kind of 下海, jump into the sea of commerce and try your stuff out, but I think that’s real, and it’s very much part of the mixture there as well.

Also, if you’re talking about things that the state does, and the state does a lot of extremely worrying things such as the suppression of civil liberties, but the country as a whole spends something like over 2% of its GDP on science, research, and technology. Now we don’t always like all the stuff that science, research, and technology is doing, but overall, this is a serious investment in education. It’s something that I think we could look at. All of these sorts of things are important, but I will also end, if I may, with a line that I’ve used to many Chinese friends before, and I’ll use it again now.

There is a great danger that China ends up as a society, or as a government, thinking that America is its worst enemy. It is not. All the things that China can actually bring up in terms of improving its position in the world, or giving itself a major problem, are actually in China’s hands. China’s decision about how it runs its own system, how much it wants to increase that kind of pluralism exists within the existing political system, a relative liberalism which existed in the system 20 years ago – that’s all something that China could do. In the early 2000s, there was a lot of investigative reporting, there was really creative discussions on the internet, all sorts of things that actually made, in some ways, a very pluralistic society, in ways that somehow pushed back against the idea of China simply being top down.

A lot of that has gone in recent years, but every single bit of that is in the hands of Chinese people, and Chinese government, to change if they want to. It’s got nothing to do with America, whatsoever. So, I would say don’t spend time worrying about people who live a very, very long way away, take into your hands what you can do best for yourself. And by the way, I would say the same about liberal societies.

An awful lot of what is going wrong in the liberal world is within the hands of liberal societies to change and to deal with, and spending huge amounts of time thinking that actually it’s all to do with the other side; I think that isn’t necessarily always the most productive use of time. Of course, both sides can have lots of things they don’t agree on. They’re going to have to spend time dealing with real threats, which are not absent. I’m not going to say for a minute that all of these things are imaginary, but also looking at what you can shore up at home is a really, really important part of that.

And in that sense, I think from the Chinese point of view, understanding the strengths of that very longstanding pluralist tradition in China, where different voices come together to have a Chinese conversation, in which people disagree, in which people actually push back, in which people say that the way to get to a better society is not simply doing what we’re told, but actually thinking about how we can make things better. That has always been a strength in China at its best. That’s one of the reasons that I remain very optimistic about China’s potential.

About the author
Brian Wong, 2015 Kwok Scholar, is pursuing the DPhil in Politics degree at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. They are the founding editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review. They are teaching undergraduates in modules on political theory and science at Oxford. Their book "Metamorphosis" is published by the Hong Kong Economic Journal in September 2021.
This transcript was published by U.S.-China Perception Monitor.