THE CHINA THREAT AS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT: A CASE OF MUTUAL RESPONSIVENESS

Despite the powerful effect of the ‘China threat’ paradigm on policy-making, we must acknowledge that the ‘threat’ representation is not the only contributing factor. To the extent that international relations are interactively constructed, the hardline China policy in the US is in part constituted by China’s strategic behaviour. For example, the concept of ‘AirSea Battle’ (developed by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and now seriously entertained by the Pentagon as a part of a broader strategy of dealing with China) might be seen as a necessary response to Beijing’s growing A2/AD capabilities,61 rather than a pure brainchild of the ‘China threat’ discourse. Yet, equally, even as we turn attention to Chinese capabilities and behaviour in global politics, we must not lose sight of the constitutive role of the ‘China threat’ paradigm in the development of Chinese worldviews and strategic behaviour in the first instance. For example, the growth of China’s A2/AD capabilities cannot possibly take place in an international vacuum; rather, they can themselves be seen as responses to still earlier Western policies on China, policies which are inevitably shaped by the ‘China threat’ perception. In this section, I will examine how some key indicators of the China threat, such as jingoistic Chinese nationalism, real- politik thinking, and assertive foreign policy, can be understood not as inherent Chinese traits, but as social constructs courtesy of the ‘China threat’ theory as practice.

Sure, ‘the degree to which China’s domestic and foreign policy adjustments were influenced by US policy toward China’ is very hard to empirically determine or quantify.62 That said, it is still possible to establish their link in a qualitative manner. The link is no doubt mutual, and how China has influenced US policy has been well documented.63 It is now time to examine the other side of the ‘mutual responsiveness’ coin, namely, how Chinese thinking and behaviour are constituted by Western theory and practice.

To illustrate, we first focus on two commonly known symptoms of the China threat: Chinese nationalism and China’s realpolitik thinking. According to the ‘China threat’ paradigm, both phenomena are innate, pregiven attributes of China. Johnston argues that there was a pre-existing parabellum strategic culture in Chinese military classics. Meanwhile, China’s new nationalism is believed to be a product of both indigenous nationalist ideas, such as culturalism, and China’s rapid economic development and Chinese government manipulation.64 As Fewsmith and Rosen put it,

A public sense of China’s ‘rightful’ place in the international arena has emerged alongside the country’s economic development and has been cultivated by the Chinese government as part of its patriotic education campaign since 1993. Indeed, it was this consciousness of China’s status in the international community that underlay much of the emergent nationalism of the 1990s.65

While some Chinese domestic sources are clearly at play, they alone cannot fully explain the rise of China’s new nationalism since the 1990s. Take the factor of China’s economic development for example. Certainly, the rapid economic growth which dates back to the 1980s does help boost Chinese national pride, and on occasions might have inflamed xenophobic extremism in some quarters of Chinese society. Yet, on balance, China’s new-found prosperity has provided most Chinese with a rather benign and positive view of the outside world. If there was a correlation between nationalism and the economy, modern Chinese history shows that nationalism thrives not on healthy economic growth, but on economic stagnation and perceived national weakness. As Suisheng Zhao points out, the racially conscious term Zhonghua minzu (the Chinese race) did not emerge until the early Republican period when Chinese intellectuals found it necessary to invoke it to warn the country of ‘the danger of annihilation under Western invasion’.66 In line with this analysis, the most intense and virulent form of nationalism was found during the Boxer Rebellion and the Cultural Revolution, when China’s economy was teetering on the verge of collapse.

To others, the rise of Chinese nationalism owes much to government propaganda and manipulation, especially its extensive patriotic education campaign. Yet, patriotic education has always existed in Chinese politics, right from the founding of the People’s Republic.67 Into the 1990s, as Kenneth Lieberthal observes, the political education, including the patriotic campaign, has in fact subsided, as most urban Chinese ‘no longer participate in the political study groups that were a major feature of the system through the 1980s’.68 Moreover, if government propaganda is the main driving force behind China’s new nationalism, it is hard to explain why some of the most vocal nationalist voices come from ‘the most internationally engaged sections of China’.69 Supposedly, those sections, being further removed from government propaganda and more susceptible to Western influence, should be less, not more, nationalistic. Likewise, the factor of government propaganda does not explain why overseas Chinese, many of whom are not routinely exposed to official patriotic campaigns, are equally, if not more, nationalistic.

Furthermore, although the Chinese regime does need nationalism to boost its fragile legitimacy, the regime is keenly aware that nationalism is a double- edged sword that may also threaten its mandate of heaven. 70 Today, Beijing does not have or no longer has a monopoly over the content and direction of Chinese nationalism. In fact, it is often as wary of nationalism as it is dependent on it. As a number of studies have noted, instead of stoking up extreme nationalism, on many occasions Beijing has sought to constrain it. 71

 
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