MOBO GAO. China finding its place in the world.

Dec 19, 2019

 China: A Country with Soft and Hard Power

Australians need to understand more about Chinese hard and soft power, given the weight of the Chinese economy in world trade and the role of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in international organisations.

China’s defence spending has been increasing but is still much less than that of the real superpower, the USA, either in absolute terms of dollars or in relative terms of percentage of the country’s GDP, even taking into consideration the argument that China’s defence spending is much more than it claims.

In my recent book, Constructing China: Clashing Views of the People’s Republic (London, Pluto Press, 2018), I explore in some detail how our knowledge of China is created. I argue that we must be wary of supposed objective statistics and should not assume a hard and fast division between Western liberal democracy and Chinese authoritarianism. Here I will focus on two issues concerning hard power, i.e. what is called debt diplomacy and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and two issues in regard to soft power, the United Front (UF) and the Confucius Institutes (CI). Both are very relevant to how China is seen in Australia at present and in both cases I believe that we need a more nuanced understanding than generally prevails at present.

Debt Diplomacy is the idea that the PRC dishes out loans to various developing countries so as to make them dependent on China geopolitically when they cannot repay the loans, and in my opinion this is a red herring, used as a geopolitical strategy to fend off potential Chinese investment offshore. My understanding is that the Chinese government does not have such a design and there is so far no evidence to suggest such, as pointed out, for instance, by Roland Rajah on 21 October 2019 for the Lowy Institute.

Why does the PRC lend money offshore? Why did the Chinese government initiate the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) for investments? This has something to do with the BRI, which is claimed to be the initiative of the current leader Xi Jinping. But the BRI idea started well before Xi came to power when China had industrial overcapacities for some years. The original idea was to shift construction and investment to the underdeveloped West and Northwest of China and it was called xi jin strategy or “Advance to the West” (punning the leader’s name). The fast development of Chongqing in the Central West is a good example. But then the planners realised that goods produced in the West were too costly to transport globally via seaways from the Southeast coast.

A more efficient way to send goods produced in China’s West to the Far East, Middle East and Europe is by land transport of roads and railways. That was how the ancient idea and practice of the Silk Road came to the contemporary scenario. To complement the whole trading scheme the “belt” of ocean transport was added to formulate the concept of One Belt and One Road. In this conceptualization, Chinese investments in infrastructure in all or any countries along this road and belt not only solves the problem of industrial over-capacities but also paves the way for further trade.

The recent fear of a rising China in Australia is often framed with reference to political interference by the Chinese government. Particularly the Chinese state organ of the United Front(UF) is referred to by some as a sinister tentacle. While the conceptualization of the UF might have a Russian communist origin, the practice started in China during the 1920s when the Chinese Communists (CCP) and Nationalists (KMT) agreed to come together to fight to get rid of warlords who were emerging after the downfall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, so as to bring an end to violent civil wars and the chaotic division of China. That is referred to as the First UF in contemporary history. The Second UF was formed again between the Communists and Nationalists during the late 1930s to fight the Japanese invasion. After WWII, the CCP under Mao used the UF strategy to win over other non-Communist Chinese elites as well as dissenting KMT factions to fight the Nationalist Republic of China (ROC) government and its army under Chiang Kai-shek who eventually took the ROC government to Taiwan in 1949.

The UF strategy was used again to win over the business elite in Hong Kong for a smooth handover in 1997. The relevance of the legacy of the UF now is that the Chinese government uses the strategy to unite the business, intellectual and political elites not only in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but also the overseas elite of Chinese ethnic origin all over the world, mainly to push for peaceful unification with Taiwan. Hence some Australian citizens or residents of Chinese ethnic origin might have some connection with this effort. As recent developments in Taiwan and Hong Kong show, the CCP UF strategy has proved to be out-of-date and a dismal failure. If the CCP were truly communist they should have tried to unite with the poor in Hong Kong instead of the rich. To the best of my knowledge, in Australia the UF is practically a non-event except that it is a source of recent media sensationalism. As an academic, my assessment of the situation cannot be based on speculations or unsubstantiated “internal sources”.

This principle of crediting solid evidence applies equally to our assessment of the Confucius Institutes. The Chinese government probably conceives of the CI as a soft power strategy in the hope that if and when more people learn the Chinese language and get to know China better they would be friendly or at least less hostile. From my knowledge (I was the Director of the Adelaide Confucius Institute for some years) the Chinese state organ known as Hanban, under the administration of the Chinese Ministry of Education, has no design to interfere with language teaching curricula or academic freedoms of any university or school that hosts a CI or the school version, the Confucian Classroom. In fact what a CI does or should do is entirely up to the host institution.

For instance, the Gold Coast campus CI of Griffith University focuses on tourism while the one at RMIT specialises in traditional Chinese medicine. Most of the CIs and Confucius Classrooms are totally engaged in the business of language teaching. If a CI advocated for Taiwan or Tibetan independence, would Beijing like that? No. But that does not mean that a CI cannot hold a scholarly discussion related to these issues. The Adelaide CI under my direction held forums on the Tibetan issue, on the issue of human rights in China and on democracy. The wide spread of opinions offered is evident from the range of speakers, including former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, former Australian Ambassador to Beijing Geoff Raby; a Canadian academic who works in Qingdao, Daniel Bell; an American scholar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Barry Sautman; the activist for Hong Kong democracy, Professor Joseph Cheng of Hong Kong City University; the internationally renowned professor from Tsinghua University, Wang Hui; and a well-known critic of China, Ann-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Mobo Gao is a Chinese Australian Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Adelaide. His research interests include studies of rural China, contemporary Chinese politics and culture, Chinese migration to Australia and Chinese language. See also:

  • Gao, Mobo. “Is Value Diplomacy for Real or a Cover for Realism?” in Chengxin Pan and David Walker eds.,Australia and China: Challenges and Ideas in Cross-Cultural Engagement, China Social Sciences Press, 2015, pp 219-235
  • McCarthy, Greg and Mobo Gao. “China as a ‘Problem’ and Australian Politics”, in Chengxin Pan and David Walker eds.,Australia and China: Challenges and Ideas in Cross-Cultural Engagement, China Social Sciences Press 2015, pp 289-301.

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