Misunderstanding China

Hudson Institute
Date: September 17th, 2014
By: Michael Pillsbury

Image of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at ‘Fun and Art’ Festival on December 13, 2008 in Xian of Shaanxi Province, China. (China Photos/Getty Images)

On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China while standing atop Beijing’s Gate of Heavenly Peace. In the decades that followed, many China watchers in the West confidently predicted the fall of his regime. Others hoped that a cadre of moderates in the Beijing government would lead to a kinder, gentler, more democratic China.

As China turns 65 in a couple weeks, its ruling Party appears nowhere close to planning its retirement party. It is stronger, more nationalistic and more committed to maintaining one-party rule than at any time since Mao’s death.

Nor has President Xi Jinping been the moderate reformer some hoped for. Under the cover of anti-corruption, Mr. Xi has consolidated his power over the party and squelched talk of democracy. In a speech to the National Congress earlier this month, he said that preventing the government from becoming “leaderless [and] fragmented” with “political fighting and wrangling between political parties” was among his top priorities. Even in Hong Kong, the last bastion of political freedom in China, Mr. Xi has ruled out free elections for 2017.

What happened? How did Western policy makers and academics repeatedly get China so wrong? To this day there is no expert consensus on China’s economic growth and GDP, the size of its military and intelligence budgets, or even its intentions toward the West. Much less is there consensus on what direction China will take, even though most evidence points to political retrenchment, surging nationalism and opposition to the postwar international system.

Western governments failed to understand Mao’s China from the beginning. The experts in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations believed it would not enter the Korean War. Kennedy and Johnson believed that China would stay out of Vietnam. Every American administration up to that point also believed that China would be permanently aligned with the Soviet Union as something of a junior partner. Then a Sino-Soviet border war broke out in 1969, shocking the U.S. foreign policy establishment.    [FULL  STORY]