Security Studies Program Seminar

China : The Big Picture

David Finklestein
Director of Project Asia, CNA Corporation

November 16, 2005

In this presentation, I will step back from the more specific analysis and talk generally about China 's emergence. I want to talk especially about challenges to our ability to analyze china.

I structure this talk around eight propositions.

1. Analyzing China is as hard today as it was thirty years ago when we had no access to the People's Republic of China (PRC). I've spent a lifetime studying China , but it is hardest to figure out now.

Analysis is difficult in part because the pace of economic and social change is so great. Chinese foreign policy is changing fast. China 's military affairs are more complex. Also there is now there is so much data coming out on these subjects to get your arms around. Increasing volumes of data has allowed many of us to become superb analysts on narrow aspects of Chinese affairs, but not enough of us have become synthesizers of the totality of this latest turn of the Chinese Revolution.

2. How one perceives China and what one presents about it are functions of what China you are looking at. One China is the proverbial 500-pound gorilla that challenges the United States . At the other end is a struggling China with terrible socio-economic problems.

Military people and Department of Defense types like to talk about rising China . Students of environmental issues, health care, and economics see a China at best muddling through; at worst a flailing China . There is truth in both views, and you need to balance them.

3. Analyzing today's China is difficult because of data. Mainland open source data, once hard to get, has proliferated through websites and lots of semi-official newspapers. There is so much that it is hard to absorb.

Vetting the data is tough. There are on and off again crackdowns on the free press.

China 's media is no longer funded totally by the state, so they need to make money. That leads to sensationalism. The regime itself is conflicted about how much control of the media it should keep. Chinese media are whipsawed between openness and crackdowns; between the party line and the bottom line. It is hard to know which is which.

It is hard to know what is official or semi-official and what is just talk. There is also a challenge of determining the importance of a new class of Chinese talking heads, many of whom are government employees.

4. The tremendous uncertainty in some American quarters over the rise of China and implications for the United States is related to the fact that China 's “rise” is a new phenomenon. I prefer to call it the reemergence of China . China as an international actor is reemerging after a two-century hiatus from the international order.

What kept China from being a full participant on the international order in the past ? The implosion of the Qing Dynasty , Warlordism, civil war, the Japanese conquest, and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution all contributed. Now China is reemerging and reengaging the world on all fronts.

For a century and a half the world has known an isolationist and weak China . The end of that China creates dislocations and great uncertainty for the watcher. We do not know what China will do.

There are six specific sources of uncertainty and unease.

There is a great deal of uncertainty in China itself, even in the leadership of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). The Party knows that the nature of governance needs to adjust in unprecedented ways, but it doesn't how to adjust. It knows sociological and economic dislocations must be dealt with, but not what to do.

Concerns over domestic issues are paramount to the leadership. Foreign policy goals are refracted through that lens.

5. Uncertainty abroad is compounded by uncertainty about the ability and intentions of the new political and military elites in China . We do not know enough about the new leaders, about them as individuals and as bureaucratic actors, about how they interact and about differences among them. Nor do we understand what their policy processes are, how decisions get made.

China is now ending an era where it is led by crossover leaders whose network of contacts cut across party, army, and state lines. The new leadership has spent its career staying in the state, party, or army bureaucratic box. This suggests that new inter-elite dynamics may be unfolding.

6. We have yet to fully grasp implications of China 's current domestic dynamics Ý of the results of intense social changes. We need to understand these forces to make forecasts.

I'm referring here to the rise of a new class of extremely wealthy entrepreneurs. This new elite holds the key to China 's economic viability.

The big question is what the relations between party leaders and this elite will be like.

Will this new class of elites check the CCP and lead to better governance? Or will it be an unholy alliance where business leaders let the CCP rule as it sees fit in exchange for crony capitalism and bad polices? I do not know.

Two Chinese societies are emerging, a China of “haves” and a China of “have nots .” The rich-poor gap is widening. Millions of Chinese have benefited from economic reforms. But millions are out of the gains, disenfranchised at best. Poor people in the countryside are becoming more vocal and violent. Peasant riots are increasing.

The breakdown of the iron rice bowl, the social safety net, means that now dispossessed peasants are taking matters into their own hands. We also see the rise of criminal organizations that operate in the chasm of misrule and corrupt governance.

There is also a new proclivity for the middle-class to speak out. Middle-class unrest is not violent, but in other ways it is more worrisome to leaders. Middle-class Chinese are organizing and litigating in nascent legal institutions. Homeowner associations are pressing for public services. There have been recent protests by homeowners and flat owners against party officials and litigation against developers in league with corrupt party officials.

There are also stirrings of non-governmental organizations who take action like medical assistance and social work for HIV/AIDS patients and assistance in schooling and medical care for illegal laborers.

These new forces in society impact Chinese foreign policy as much as international pressures, including our own.

7. People are now talking about China like the former Soviet Union . China does pose many serious challenges to U.S. national interests, but there is no new Cold War coming.

The Soviet Union was a political and military superpower dedicated to remaking the world in their image. They challenged the United States on every front and created coalitions against us. The Soviet Union threatened the survival of the United States at various points during the Cold War. It was an expansionist power that occupied countries. The Soviet Union was also an immoral actor of such magnitude that it mobilized support for the United States . The USSR provoked abject and nearly universal fear, which gave the United States diplomatic leeway China does not provide.

Moreover, it will be difficult to secure domestic support for a Cold War type struggle with China as there was for the Cold War with the Soviets . Multinational corporations never did much business across the iron curtain. Today they are trying to penetrate the Chinese market.

If we view China through a Cold War lens, we will have dysfunctional or disastrous polices.

8. People here in the academy have an important role in advancing our understating of China so the American public is not just given one or two options.

David M. Finkelstein is the Director of Project Asia, the Asian Security Studies Center at The CNA Corporation. Dr. Finkelstein received his Ph.D. in Chinese history from Princeton University and studied Mandarin at Nankai University in Tianjin, China . A retired U.S. Army officer and author of several books and monographs on China, Finkelstein is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College, the Army War College, the Army Airborne School and the Foreign Area Officer Course at the JFK Center for Unconventional Warfare and International Military Assistance.


Rapporteur: Benjamin Friedman

back to seminar schedule, Fall 2005