China’s economy is opening up, but the county’s politics are headed in a different direction according to Boston University political science professor Joseph Fewsmith. He has written six books about China following Mao Zedong’s rule.
“China is becoming less liberal not more liberal,” Fewsmith told KGOU’s World Views. “That's what happens when a leader centralizes power.”
The Chinese National People’s Congress eliminated term limits and re-appointed President Xi on March 11, effectively allowing him to rule indefinitely.
President Trump promised to get tough on trade with China during his 2016 campaign, something he delivered on when he announced tarifs on roughly 60 billion dollars of Chinese imports this week. But global politics are changing. China has more economic clout and Fewsmith says the Chinese support equally tough leadership when it comes to dealing with the United States.
Fewsmith described a history exhibit near Tiananmen Square that illustrates the way the Chinese think about their position in the world today.
“Basically it's the story of modern China, that China was perfect until 1840 when the British came in and launched the Opium War, and China started on the so-called ‘Century of Humiliation,’” Fewsmith explained. “Only the Chinese Communist Party could overcome this Century of Humiliation. And if you ever forget that, for even one second, we're right back in that situation:[China] will be a mere economic appendage of the West”.
In somewhat contradictory fashion, Western values exist alongside China’s nationalist narrative. As China’s middle class continues to grow, Fewsmith says it’s unclear if Chinese citizens will push back against the centralization of political power under Xi.
“Certainly there are a lot of people that are in that middle class that will go along with the economic prosperity and the stability,” Fewsmith said. “But they...let's say they reserve their opinion about what's going on. They don't speak up. they don't challenge it.”
According to a study by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 76 percent of China's rapidly urbanizing population will be considered middle class by 2022. That's defined as households earning between $9,000 and $34,000 USD annually, given the cost of living in China. In 2000, just 4 percent of the urban population was considered middle class.
Regardless of China’s internal politics, the country’s economic power gives it more sway in global politics than ever before.
Fewsmith on President Xi Jinping:
I would say that Xi Jinping has emerged as the most dominant leader in China, well certainly since Deng Xiaoping, and some would say since Mao Zedong… Xi Jinping seems to be determined to put his own personal stamp on where China goes from here. And of course there's considerable wonder about exactly what that means. He certainly has centralized to a degree of power. And now everybody is asking the question power for what.
Fewsmith on China’s “inner-party” democracy:
[It’s] not trying to extend democracy to voters and popular democracy as we have in this country. But just opening system up a little bit within the party, and sometimes in some very interesting ways, to have elections within the party for potential leaders, things of that sort. Those elections already died out about it a decade ago. And Xi Jinping made it very clear that he has absolutely no interest in democracy, and feels that the problem with voting is that you might pick the wrong people.
Fewsmith on changing U.S.-China relations:
One of the things that has really changed the dynamic was the financial crisis in 2008. There's a famous scene of one of the top financial people in China, a man by the name of Wang Qishan, talking to somebody who knew, he knew very: well former Secretary of Treasury Hank Paulson. And Wang Qishan said you know you used to be the teacher, and we learned from the United States for many years. But the teacher made mistakes, and the teacher is not supposed to make mistakes. And we don't have anything to learn from you anymore.
Rebecca Cruise: Joseph Smith, welcome to World Views.
Fewsmith: Pleasure to be here.
Cruise: Well you are an expert on China and specifically U.S. China relations. This is a relationship that has had all sorts of ups and downs over the last couple of decades but certainly this last couple of years. In fact particularly since the new administration in our country came to power and the administration over there has kind of matured as well. How might we characterize this relationship today?
Cruise: Bumpy [laughs]
Fewsmith: First you have to understand how deeply integrated these two economies and two cultures are. And it sometimes causes anxiety in both countries. But the world is a very integrated place. We now have roughly 600 billion dollars, billion with a "B," dollars of trade between the two countries. So this is a very close and intense relationship
Cruise: Well and you have leaders that have claimed to be at one moment apparently close friends and the next moment things are being said from one to the other so is this relationship between the individual leaders, President Trump and President Xi, is it a good relationship or what do you see there?
Fewsmith: Well it's hard to speak about their personal dynamic. It seems to have gone very well when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited President Trump in Mar a Lago in Florida a couple of months ago and the president got to reveal that he had just launched some cruise missiles into Syria.
Cruise: That's right.
Fewsmith: You know, obviously, President Trump has made a lot of comments about what he feels is the negative trade relationship, that China is somehow taking advantage of the United States. On the other hand the issue du jour is Korea, North Korea, and I don't think there's any way to, um, I'll say manage, rather than solve, that issue without China's assistance
Cruise: And the United States realizes this and has been putting pressure on China...
Fewsmith: We've realized this for years. And China obviously has its own interests that are both supportive but also very critical of North Korea.
Cruise: Sure, and they are obviously an interesting geographic location as well. I wanted to go back to something you said that I thought was very interesting. All of it's been very interesting, but you mentioned that were integrated economically, which I think we are hopefully well aware of, but you also say culturally. How are we integrated culturally?
Fewsmith: Well more I suppose from the Chinese side than from the American side. The United States has had a tremendous influence on China...Well I could go back historically in 18th, 19th and 20th century, but also the last... Well now it's 70 years since we've really opened up relations with China. And you know there's a lot of foreign investment in China. There's a lot of people bringing, if you will, American management methods, are a lot of tourism... But there's also, you know, you have a lot of Chinese students in this country now, something in the range of 300,000, and they're coming to this country in part because they have been exposed to these ideals of education and broader American culture, and they want to see for themselves what they can learn and experience it. So that suggests that there is a tremendous draw that has attracted a lot of attention a lot of a lot of these students. How did they learn English? They're watching Hulu, and downloading our various TV shows, and watching our movies. So yes, there's been perhaps a greater cultural influence than you might imagine particularly along the East Coast.
Cruise: Oh absolutely. And it seems also that this influence would extend really around the world. I would argue, and correct me if I'm wrong, but in the last 20 or 30 years we've seen China have influence in South America, in Africa, and elsewhere both economically and culturally
Fewsmith: Of course. As China has grown, developed, and now is investing large sums of money around the world...Yes you are seeing considerable influence particularly in the economic realm, but it's extending into political influence. And you know this is going to be a major challenge for the two countries in the coming decades.
Cruise: Speaking of political influence, one thing we've also seen China do is perhaps reassert itself in the region, its own region, and maybe beyond, with the maritime disputes that are going on and the expansion of some of these islands. What is happening here? Is is this China trying to become more powerful militarily? Or is this President Xi trying to position? Or what's going on?
Fewsmith: China is more powerful militarily, and these are longstanding claims particularly in the South China Sea. You can actually trace back to the late 19th century, but more particularly to 1947 when the then Republic of China was the authority in China. They claimed those islands that was the original the origin of the so-called U shaped line or 9 dash line that is in that area... Suggests that China has considerable territorial claims although China has never specified exactly what its claims are.
Cruise: Right, and they're now extending some of these islands. I believe there's also some thought that there might be a petroleum or gas in some of these areas as well.
Fewsmith: That's true. They have built up land reclamation in these islands some of them now have long airfields that are capable of handling military aircraft. This does change the dynamic in the area and yes there are oil reserves in the area presumably mostly along coastal areas particularly with Vietnam and Malaysia and that obviously breeds conflict and contention with those states.
Cruise: Well let's talk a little bit about the leader of China. President Xi you just in China just went through people's congress, he was reconfirmed. Do you see his last couple of years have being as being successful? What does the future look like? They've been talking a great deal about reforms internally. It's a little unclear as to how that's going to happen if at all.
Fewsmith: Indeed. I would say that Xi Jinping has emerged as the most dominant leader in China, well certainly since Deng Xiaoping, and some would say since Mao Zedong.
Fewsmith: Wow. So we're talking 30 years or so here.
Fewsmith: Yeah. The thing about Xi Jinping that I think is worth keeping in mind is that like Deng Xiaoping, like Mao Zedong in a different way, he's going to be a transformative leader. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were not transformative leaders. Xi Jinping seems to be determined to put his own personal stamp on where China goes from here. And of course there's considerable wonder about exactly what that means. He certainly has centralized to a degree of power. And now everybody is asking the question power for what.
Certainly some of it will be directed externally, as you've suggested, the areas around China, South China Sea, East China Sea... China will exert more influence throughout Southeast Asia. China certainly sees itself as a center of Asia and moving toward the center of the globe.
Cruise: Are these what we might call kind of nationalistic ideas? Or does this come from his his own personal experience? Or or all of the above?
Cruise: It's nationalism. You know if you go to Beijing, there's a history museum just off of Tiananmen Square, and they've had for many years now an exhibit on "The Road to Renaissance." And basically it's the story of modern China, that China was perfect until 1840 when the British came in and launched the Opium War, and China started on the so-called "Century of Humiliation." And it was a story that only the Chinese Communist Party could overcome this Century of Humiliation. And if you ever forget that, for even one second, we're right back in that situation. It will be a mere economic appendage of the West... A very nationalistic message, the historiography of which is rather dubious. But, if you read Xi Jinping report to this recent party congress, it has much of that in it. So this is this is where China sees itself as coming out of this period of oppression and never determined never to be in that position again.
Cruise: So he's taking those historical moments, and capitalizing on them in some ways, and how they view themselves and their identity. You wrote a book a couple of years ago you've written several books one a couple years ago talking about reform, this was in 2013: "The Logic and limits of Political Reform in China."
Fewsmith: ... The reform, if by reform we mean political reform. China is becoming less liberal, not more liberal.
Cruise: And why is that?
Fewsmith: That's what happens when a leader centralizes power. You know the book that you just referred to is talking about so-called inner party democracy, not trying to extend democracy to voters and popular democracy as we have in this country. But just opening system up a little bit within the party, and sometimes in some very interesting ways, to have elections within the party for potential leaders, things of that sort. Those elections already died out about it a decade ago. And Xi Jinping made it very clear that he has absolutely no interest in democracy, and feels that the problem with voting is that you might pick the wrong people.
Cruise: Well it's an interesting situation as you have so many in China have risen into the middle class. We often think that the middle class becomes the base for democracy or for voting, but the middle class seems to be pretty pretty happy with the status quo or looking forward to some of these changes that the president might be bringing.
Fewsmith: Well that's of... I think it's a very mixed picture, because on the one hand yes the middle class has really enjoyed a considerable prosperity. Incomes are way up if you look at the number of tourists, Chinese tourists, that are going abroad. It's way up.
And I think the problem that China is going to face is not so much a demand for voting or something like this but just the fact that Chinese society is so much more diverse now than it was 10, 20, certainly 30 years ago. And yet you have this much more centralized political system, and that's a contradiction that's a tension between those two and how that's going to work out, I don't know. Certainly there are a lot of people that are in that middle class that will go along with the economic prosperity and the stability. But they... Let's say they reserve their opinion about what's going on. They don't speak up they don't challenge it. But they're not necessarily persuaded by what you see in the political realm.
Cruise: Well let me return to our our initial question about the relationship between the United States and China. You mentioned that there is an economic relationship, and that the United States is often concerned about trade deficits and those sorts of things. Thinking about the economics and the politics, should the United States be concerned about a rising China? Is this a threat to the United States?
Fewsmith: Well it certainly is a concern. Absolutely. It's a very complicated relationship. For instance your Apple computer is made in China
Fewsmith: Of course.
Fewsmith: Right? And Apple, an American company is making a lot of profit off of that. So it's not, you know, when you buy that computer that's counted as whatever it is a thousand dollars or whatever in a trade deficit. But of that thousand dollars Apple has earned quite a bit of money. So it's it's a much more complicated issue than the simple trade statistics suggest. But is China becoming a much more dynamic player internationally in the economy? Absolutely.
And, you know, I have to tell you this one of the things that has really changed the dynamic was the financial crisis in 2008. There's a famous scene of one of the top financial people in China, a man by the name of Wang Qishan, talking to somebody who knew, he knew very: well former Secretary of Treasury Hank Paulson. And Wang Qishan said you know you used to be the teacher, and we learned from the United States for many years. But the teacher made mistakes, and the teacher is not supposed to make mistakes. And we don't have anything to learn from you anymore.
Cruise: Wow. That is incredibly telling. Well we will obviously continue to watch this relationship as it grows and certainly we'll anticipate that the bumpy path to continue going forward. Thank you so much for sharing your insights with us today.
Fewsmith: A pleasure. Thank you.