Posts Tagged ‘China’s rise’

A new post for Whose World Order? this time based around comments I heard at an event I attended in Shanghai. Very interesting debate, more of which will feature in future posts once I get around to writing them. Note the quote that I left under the original post, a lovely quote I meant to include but omitted. Oh well.

Shanghai View: China as an external actor

Date: 30th June 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: ChinaMiddle East And North Africa,
Tags: None

Recently, with Jonas Parello Plesner, I wrote a policy paper in which we suggested that China’s reaction to Libya was something that reflected the glimmers of a new foreign policy direction for China. While I have since had some push back from foreign friends who tell me that we are focusing too much on one instance to read a bigger trend, I listened to an interesting presentation by a Chinese friend the other day in which he berated his leadership for their incapacity to act on the international stage.

The presentation came during a two-day conference on what Afghanistan was going to look like post- the US withdrawal. The event itself was a small discussion with long presentations and short discussions. Two elements leapt out at me: first was the fact that over two days of discussions (with mostly Chinese speakers) there was next to no outline of what a Chinese strategy towards Afghanistan (or Pakistan) might look like, and second, the final presentation by a Chinese friend that was a full-on broadside at China’s inactive foreign policy. In no uncertain terms he said that non-interference was another way of saying, “do nothing at all.”

With specific reference to Libya, he praised the successful evacuation of Chinese citizens, but also quoted Churchill’s comments after Dunkirk, that “wars are not won by evacuations.” In fact, he was rather condemning of the fact that it had taken the Chinese government so long to reach out to the rebel’s side when it was clear that they were headed for victory in the long run. Gadaffi was a busted flush, and the Chinese government (that has never liked Gadaffi for various reasons – his support of Taiwan, his former foreign minister’s comments about Chinese colonialism in Africa and Gadaffi’s own comments comparing what he was doing to Tiananmen Square), should have taken less than 80 days to get around to reaching out to the other side.

And the problems were not solely linked to indecision: there was also a very basic lack of capacity within the government in foreign policy terms. People had no idea about the Sunni-Shia difference and there was incomprehension about why the Iranians and the Saudis hated each other so much. This is something I have also heard in industry, where the big State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), have difficulties figuring out whom to send abroad to run their factories or branches since their staff have very little experience with the world. The government has been advocating for companies to reach out to gain managerial capacity and expertise from American or European counterparts.

Overall, his sense (and that of most participants) was that China had generally chosen to abrogate its policy in the Middle East and North Africa since it was a bit too far from home and it was a European/American sphere of interest. While China may have interests there, there was no particular interest in the body politic to actually go out and do anything about this. Instead, the focus was domestic, or more generally focused on waiting to see how things shake out over time while continuing to pursue new investments where they can be advanced.

But the problem with this is two-fold: first of all, this means China will wander into more situations like Libya where almost $20 billion has been written off and 30,000+ people have been evacuated at great expense and effort at short notice. And/or secondly, China will be obliged to simply go around paying people off to protect their interests in the world. The problem with this of course is that pay-offs will simply attract more predators. After it was discovered that the Italian government would tend to pay for its people who were being kidnapped in Iraq or North Africa, Italians were more actively targeted.

The discussion did not particularly come to an absolute conclusion. Instead, it circled around a group of serious thinkers who all seemed to agree with the broad conclusion that China’s foreign policy needed adjustment and in a more proactive direction. While a fellow foreign participant who was new to discussions with China was quite alarmed by this, in many ways it struck me as a potentially positive shift, showing China’s growing willingness to mature as a foreign policy actor. This was not quite the “responsible stakeholder” that Robert Zoellick had called for, but it was the inklings of a China that saw its interests lay beyond its borders as well. How it advances them, however, will be the subject of discussion for the next five years at least.

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A short post for Whose World Order, based on an interesting encounter I had the other day. More substantial things on China en route.

Shanghai View: the Soldier Sociologist

Date: 18th April 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaDivorceSociology

I met a soldier today from the northern Shandong province, who had quit his 13-year army career to go and become a sociologist looking at divorce. He told me it was because the work in the army was hard and he had found it boring and repetitive. When asked what he had done as a soldier, all he could muster was “exercises.” He hadn’t had any opportunities to travel and had managed to rise a bit in the ranks, but not a huge amount – I couldn’t figure out the specifics of his rank, but he gave the impression of it being somewhat mid-range.

But what was fascinating was what he had decided to do instead. Having quit the army, he signed up to Renmin University (People’s University) in Beijing to do a PhD in sociology. His particular research was focused on divorces, and understanding how they work from the inside. His thesis project was focused on a particular couple who had divorced. He identified his subjects by hanging around a family court and watching a number of divorce proceedings. Having identified his ideal couple, he approached them separately. Of course, they initially refused to participate, but he treated them separately to dinner and was able to persuade them to become his subjects.

This was not entirely surprising as he was a charming chap, though I was impressed that he was able to persuade them to agree to undergo repeated interviews and then to also open up their network of family and friends to inquisition. From this, he was able to assemble the anatomy of their divorce and why it took place, and to learn some broader lessons about modern Chinese society. Unfortunately, he was not able to tell me much more about his findings than this, and when I pried he hemmed and hawed, leading me to suspect he had not quite finished.

Curious about divorce in China, I went online and discovered that in 2009 an official survey uncovered that one in five marriages in China ended in divorce. That figure is increasing, so research on the topic is clearly salient. There is ultimately nothing wrong with a former soldier deciding to do that research, even if it seems to be a somewhat dramatic life change. What the vignette captured, however, was how increasingly western China is becoming in many ways – different life options are still open to people at relatively advanced stages in their careers. Rather than a planned economy where everyone does the same, centrally-determined thing for life, there is now fluidity within the system. As their divorce rate catches up with the west, other features of society are also emulating western tendencies. The bigger question that remains unanswered, however, is whether this convergence is also taking place within the domestic and personal spheres.