Dealing with the new China

China such a huge and complex country that it is never easy to know, at any given time, what it is doing or what it is saying, or even who speaks for it. Its pugnacious behavior in the disputed waters of the South China Sea in recent weeks stands in contrast to its longstanding effort to reach out to the world with offers of generous loans and inexpensive technology. Are we seeing here a radical shift in policy?

We are all accustomed to viewing China as a society run by a monolithic state. Thus, we devote a lot of time deciphering pronouncements coming from official and quasi-official sources. We expect these to be centrally coordinated and thoroughly vetted before they are issued. Given the conflicting signals we are now receiving from this mighty and mysterious neighbor, it is natural for us to wonder if this alternate show of China’s benign face and mean streak is nothing more than the usual carrot-and-stick routine aimed at softening recalcitrant clients.

I believe we need to review this picture if we are to understand the new China we are dealing with.

While the Chinese state remains under the firm control of the Chinese Communist Party, which is about to celebrate the 90th anniversary of its founding, Chinese society itself has undergone massive economic changes in the last 20 years that have given rise to new influential players. These changes have been brought about by the state’s calibrated introduction of market relations into a basically controlled economy. It is important to note that the market reforms are state-sponsored, rather than the organic outcome of spontaneous activity emanating from the wider society. This has crucial implications.

“For example,” notes professor Wang Hui of Tsinghua University in his incisive book “China’s New Order” (2003, Harvard), “members of the political elite or their families directly participate in economic activity and have become agents for large corporations and industries. Can we call them representatives of civil society? In China, political and economic elites have been completely conflated, and they participate in international economic activity. The worst scandals in the economic sphere exposed thus far have all involved top-level bureaucrats and their dependents.”

This picture looks familiar to us. It is the portrait of a society run by a cabal of politicians, influence peddlers and big businessmen who manage to get state agencies to adopt their narrow interests as the state’s own. It is a picture we associate with the Philippines or the United States, or the worst capitalist societies, but not with “socialist” China.

Is it farfetched to think that the crude gunboat diplomacy recently displayed by Chinese forces in the South China Sea (the West Philippine Sea to Filipinos, or the East Sea to other Southeast Asian nations) has been orchestrated by Chinese mining companies searching for oil and gas in the area? Is it unimaginable that the shrill voices calling for war against Vietnam (a staunch claimant in the disputed sea) in semi-official newspapers in China have been systematically deployed by the new capitalist groups that have infiltrated and captured China’s bureaucracy?

Going by current analysis, what seems to be emerging in China in its unique transition to modernity is a social order that can no longer realistically be represented by a center. Instead of one voice, we hear many – all passing themselves off as the authentic voice of the Chinese people. In the face of this, the challenge for those who must deal with China is to know when and how to respond to various types of offers and provocations with equanimity. This requires an abiding awareness that while China still calls itself a socialist state, one is not dealing here with a monolithic actor, but rather with a complex assemblage of public and private interest groups all claiming state imprimatur. It would be foolish to demand in such instances for the real China to stand up. For, the “real China” continues to be in the making as a new generation of party men, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals prepare to take over.

In light of this, one can only lament the instinctive way in which we run to big brother America for protection against the Chinese bully in the school yard. This kind of behavior spits at the patriotism of the senators of our republic who on Sept. 16, 1991 dared to vote “No” to the American wish to renew the onerous military bases agreement. Moreover, it doesn’t speak well of the sovereign nation we claim to be.

Like China, we are a signatory to the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (Unclos). This is the international law that covers all maritime territorial disputes. There is an existing legal structure, the 21-member International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which is supposed to settle such disputes. China is a current member of the tribunal. We have already said that we are prepared to validate our territorial claims in the South China Sea under the terms of the Unclos. Shouldn’t we make use of these mechanisms instead of engaging in proxy shadow-boxing?

After deciding to dismantle America’s bases in Clark and Subic, we have spent the last 20 years trying to run our country without relying on our former colonial master. The US bases were a crutch we finally had the audacity to throw away. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves if, after all this time, we still act like colonials – unable to stand on our own feet and find solidarity among our Asean neighbors – as we pick our way through the tricky world of international relations.