For the last twenty odd years West has been waiting with a collective bated breath for the inevitable rise of China. Since the collapse of the USSR, it was only a matter of time that the hunt for new challenges to the world order resumed. Ultimately, the old enigmatic orient fit the bill, as it has in the past.
Western audiences specifically, and in general, audiences around the world, have been far too eager to purchase the narrative of a rising dragon across the China seas with the intent of doing what her adversaries did to her for centuries during colonial and perhaps even pre-colonial era.
What gets overlooked is the powerful dragon’s concentrated inward gaze at its own backyard and the “threats” from within to a very modern post colonial set up comprised of the CCCP and the all powerful bureaucracy.
It is interesting to draw a parallel between President Xi’s handling of the climate change negotiation and that of the Chinese Emperor’s stewardship of the negotiations between the Chinese appointed bureaucrats and the British Generals leading the Opium war. Both of them chose to deal with these remotely and with emissaries going back and forth between China and the rest of the nations of the world. What drove the emperor to take a hard stance then, is what continues to drive President Xi’s hard line, which according to some, was the ultimate reason for the failure of the climate change conference as well.
There are lessons to be learnt from the history of the region. While news today focuses on Afghanistan and Central Asia, it behooves the rest of the world to take note that the Chinese state, unlike the colonial and post colonial West will not allow the narrative of “moral good” or “human rights” to drive its agenda or engagement, not that the Western excursions can claim to have been encumbered by those inconveniences anyway.
President Xi and the Chinese state bureaucracy will engage and be driven by the fear that drove the emperor in the nineteenth century during the opium wars: Appearances!
Appearance of kowtowing to the west; Appearance of ceding ground to the forces of change from within; And most of all, an appearance of weakness of the narrative built over the last 35 years. This narrative paints China in the victim’s color. That is the preferred narrative for the Chinese state as it convinces a new generation who is more aware, more worldly and has access to more information than any generation in the past.