The awakening of the Chinese dragon

Yuan-Kang Wang

Yuan-Kang Wang

The middle class is dissatisfied with a number of limitations. If it reaches critical mass discontent, perhaps we will see political reform in China, says Prof. Yuan-Kang Wang in an interview with Alexandra Kaniewska.

Alexander Kaniewska: Both the Europeans and the Americans have been fascinated for several years with China, looking at it both with fear and delight. How do the Chinese view themselves? Is there optimism or despair?

Prof. Yuan-Kang Wang: I think there’s a combination of the two. “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation“, which is often mentioned by Xi Jinping since he won the highest position in the party, gives cause for optimism. Chinese dreams seem within reach. It is disturbing, however, that the rest of the world is trying to stop the rise of China. After the “century of humiliation”, which the Middle Kingdom determines as starting in the mid-nineteenth century, China has become the second largest economy in the world. Today, their importance in the international arena is the greatest in the modern history of the country. However, many Chinese people feel that the world does not appreciate the peaceful setting of their country. For example, Barack Obama’s policies, which consists shortening the distance between Asia, is seen as aimed directly at Beijing. The Chinese do not understand why the world fears their growing economic and military strength.

Alexander Kaniewska:In the book “Harmony and war,” you say the Confucian culture has no effect on the use of violence by China, which – like other great powers – operates according to the principles of Realpolitik. What today is the role of Confucian philosophy in contemporary politics? Is China ready – or willing – to conduct a military attack?

Prof. Yuan-Kang Wang: At this point, we see a revival of Confucianism in China, but it is used instrumentally by the authorities. The party supports the Confucius Institute or states the thesis of the “harmonious” society.

Does China threaten world? In the book, which you mentioned, I wanted to show that it is possible, and culture is not the most important part of China’s foreign policy. It should be expected that the stronger the country becomes, its policies will become increasingly assertive, if not aggressive, because it now has the resources to show it means business. In the case of China, the change which has been observed since 2008 is due to less ideology and more with new opportunities. The growing military and economic power gives Chinese policymakers the tools to pursue a more independent foreign policy. So everything depends on how China talks with its partners from other parts of the world.

Alexander Kaniewska: March is when Xi Jinping will officially be the new president of the PRC. Do we already know in which direction he will lead the country? And is it is a good way for Europe and the rest of the world?

Prof. Yuan-Kang Wang: That’s a tough question. On his visit to Guangdong Province, Xi Jinping,  suggested that China will continue the policy of opening and reform of Deng Xiaoping. New management says that it is important for the maintenance of a high economic growth and social peace. When it comes to foreign policy, it appears that Beijing will take a stronger position in the territorial disputes over the South China Sea, as well as to the Senkaku Islands. China has already strengthened its presence in these areas, with a strong anti-Japanese rhetoric also. In China, you can see the problem of rising nationalism. Today, even a small incident in the East Asian region can get out of control and lead to serious geopolitical problems.

Alexander Kaniewska: One commentator wrote shortly after the election about Xi Jinping: “It is wise that the new leader does not immediately play all the cards. Xi is very wise.” The new leader of China is really very little known, and a lot depends on that.

Prof. Yuan-Kang Wang: It’s true. From the very beginning of his career Xi Jinping was very discreet. However, in his earlier statements, for example, during a trip to Mexico in 2009, there are clear elements of nationalism. In his first speech after his election, as Secretary General of the Communist Party of China, Xi said much about the suffering of the Chinese people for the last hundred years. He strongly emphasised the necessity of “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

Alexander Kaniewska: This rejuvenation can only take place with the participation of the middle class. Today, the working class is 300 million people, and it is expected that by 2025, this group will grow to 800 million. Will the middle class in China cause a revolution?

Prof. Yuan-Kang Wang: Certainly not in the near future. At this point, the Chinese middle class realises that as long as it does not criticise those in power and their decisions, they can still be rich. But not everyone is happy with the situation inside the country. Some people “vote with their feet” and choose to emigrate to the U.S., Europe and Australia. The main question is whether strong middle class will demand political reforms.

Alexander Kaniewska: When will, that be?

Prof. Yuan-Kang Wang: Today, there is no specific answer. In the short term, migration out of China will continue to increase. Many countries have now observed a growing Chinese minority. But not all of the middle class will want to leave the country, most would prefer to be at home.

You can imagine a scenario in which the current status quo is maintained – “You can be rich and enjoy the good life as long as you do not interfere in politics.” However, today’s middle class is becoming more and more dissatisfied with the restrictions on the flow of information. They do not like China’s censorship, rampant corruption and food safety issues. If it reaches critical mass discontent, perhaps we will see political reform in China. The Bo Xilai affair revealed many weaknesses of the current system. So you can not overestimate the impact of the middle class to any changes.

Alexander Kaniewska: What do you believe the next 50 years holds for China: a superpower with global economic and cultural influence? Or maybe the fallen empire, which once again closes the Great Wall?

Prof. Yuan-Kang Wang: We all ask ourselves this question, but predicting the future is a risky business. At the end of the 80s in the twentieth century, many analysts pointed to the fact that Japan might overtake the U.S., but this never happened.

China has many internal problems that it must face: growing income inequality, a bubble in the property market, corruption and mass protests, most of which we know from the media. It may seem that China will become a superpower, but the road to it is far away. First they must overcome its internal difficulties.

Yuan-kang Wang is a professor of sociology at Western Michigan University, author of “Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics” (2010)
Source: Instytut Obywatelski – “Przebudzenie chińskiego smoka” – translated from Polish

Categories: Politics & Law

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13 replies

  1. How is the rest of the world trying to stop the rise of China?


    • Every country want’s to be big and strong. “Hit a big” that’s why.


      • I did not ask why. I said HOW. I lived and worked in China for many years, and i heard people say that many times, yet saw no evidence of it. To me it seems like something the government tells the people to reinforce national patriotism.


      • @CM Saunders: The article was translated from Polish by Piotr and myself. Why and how translate similarly in Polish.

        USA has recently announced an Asian pivot. It is uncertain whether this is a move at containment or not. You are right, however – China is certainly selling at is such to the Chinese people, as a counter measure to domestic unrest.


  2. Great post. I liked that you brought up the relevance of Confucianism. That is an interesting question to me. The Professor seems very insightful.



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