China’s choice: push reunification or build soft power
China’s parliament, the National Peoples’ Congress, has begun its annual session in Beijing and there has been inevitable western press coverage of plans for next year’s defence budget – which is expected to increase by 10%.
Now, depending on what you read this is either a commitment to maintaining high defence spending despite slower economic growth or a cut in the increase in defence spending because of that slowdown.
The headlines and attention now paid to China’s military budget fit into a western narrative, increasingly reflected among China’s neighbours, that its rapidly modernising armed forces are a threat increasingly capable of challenging US military dominance in East Asia.
In order to counter this narrative and reassure its neighbours – and the rest of the world – China describes itself as a rising, but peaceful power, arguing its military modernisation is partly catch-up after years of underspending on the military and partly natural for a country dependent on energy imports and foreign trade for its prosperity.
And to get its peaceful message across, Beijing has invested heavily in soft power tools, spending billions expanding China Central TV’s broadcasts in English and other languages and opening 450 Confucius Institutes around the world teaching Chinese language and culture – it is even trying to create a global pop star, Jia Ruhan, to project a softer image.
Although asserting its maritime claims against the Philippines and Vietnam has undermined these efforts with those countries, Beijing’s global soft power push has continued and involves more than public diplomacy tools.
Soon after taking over the leadership in Beijing two years ago, President Xi Jinping – understanding he needed a national story to tell his own people and the world about what China stands for – articulated what he called The Chinese Dream.
When it comes to constructing an attractive narrative about your country language is crucial and President Xi’s formulation is almost certainly a deliberate echo of The American Dream – a concept which is seen as central to the attractiveness and soft power of the US.
Loosely defined, The Chinese Dream is not only about increasing prosperity for the Chinese people, it is also about national rejuvenation – and an important part of that rejuvenation is to reunify the lands lost to foreign powers during China’s decline in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
It is here that Beijing faces a dilemma.
The main remaining candidate for reunification is Taiwan and it shows no sign of wanting to return to the fold while the Communist Party continues to run things in China, and Beijing has made it clear that if the island were to declare formal – as opposed to de facto – independence, it would use force to stop it.
And as the delegates to the NPC were gathering in Beijing last week, President Xi returned to this theme with a veiled warning to Taiwanese who want independence .
The problem for Beijing is China’s soft power projection requires the world to see it as benign, so any use of force against Taiwan would have the opposite effect.
It would be widely seen outside China as an act of aggression and probably lead to conflict with the US which has given the island security guarantees.
To avoid this Beijing has been trying to woo Taiwan back into the fold since the 1990s using a combination of trade, investment, diplomacy and tourism, encouraging ordinary Taiwanese to visit their ancestral homes on the mainland.
Beijing has also hoped that the way it handled reunification with Hong Kong and Macao, which were returned to China by Britain and Portugal in the late 1990s, would help its case with Taiwan.
Both former colonies were given special administrative status within the Peoples’ Republic, including a high level of autonomy and the retention of their own legal systems.
But the student-led pro-democracy protests last autumn in Hong Kong show how complicated a balancing act this is for Beijing and the risks to its soft power.
The demonstrations were sparked by plans to extend the franchise for the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive so voters would be able to directly elect their leader for the first time. But the catch was that a Beijing-appointed committee would vet the candidates first.
The protests attracted large crowds and lasted weeks, bringing parts of central Hong Kong to a standstill. The Beijing appointed administration stood firm and there were violent clashes between police and protesters which were shown on news broadcasts all over the world.
So a reform which would actually extended democracy in Hong Kong ended up in a setback to China’s image – especially in Taiwan which had seen its own student protests against closer ties with Beijing earlier last year.
De facto, the world has been living with two Chinas since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949 with the defeated forces of Chiang Kai Shek’s KMT fleeing to the island, where it continued to be recognised by the US and the UN as the rightful government of China throughout the 1950s and 60s.
Since losing most international recognition after the 1970s when Washington decided to open up to the Peoples’ Republic, Taiwan – or the Republic of China to give it its official name – has become a democracy with one of its major parties, the Democratic Progressive Party, flirting with the idea of de jure independence.
The DPP looks set to win next year’s elections and Mr Xi’s comments last week show how a DPP victory could raise tensions over Taiwan.
But unless Beijing finds a way to resolve the apparent contradiction between projecting a peaceful message towards its neighbours and the world with the threat of force to prevent Taiwanese independence, it will undermine its soft power efforts and find the huge sums it has spent on public diplomacy have been wasted.