Understanding Misunderstood China

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By: B Goode

A lot have been written about China’s behaviour towards her neighbours lately. Mostly bad stuff. So bad that the best Halloween costume for this year would be dressing up as Mao Zedong.

But to understand China, we need to delve deep into her history.

Nooooo! Don’t go! This will not be like your dreaded history lessons in school where you learned about dates that you couldn’t remember, and dead people whose names you couldn’t pronounce let alone spell. I’ll make it snappy.

For thousands of years, China has been ruled by a system of patronage where lesser kingdoms and provinces paid homage and tribute to the Emperor or whoever wielded the greatest power. It was sort of like the triad system. If you didn’t want to be attacked and molested, you jolly well kowtow to me and pay protection money.

Something that perhaps Philippines President Dueterte is aware of.

A system honed through thousands of years of evolution should not be expected to change overnight. And yet some political analysts are scratching their heads to find the answers to China’s perplexing attitude. The thing is that, China’s political system is not unique to her alone. In fact, this system was practiced by most nations in the past, and is still practiced by some.

So what’s new?

To understand this, we need to know the two important schools of political thoughts. The first one is realism or if you want to sound more intelligent, you can call it realpolitik.

Realpolitik is basically `might is right’. The stronger you are, the more formidable you become and therefore the more chances of you surviving. It is the Darwinism of politics. Survival of the fittest. But in order to be strong, you not only need to have a strong military, but also need to secure the resources needed; food, energy, minerals etc. Thus, China’s excursion into the depths of Africa and Latin America and of course the South China Sea should be seen in this context.

Realpolitik is actually being practiced to some extent by other countries too. That’s the reason why for example, countries spend billions of dollars on their military. But unlike China, these countries such as the Western democracies tampered their political realism with political idealism or what is now known as liberalism.

Liberalism, the second school of political thought, is the notion that if countries share the same philosophy, there will be less of a chance of them being at each other’s throats. Thus we have the EU, ASEAN and other political/economic treaties between countries.

The problem arises when there is a differing view on what this common philosophy should be. For the western democracies with the US leading the charge, this philosophy should be based on the concept of democracy and all the liberal appendixes that come with it; human rights, free trade, globalisation etc. However, lest we forget, China is still a communist country with no universal suffrage and is ruled by an exclusive club with the ancient historical instinct to demand homage and tribute still intact.

In short, there is a serious disconnect between how China views the world, with the rest of the world.

So what should Singapore position be?

As a small country, the best option is to try to manoeuvre between the two political thoughts as best as we could. We should share the liberalism of the west but at the same time give some face to China.

In the context of the South China Sea, to put it bluntly, we should just shut the fuck up because we don’t have any claim to that sea and we should just allow the various claimants to duke it out, whether via show of force or diplomacy.

If the Philippines, the most vociferous of the lot could change tack and kowtow to China, who are we to make noise?

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