How to understand China

Mohamed Ibrahim Al-Dessouki, Tuesday 18 Jul 2023

A piece of ancient Chinese wisdom may hold the key to understanding the role that China aims to play in the world today, writes Mohamed Ibrahim Al-Dessouki


If you truly desire to comprehend the Chinese mentality and decipher the meanings and objectives behind China’s current moves, you only need to turn to a piece of ancient Chinese wisdom that says “never reveal the sources of your strength until it is fully developed.” 

It is from this that Beijing derives its inspiration and charts its course on the international and regional levels, considering it as a guiding principle.

Until recently, China maintained the narrative of being a developing nation, striving to improve the well-being of its citizens and extending a helping hand to other developing countries on the path of growth and reform. However, as the components of China’s economic, financial, and technological strength reached maturity, its hidden face was unveiled as a formidable economic power in its own right. 

China surpassed Japan, which had long held the position of the world’s second-largest economy, and took its place. It now has a major voice in decisions concerning the global economy. 

The Chinese dragon is now securely in the ranks of the great powers, and it is deserving of the achievements it has attained. It is entitled to seize the reins of leadership at both the international and regional levels, imposing its terms while doing so. Its right to do so should be respected, as it proudly proclaims itself as the sole entity on the international stage capable of competing with the US and stubbornly vying for global leadership from solid ground. 

Through the speeches made by Chinese representatives and other direct and indirect messages, Beijing is reinforcing such ideas by promoting the notion that it is the best equipped to protect the international system from the chaos and recklessness of US interventionism. It possesses political sagacity, enabling it to approach international issues wisely and to reject impulsivity and tension.

This has increased trust in Beijing’s ability to play the role of a trusted mediator in resolving some of the most challenging and dangerous crises in the world today, among them the Saudi-Iranian conflict and the resumption of their diplomatic relations, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and the Russian-Ukrainian war. European delegations and business circles continue to visit Beijing seeking advice or seizing investment opportunities.

Beijing also has an inspiring development model that has allowed it to move from poverty and destitution to prosperity and wealth in a short period of time. People around the world look at China with admiration and respect and seek to understand the secrets of its remarkable and pioneering model that has gone beyond that employed by Japan.

A quick look at the statistics for 2022 reveals that China’s total GDP reached $17.95 trillion, with exports reaching $3.6 trillion and foreign investments amounting to $182 billion, marking a 6.3 per cent increase compared to the previous year. These figures clearly demonstrate the magnitude of China’s economic achievements, despite the challenges that the world has faced over the same period, among them the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian-Ukrainian war.

China speaks with confidence rather than arrogance, recognising that its path is still in its early stages. Its society has its own shortcomings and challenges, and these compel China to redouble its efforts and economic growth rates to overcome them.

Chinese confidence does not only stem from the achievements of its Communist Party government and its ongoing endeavours to improve the lives of its citizens. It also derives from China’s rich cultural heritage and significant influence on humanity as a whole. The achievements of Chinese civilisation cannot be denied, and these form the heart of its current position, merging with its economic, military, and political accomplishments.

China has focused its moves on Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean and Taiwan in the western Pacific. These moves aim to bolster its national interests, particularly in Taiwan, which China views as a rebellious province destined to return to the motherland in a similar way to Hong Kong. 

China takes a firm stance against any attempts by the US to encourage protests against China or supply advanced weaponry to Taiwan. Its reactions to such attempts are often forceful, utilising its military strength in large-scale manoeuvres around the island with its population of 23 million people. 

The Chinese authorities allocated $229 billion to military expenditure last year, allowing for continuous annual increases over two decades to enhance and support the capabilities of its two-million-strong military. China possesses a vast stockpile of long-range missiles, along with stealth and unmanned aircraft, nuclear capable bombers, and nuclear powered submarines. Recently, it launched its third aircraft carrier.

Chinese officials justify these military spending increases by citing international and regional challenges, and they compare their expenditure to US military spending of $800 billion this year. They also point to the growing militaristic tendencies of Japan, following Tokyo’s decision to double its military budget and adopt a new military and security strategy that departs from its peaceable approach since the end of World War II. 

Japan seeks to acquire advanced weaponry with the approval of the US and other Western powers, and its declared objective is to counter China, which it perceives as its most dangerous strategic challenge.

Beijing is also aware that late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe championed the slogan “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” which was later embraced by the US. NATO officially announced last year that the Indo-Pacific region has become part of its security interests. This signifies a shift in NATO’s activities, which were previously limited to the Atlantic, towards the Pacific and posing a direct threat to China.

Meanwhile, China is resisting the demonisation campaigns led by Washington and its Western allies, who have been claiming that China poses the most significant threat to global peace and security in the world today. 

They allege that China’s ambitions are boundless, with hidden depths far surpassing what is now apparent. They accuse China of spying through its 5G technology, as if the US does not engage in similar activities with friends and foes alike. They even insinuate that the Covid-19 pandemic, which devastated the world for years, originated from Chinese labs. 

One only needs to review the relentlessly negative portrayal of the Chinese dragon in the US and Western media to confirm the existence of a systematic campaign to tarnish China’s image. 

* The writer is a former Al-Ahram newspaper correspondent in Tokyo and an expert on East Asia foreign affairs.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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