China had never been remote from the history of our generation. Our political conscience opened with recent memories of the liberal phase in modern Arab history, with its blend of monarchy, the British occupation and the independence struggle. It grew to adulthood in the Arab nationalist era, when the republican order fused with the ongoing fight against colonialism and Israel. At one point in our journey, various versions of socialist thought seemed to take hold of our minds, shaping our political theorising. That is where China entered as a venerable international player. It was the first state to fight colonialism, it supported Palestinian rights and, thirdly, it embodied the regenerative aspect of Marxist theory: Lenin saw the working class as the leader of humanity’s march to liberation and progress; Mao Zedong elevated the peasantry to the vanguard. In the 1960s, the annual Cairo Book Fair always featured a separate China wing. You would find stacks of Mao’s writings, and not least his Red Book, filled with citations and words of wisdom from his speeches and writings.
How much the world has changed since those days. China changed even faster. By the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, even as it stayed its communist course, China seemed more poised to cope with the gales of globalisation than its former socialist colleague and occasional ally in Moscow. Beijing had little need for a Donald Trump in order to assume its place as the other global superpower. It has already begun to shine as an economic giant, the world’s leading exporter, author of the Belt and Road initiative and a pioneer in IT and aerospace technology. After Covid-19 struck, when tensions escalated dangerously between Beijing and Washington, which had accused China of being responsible for the pandemic, observers had legitimate cause to speak of the onset of a new “cold war”. The truly new factor this time was that Beijing had taken Moscow’s place in the international power equations. On the other hand, crucial characteristics of the Cold War were missing: the arms race and the proxy wars.
On 1 July 2021, China celebrated the centennial of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The occasion served as a reminder that, officially at least, China is still communist, despite the notion that it is a “Chinese flavoured socialist” country with a “social market economy.” China is not a torch bearer, in the sense that Rome was a bearer of law, Anglo Saxon culture was a bearer of liberalism and capitalism, or the Soviet Union was the bearer of socialism. China wants to be the “Middle Kingdom” to which the world comes in search of intermediate goods and high tech manufactures. At the same time, it has no desire to expand beyond the industrial islands in the South China Sea, regardless of the pending mystery as to how to codify its sovereignty over them under international law. How did China get to this point? That complex question requires quite a bit of thought, not just on the part of the country celebrating but also by the rest of the world watching the celebration.
Perhaps this helps explain Washington’s bewilderment with respect to China since Biden took office. In his Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, he describes China as “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”
As the international historical tradition has it, communist China was born stripped of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. In Middle Eastern political language, these “territories” were not conceded but rather usurped. Yet Maoist China never went to war for them. Then, when Deng Xiaoping assumed power in 1978, China entered a period of “strategic latency” in which absolute priority was given to domestic development. After that, Chinese leaders clung to two notions. One was that China was not a developed nation. They continued to maintain that their country was a third world country and that it should be treated as such in international economic forums. Secondly, they insisted that China had no designs to become a superpower. Despite its regional problems, they say, it has continually worked, with considerable forbearance and magnanimity, to resolve these problems peacefully, as was the case with Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and border issues and disputes over the islands. For those purposes, China accepted two political systems, one based on CPC rule, the other on Western democracy. Until recently, it was rare for China to speak of a regional or international role for itself and Beijing never used its right to veto in the UN Security Council except on issues that concerned it directly. Still, China has certainly benefited from its enormous demographic weight given that it was treated as a poor third world country in world trade systems and obtained an average of around 40 per cent of Western capital investments in the developing world.
It is worth noting that Washington described China as a competitor, signifying that it has the ability to compete with the US in certain fields. So we are speaking here, not of a conflict or a dispute but of a race. Perhaps it is a new kind of race, but all the same, the outcome depends on which side is the most able, the best adapted to the purpose and the most innovative.
China is being pragmatic in its intent to continue working with the current system, which benefits it. It seeks to avert conflict and confrontation, promoting cooperation and exchange that realises a net win for all. On the other hand a recent CPC report registered concern over the current wave of US emphasis on spreading liberal ideas and human rights. It cautions that the US is the greatest foreign challenge to Chinese national security, sovereignty and domestic stability.
A year ago, Netflix featured a documentary on the rise of China over the past four decades. It showed how China, with the aid of Western multinationals, has evolved into an emergent technological powerhouse as the influence of the six free economic zones spread inland. It predicted that by 2025, China’s GNP would equal that of the US’s. Perhaps it is already there. At least when measured in purchasing power parity, Chinese GDP comes to $23 trillion while American is $21 trillion.
The Covid pandemic may have had a negative impact on China’s reputation as the origin of the virus. However, this was offset by China’s response to the disease. China was the first country to be hit but was also the first to recover.
The Arab world knows far too little about China. Most of what we do know is reaped from Western and, particularly, US sources. Perhaps it is time we learned Chinese.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly