2016-10-02 By Danny Lam
Ever since Marco Polo, China experts command a field of expertise that required extensive study of a tonal language and memorization of a complex set of characters. These are sizable barriers that for centuries, fostered the establishment of and then institutionalization of a priesthood of experts that were able to act as the “link” between the Chinese civilization and the west.
Jesuits under Father Matteo Ricci made breakthroughs including learning the language, publishing the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, and ultimately, became the first foreigner to attend the Ming Court.
The skill that Father Ricci demonstrated in mathematics, astronomy, and language that earned him a place in the Ming Court also was instrumental in his efforts to Sinify Christianity that facilitated its adoption by Chinese.
It also made Father Ricci enemies of Dominicans and Franciscans that felt he went too far.
The basic outline of this story was more or less repeated right up to the present day by “China experts”.
US Foreign policy in general, and foreign relations with China, is tightly controlled by a small cadre of experts who largely share a common perspective, outlook, and assumptions. While most China (or area experts) has linguistic skills, experts like Dr Henry Kissinger that was instrumental in the “re-opening” of China have earned themselves a place with the modern equivalent of the Imperial Court.
When Newt Gringrich stepped out of line upon becoming Speaker of the House in 1995, no less than Dr Henry Kissinger, who was in Beijing at the time, telephoned Mr Gringrich to lecture him on China policy. Newt backed down very quickly.
The power of the priesthood and their grip on US Foreign policy was revealed.
Priesthoods have power because they are recognized experts that have been proven over time. It is instructive to look at the core assumptions of the priesthood in eras past, and how their consensus have led them astray, and how might similar assumptions may be leading the present “China experts” astray.
A core premise and assumption of the “China Experts” is that government in China is very much like the Western model. A central authority that exercise power no differently in Washington and Beijing. Regimes may come and go, it may divide (via secession in the Western model), or unite (e.g. Federate like the US or via expansion of Empire), and continuity of government or institutions is a strongly held value.
Derived from these core assumptions are the importance of dealing with the Emperor of China, which in the modern era, translated into the leaders of the Chinese Republics. The edicts of the Emperor or Head of Government in China are presumed to have the same full faith and credit as that of a US Federal Law enacted by Congress and signed by the President.
Few China experts challenged this basic consensus except for the late MIT Professor Lucian W. Pye.
Professor Lucian W. Pye in Asian Power and Politics observed that power in the western sense is but one manifestation of power. He argued that there are actually a variety of expressions of power in Asia.
The Chinese, according to Professor Pye, conceive power comes from above from the persona of the top leader. Contrast this with western notions that legitimacy flow from below (the people) to the sovereign.
All other powers outside of the Chinese state official hierarchy is in a state of semi-illegitimacy except for loyalty to family and clan. The Emperor is a benevolent Chinese father who have to care for all their children (provinces) treating each child equally with none favored. No challenge to the central authority is tolerated.
The central authority acquires their legitimacy in the past from access to the supernatural (because the Emperor is responsible for the “rites”), and in modern times, by access to the ideological orthodoxy of Marxism-Leninism-Mao TseTung-Deng XiaoPing thought and promoting economic growth post-Deng.
Professor Pye’s work based on a lifetime of fieldwork in Asia was so jarring and unsettling to the China Experts that his works were largely ignored.
The convergence of Chinese authority’s preference for being seen as the omni competent, omnipotent authority with western “China experts” produced an interesting monoculture that fed on itself.
Historically, the small handful of “China experts” are easily taken captive, first by the Imperial Chinese Court, and now the modern Chinese Republics with privileges, be it access to top leaders, money, prestige, liquor, women, research for academics, etc.
Conversely, the western “China experts” find it easy to lose their sense of objectivity and increasingly blur the line between objective analysis or scholarly research and propagandizing for their Chinese friends in high places.
“China experts” that stepped out of line of their handlers from China find their access and privileges cut, and a lifetime investment in understanding China destroyed.
Just how far can the perspective of “China Experts” diverge from reality?
Few today remember how enthralled Americans were with the Christian Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Sek, who was a weak leader that struggled to establish authority for his “Republic of China” (ROC) that was repeatedly defeated by the Japanese, and then, in turn, defeated by the “bandits”.
The “China Experts” of that era systematically failed to recognize, accurately report and anticipate the consequences of the US supporting a nearly failed state (ROC) and its lack of legitimacy even as it’s crumbling edifice collapsed.
Nor recognized and attempting to head off the strategic consequences of the communist victory – the consequences of which we are dealing with today.
Had the failure by “China Experts” with the ROC been a one off event, it would teach no lessons.
But virtually the identical story was played out in the 19th Century when the Ching Dynasty established by the ethnic Manchu faced a major rebellion from southern China: The Taiping Rebellion was the largest and most dangerous of a series of rebellions that shook the foundations of the Manchu Empire that cost a half million combatant casualties and perhaps 20 million or more civilian deaths.
A conflict comparable in scale to World War I in Europe.
The impact of Western Intervention in the Taiping Rebellion in favor of the Manchu Empire can be debated, but it is established fact that Western Powers did intervene in favor of the Ching Empire, when western interests would have been better served by sitting it out, or, perhaps, intervening in favor of the insurgency.
In the 21st Century, the grip of the “China Experts” have been substantially loosened by the large numbers of non-Chinese that have become proficient in at least one of the Chinese languages.
In parallel with large scale migration of Chinese abroad, there are now large Chinese linguistic communities abroad that in the age of the internet, enable the monopoly power of “China Experts” to be diluted.
“China Experts” are no longer the sole access to expert knowledge via their contacts in Beijing.
The explosion of development of the coastal Chinese economies and their engagement and integration into the global economy that turned a formerly insular regime for much of the 20th Century into a cosmopolitan, wealthy, and diverse community.
With this explosion of wealth and personal freedom, inevitable differences in language, culture, caused by “A civilization trying to fit within the confines of a nation-state” (Pye) becomes amplified and brought to the fore.
China of the 21st Century is recovering its diversity reminiscent of the 17th Century before the Chings crumbled.
Despite the growing importance of local authorities in China, “China experts” have been slow to catch on.
Conflicts with China are still primarily seen as issues to be dealt with between Washington and Beijing, with little consideration of the dynamics and local politics in the local areas concerned.
Few “China Experts” are conversant in anything else but the “official language” of puotunghua, depriving them of the ability to claim privileged access at the local level where the so called puotunghua is not the lingua fraca.
US policy makers have little visibility as to the thought process, opportunities and constraints faced by local authorities in Southern China, or South East China, or Western China and how these might factor into Official Beijing’s decision making process.
Few “China Experts” or policy makers ask the question as to just how much usable power do Beijing have over, e.g. Guangdong Region on the South China Sea issue?
Or how much clout does Beijing has over Liaoning Province on the North Korean problem.
Yet, these are the questions that must be asked by the incoming Administration in order to formulate a new foreign policy toward this vast civilization that slowly, but surely, are facing centripetal forces.
Donald J. Trump, as an experienced businessman who had done deals with Chinese, intuitively cued into the importance of asking the question as to the power and credibility of the counter parties.
Will Secretary Clinton do likewise?
Or rely on the judgment of the cherished “China Experts” in the Government and Think Tanks?
Rather than simply reinforce the power of Beijing by pretending they are analogous to Moscow as it was in the Soviet Union, it is time to focus on regional dynamics, and the reduction of the power of the authoritarian regime sitting in today’s version of the Imperial City.
Danny Lam is an independent analyst based in Calgary.