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China: More Open to America’s Asia Project Than Thought?

As violent protests rolled across China earlier this week over a Japanese provocation at the disputed Senkaku islands, a casual observer might be tempted to conclude that the nationalism inside a rising China is some kind of implacable, rabid force which could tear the region apart. And while nationalism certainly exists—and shouldn’t be trifled with—a recent article in The Atlantic (h/t Tyler Cowen) paints a far more nuanced picture of what is really going on.

In the aftermath of the protests, a question was posted on Weibo, China’s most popular social network:

“If your child were born on the Diaoyu Islands, what nationality would you pick for him/her: Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong or the mainland?” (The islands, also known as the Senkakus in Japan, are claimed by China, Taiwan, and Japan.) It went viral on Sunday, retweeted over 20,000 times in nine hours before censors took it down around midnight. The surprising results would seem to contradict the popular anti-Japanese protests, undercut the government’s efforts to stoke patriotism, and may well baffle outside observers: Chinese respondents overwhelmingly picked places other than mainland China. Around 40 percent answered Taiwan, followed by Hong Kong with about 25 percent, followed by Japan. Mainland China was the least popular option. A formal poll, set up on Weibo after the original post was pulled, returned similar results, with Japan at 20 percent and the mainland at 15.Why would the same citizens seen campaigning in the streets for China’s right to the islands seemingly contradict their own nationalist sentiment by voting to raise their hypothetical child “anywhere but [on] the mainland”?

The Atlantic continues:

The same Chinese nationalism that drives citizens to stand up for their native land when outside forces challenge it could also sharpen their pain when they observe the depressingly wide gap between China as it is and China as they wish it could be. Some of the Weibo poll respondents suggested that, although they might have grudgingly picked Taiwan or Hong Kong or even Japan for their child’s hypothetical nationality, it wounded them not to choose mainland China as they wished they could. Therein lies the common ground between the nationalism of the Diaoyu marches and what you might call the national humility on display in the Weibo poll.

The article is worth reading in full to get a sense for some of the poll respondents’ comments. And it’s worth noting here that America’s pivot to Asia is not simply a question of military containment of China. The goal is to attract the great societies of Asia into a stable, liberal world order. Articles like this one indicate that there is ample opportunity for us to engage with China’s proud people, who both love their country but also want a better future for their children than their country is currently able to provide.

We need to keep our eye on the ball. America’s goal isn’t to impose an Asian order on China against the will of China’s people. America’s goal in Asia is to promote the emergence of an Asian security and trade system that allows all the peoples of the region, mainland China residents very much included, to build the kind of future they want.

The secret weapon behind America’s Asia policy is simple: the Asia we want aligns very closely with the Asia that most Asians also want and so to some extent, America’s Asia policy involves pushing a snowball downhill. Freedom, prosperity, security. We want those things for Asians because their success and prosperity creates the best possible conditions for us to enjoy these blessings for ourselves.

Implementing this policy is going to be a difficult task that requires hard work, some risk and expense, and very thoughtful and careful policy. It requires us to deepen our knowledge of and connections with all of Asia. But no policy offers more promise in Asia and there is no viable long term alternative.

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  • John

    Interesting discussion, but one should be extremely wary of drawing significant conclusions based on very short-term, self-selected, completely unscientific Internet polls. To use it to illustrate an already sustantiated point is fine, but it is not itself much substance.

    Maybe this humility is widespread across China, or maybe it was just disproportionately represented in this particular Weibo thread of conversation and the related intellectual class.

    That noted, I think America’s non-hegemonic vision for a free and secure Asia does resonate, particularly with those who would be on the losing end of battles with overpowering central governments, and this resonance should work not only to America’s but to almost everyone’s advantage.

    One important philosophical point (and no, that is not an oxymoron 😉 ): I understand the VM team’s point that “We want those things for Asians because their success and prosperity creates the best possible conditions for us to enjoy these blessings for ourselves”, but that’s a very inadequate expression. Our self-interest is a given and legitimate, especially in the Darwinian world of foreign policy, but it is also morally bounded and by no means the most important thing from, say, God’s perspective, and least not from the Judeo-Christian understanding of that perspective. We should be seeking this freedom, prosperity, and security for them not merely for our sake, but also their own; not merely as means to our ends, but affirming them as ends in themselves.

    So maybe this would be less cynical, just as realistic, and _almost_ as terse: We want those things for Asians because they deserve freedom, prosperity and security every bit as much as we do; and because this creates the best possible conditions for us to enjoy these blessings for ourselves.

  • Jim.

    Be careful. Remember the gap between Egypt’s Twitterati and the rest of its citizenry… to say nothing of those in power.

    Just because freedom, prosperity, and security are to some extent universal wants (and very pretty ones, too) does not mean that there are not other human aspirations that can trump them. Also remember, just from the posts here recently, that some basic human freedoms (the freedom to practice one’s religion without harassment, even the parts others dislike) are not universally held by the Liberal order.

    That said, some version of the old 1950’s Life Magazine world order (secure, free, prosperous … and reverent) will probably appeal to a majority of the population of the world, enough to build a stable system, anyway.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Here we see that the Chinese would choose even a hated Japan over their own even more hated Chinese Communist Party government.

    “America’s goal in Asia is to promote the emergence of an Asian security and trade system that allows all the peoples of the region, mainland China residents very much included, to build the kind of future they want.”

    And here we see once again WRM pretending that the Greedy, Grasping, and Corrupt Chinese Communist Party can be ever be a part of such a system, when even the Chinese people don’t think it can.

    To treat the Chinese people and the illegitimate Chinese Communist Party Government as the same thing is to refuse to recognize reality. America’s goal in Asia cannot be realized as long as the illegitimate Chinese Communist Party is in charge in China. And so America should work for as much as it can get by forming an alliance of China’s neighbors to bring them into closer association with America. It is to America’s advantage that the belligerent Chinese are forcing their neighbors into America’s arms, as without it most Asian cultures would prefer the status quo and cultural stagnation.

  • Corlyss

    Sorry but Atlantic is not an honest broker. James Fallows ought to register as an agent of a foreign power, while Atlantic itself has never seen an Obama policy it didn’t swoon over and immediately flack.

    Surely you can do better, Prof.

  • John

    Corlyss, the Atlantic used to be a great magazine until Michael Kelly’s death in Iraq combined with GWB’s defense of traditional marriage led Andrew Sullivan, Fallows, and the rest of the crew to eagerly infect themselves with Bush Derangement Syndrome.

    According to the typical tone and substance of the Atlantic since then, it appears, tragically, there is no cure. I suppose then that it’s despairingly for the best that they wouldn’t be interested if there were.

  • willis

    To quote the professor: “Implementing this policy is going to be a difficult task…”

    Is going to be? Exactly what will have to happen in order for it to begin professor?

    To quote #2 Jim: “Be careful. Remember the gap between Egypt’s Twitterati and the rest of its citizenry… to say nothing of those in power.”

    Also, remember that the Chinese may be aggressive and even hostile, but generally they are sane. The mostly Islamic Egyptians are bat-shit crazy.

  • Sage

    This is indistinguishable from the thinking that led us into the present world-historical chaos in the Middle East.

    1. All peoples are basically alike and therefore want the same things.

    2. The China that most Asians want is thus necessarily much the same thing we would want.

    3. Therefore our policy should be designed to “give Asians what they want.”

    3b. In case you’re wondering, yes, it’s possible for us to construct a rational policy that will make thousands of years of invariant Chinese authoritarianism vanish. Because we’re super smart.

    We’re busily empowering Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, just as we empowered Hamas in Gaza before that. Now the idea is to make China as militarily secure, prosperous and “free” as humanly possible. In any other era, this would be considered madness, and in any other era the people pushing it would be laughed off out of public life. Only a people in seriously terminal decline could produce an unworthy class of public intellectuals, critics, and political leaders as we have.

  • Larry Sellers

    I’ve lived in mainland China for the last 10 years. This article is an example of why using an unscientific internet poll can be a dangerous way to make assumptions and form policy.

    Chinese people consider themselves Chinese because of their ethnicity (93% of China is Han), not because of what their passport says.

    I’m not surprised at all that mainland China ranked lowest in a poll about preferred nationality, as securing a passport from a western or more developed Asian country has been a pretty common desire among Chinese people of all social classes to for some time. It’s not considered traitorous, it’s considered insurance against social and political upheaval, which has happened pretty frequently throughout Chinese history.

    The better question would be to ask which ethnicity mainland Chinese would prefer their child to be if it were born on the disputed islands. I can promise you that Japan wouldn’t outpoll China then.

    And that’s the real problem with the issues around the disputed islands. It’s not nationalism, it’s ethnicism. The major players involved each believe that the other races of people are genetically inferior.

    If you want to know what Chinese people really think about territorial spats, ask the following in a poll of Chinese students: Yes or No – Would you willingly sacrifice your life to unite Taiwan with mainland China?

    The number of yes votes this would get would be off the charts.

  • Matt

    This matches my own impression of a visit to China 6 years ago. There was a lot of Chinese pride in how far they’ve come since Deng’s Great Leap Forward, but still an inferiority complex when comparing themselves to others in the region.

    China knows it’s the biggest; it wishes it were also the best. And “best” includes not just material wealth but also political/personal/religious liberty and, most importantly, the rule of law. They know their government is a big part of the problem, but they don’t seem to know how to fix it.

    Given the current economic slowdown in China, particularly related to housing, it will be interesting to see if calls for political change start to go mainstream.

  • Matt

    Woops — meant when Deng opened up China. Great Leap Forward was Mao’s earlier mess (before the cultural revolution).

  • Alic

    @Larry Sellers

    Nationalism is ethnicism. At least that’s always been my understanding given all the European political parties with “National” in the title.

  • f1b0nacc1


    Spot on….one of the elephants in the room that we in the West don’t like to talk about is the level of Han supremacism that runs riot in China. This is hardly anything new, but pretending it isn’t there (and ignoring its consequences) is going to lead to some very, very unpleasant awkenings for the West in the future…

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