China's national security blue paper a worrying throwback to the cold war

Lanxin Xiang says warning of an ideological battle with the West does not befit aspiring great state

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 6:50pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 2:08am

China has just published its first national security blue book. Although official media labelled it "the most authoritative" report on national security since the establishment of the super-secretive National Security Committee, it presents such a panicky psychology that one has to wonder who wrote it. The fact that the authors are from the University of International Relations, a well-known training ground for Chinese civilian intelligence officers, but not from the new security commission itself, may provide a degree of comfort.

The blue book defines four major national security threats: Western democratic values, Western cultural hegemony, information inflows through cyberspace and the foreign media, and underground religious activities.

It is terrible to see that each of the four is linked to ideological challenges rather than national security grand strategies. This is a surprising demonstration of a lack of self-confidence, a far cry from the Chinese leadership's declaration of building a "great state" to pursue a "new type of great power relations" on the world stage.

The report has done enormous damage to China's international image. More seriously, it has exposed how backward and lacking in innovation its national security thinking is in the 21st century.

Sycophants disguised as academics are launching an ideological battle against the West, but so far it has been ineffective, because the language it uses, the logic it relies on and the solution it proposes are out of sync with reality - not just expectations from the outside world, but also popular sentiment at home.

Beijing has long accused Western powers of maintaining a "cold war mentality" in dealing with China, but reports like this could have come straight from the politburos of any tottering communist regime during the cold war.

Moreover, if the most vulnerable part of China's national security is in dealing with outside cultural challenges, one must look into the root of the problem, not bypass it.

China is facing its most serious legitimacy crisis since 1949, mainly because of the official corruption that has eroded the basis of power for communist rule. Fortunately, the current leadership seems fully aware and has been dealing with it with courage and vigour.

But, at the same time, the ideological campaigns against the West are wide of the mark.

In traditional China, the political system was presented in a much better way. Confucius saw proper government guided by the principles of li - that is, ritual or propriety. Confucians believed governments should emphasise this more and rely less on penal punishment. The blue book seems to emphasise the opposite.

The reason the Communist Party is no longer able to convince the people of its legitimate right to rule is because a major section of the ruling elite is failing in this respect, remaining above the law.

Bad political representation is reflected even in the official rhetoric on political reform. The people and some political elite frequently bring up the question of how to reform the system. But the debate is often framed as two extreme views; one that prefers wholesale Westernisation, the other, no Westernisation at all.

Officially, the party rejects any attempt to import a Western system, but constitutionally, China is already an imported Western system, a "people's republic". However, the way the political system is presented resembles neither a republic nor a traditional dynasty. It is an unnatural hybrid; a traditional Chinese body politic built on an alien political organ - the Politburo system.

With the lack of self-confidence in dealing with the supposed threats to national security evident in the blue book, there is only one real solution: suppression via coercive power. Chinese history demonstrates that, when a regime resorts mainly to coercive power to solve social instability at home, it is on its last legs. The irony is that the system of the People's Republic remains resilient today. But this does not seem to be the message the blue book is conveying.

In fact, the blue book is bad for policymaking. First, it pours oil on the fire of the panic caused by religious extremist violence.

Second, cultural debate with the West should be conducted on an equal footing, not through intolerance where Chinese propaganda often treats Western culture as inferior.

Third, the blue book seems ignorant of the history of Christianity, considering underground churches a major threat to national security. Logically, a solution might be to legitimise these churches, which would mean a rapprochement with the Vatican. That moment may have come, with a Jesuit at the helm. After all, the Jesuits were the original cultural interlocutors with China.

Overall, the blue book is a foolish document, for if the leadership were to adopt its view of national security, China would be destined to remain in the 20th century forever.

Lanxin Xiang, a professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, is currently in Washington as a senior fellow of the Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund