From trade war to a clash of civilisations: how China and the West can avoid major confrontation

  • Regina Ip says China is a civilisational power for whom democracy is no easy fit, making its rivalry with the West hard to resolve. Beijing must do better at presenting its point of view, while the West needs to understand China’s eventful history
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 January, 2019, 2:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2019, 2:57am

More than 170 years after China’s humiliating defeat in the first opium war, 70 years after the establishment of New China, 40 years after China’s reform and opening up and 18 years after China’s accession to the World Trade Organisation – just as the nation seemed firmly set on an irreversible trajectory to become a world power – the trade war and technology boycott led by the US threaten to deal a body blow to Beijing’s global ambitions.

Despite its record trade surplus with the US in 2018, significant declines in China’s total exports (by 4.4 per cent) and imports (by 7.6 per cent) in December show the devastating effects of US President Donald Trump’s tariffs. Even more devastating than the tariff war is the tech war waged by the Trump administration. The ban on the export of specialty chips to China and the banishment of China’s tech giant Huawei from the 5G markets of the US and its “Five Eyes” allies send clear signals that a US-led coalition is bent on keeping China’s tech development at bay.

One cannot pin the blame solely on China’s “state capitalism” or its “egregious” national industrial policy. There is nothing fundamentally different from what East Asian economies like Japan and South Korea pursued to jump-start their economies after the second world war.

As is well documented by scholars on Japan’s post-war economic miracle, Japan adopted a deliberate strategy of domestic market protection by erecting tariff and non-tariff barriers, grooming “national champions” in selected industries, targeting US rivals and making copycat production by reverse engineering.

The economic development of both Japan and South Korea in their nascent years was marked by a symbiotic relationship between their governments and big corporations. The governments of other smaller Asian “tigers” – Taiwan and Singapore – abstained from building tariff barriers but followed suit by picking winners with strong backing from the state.

In China’s case, size clearly matters. According to Professor Lawrence J. Lau, from 1978 to 2017, China’s share of world trade rose from 0.5 per cent to 10.2 per cent; while its share of the world’s GDP rose from 1.75 per cent to 15.2 per cent. As a continental economy with the world’s largest population, the unleashing of its teaming manpower and, more recently, brainpower, lifted the largest numbers of people out of poverty in human history.

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Western media are now replete with reports of China’s apparent stunning tech achievement, along with stories of alleged spying, intellectual property theft or other breaches of the law. The recent remarks by US Attorney General nominee William Barr that China, not Russia, is the US’ “primary rival”, speak volumes about the intensity of US perception of the China threat.

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The disputes, however, run deeper than trade imbalances and tech rivalry. Many in the West remain sceptical, if not downright critical, of China’s political system and practices. American scholars, journalists and sundry “China experts”, who study contemporary China, take a far more adversarial view than historians of China’s failure to launch political reform as part of its “reform and opening up”.

Distinguished Western academics argue that there is a correlation between the level of economic development and the expansion of freedom. They hypothesise that once a country has reached the “middle-income country threshold” of US$12,000 per capita, it would become increasingly free. China’s continued tight grip on its people’s rights and freedoms is lambasted as “a great leap backward”, while the expansion of Chinese influence in the West, allegedly in ways that are “covert, coercive or corrupting”, is viewed as a direct affront on the legitimacy of American democracy.

Better understanding of China’s checkered history would put contemporary Chinese trade practices and influence mechanisms in a broader perspective. Fact No 1 is that China, historically termed the “Middle Kingdom”, had preferred to be left alone. In 1757, Emperor Qianlong decreed that only the southern port of Guangzhou should be open for foreign trade. It did not open up its ports on its eastern seaboard until almost 100 years later, when an alliance of imperial invaders from the West forced open its gates.

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Fact No 2 is that China still remains inept at selling itself to the West. Its projection of soft power through its global network of Confucius Institutes is a sorry tale of missed opportunity. Confucianism, with its strong emphasis on discipline, self-sacrifice, subservience to familial values and hierarchy, is a very hard act to sell to younger Chinese people, let alone to the West. China’s most successful export to the US (other than pandas) was basketball player Yao Ming, who was able to play in accordance with American rules while remaining Chinese to the core.

Thirdly, because of its long history of periodic civil wars, disunion and frequent famines, China is obsessed with unity and unification, and prioritises keeping stomachs full and society in good order. It is also acutely aware of the variation in the “quality” of its multitudinous population, including many from the countryside who have yet to be gentrified. For centuries, Chinese governments have had to resort to control to maintain order and peace.

China has much to learn in dealing with and presenting itself to the West. Equally, the West should recognise that China is not an ordinary national state. It is a civilisational state. If Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations prognosis is anything to go by, Sinic civilisation is not one which lends itself easily to Western-style democratisation. It is equally if not even more important in the long run, to avoid a clash of civilisations between China and the West, in addition to avoiding a prolonged trade spat or tech ban which inhibits the free flow of ideas and, by extension, human progress.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a lawmaker and chairwoman of the New People’s Party