Report on the China: The Giant in the Room – September 20 2018

Discussion Chair: Martin Klein with assistance of Vic Falkenheim
Report: Max Nemni
China: The Giant in the Room

Martin Klein, the chairperson, opened the discussion by noting that the title of the colloquium implied that China’s potential hegemony was worth our attention. He reminded us of the way the rise of Japan after World War Two, and especially in the 1980’s, was seen as both inevitable and threatening. He wondered if the Japanese example applied to China, and proposed that we deal with the question: “Is China’s Hegemony Inevitable.”


Is China’s Hegemony Inevitable?

Many of the participants emphasized the fact that China is a very complex society. It is a country with a very long history, which includes periods of greatness, periods of imperialistic wars, periods of withdrawal, etc. At some moments in history (for example in the middle of the 18th Century) China was a world leader, at others it was a pariah. China is also simultaneously a multi-ethnic society and a very centralized and patriotic one. During Mao’s years China was seen by many people around the world as a model of a revolutionary path to a good society, while many others saw it as a most dangerous model of society. So, how can we improve our knowledge of China? Is China hegemonic?

The very complexities of Chinese society led some participants to highlight the difficulties of assessing the inevitability of China’s hegemony. Others believed that its hegemony was obvious and ought to be carefully noted. One of the discussants who emphasized this perspective was William Marcovitch. He had to leave the session at the break but sent us a note presenting his views. He wrote:

The session, by limiting its discussion, was a whitewash of the truly hegemonic and dangerous nature of the regime. There [was] no mention of the predatory, aggressive and imperialistic paradigm that defines the nature of Chinese economic and international interventions in trade, the South China Sea etc., and indeed, in using North Korea as subaltern in tweaking the noses of, and indirectly threatening the Western powers with nuclear war. [Moreover] China is already waging in spying, stealing tech, and using electronic and media interventions in the domestic economies and political affairs of state of their “adversaries” in the West.

Professor Shiraz Dossa presented a completely opposite perspective. To him it was the West who was imperialistic and aggressive. He believed that this very session was impregnated by an imperial attitude manifested in “the very framing of the topic.” The question which was asked (Is China’s Hegemony Inevitable?) and the title of the session (China: The Giant in the Room) were clear manifestations of the “Western approach to the Orient/East.” He further asserted that these perspectives were manifestations of “the securitization of intellectual inquiry in universities.”

Other participants asserted that while China is certainly not a liberal society, it is difficult to pinpoint its political philosophy. At this point it was noted that the focus on the concept of “hegemony,” or the title “The Elephant in the Room” had taken us as far as they could and we should move on to other aspects of the Chinese riddle. Martin Klein, the chairperson, explained that these notions were meant to open up the discussion of where China was going and what it wanted. And, as we all witnessed, there was indeed quite a bit of discussion and many points of view were presented.


China’s economy

The question arose on how we should react to the economic dominance of China. Some of us applauded China’s economic progress, others were less enthusiastic, and others still saw it as a threat. One of the questions raised on this issue was: “How do we feel when Chinese companies buy some of our best enterprises?”

One participant noted that for 2000 years China was the best governed place on the planet. Another one noted that at the end of the 18th century China was indeed one of the world leading countries. Others noted that in the 1980’s China’s technology was very backward. But since then it has made tremendous progress. Now China’s production and technology are very advanced. As a result Chinese people are becoming increasingly ingenious. Many realms are opening up and the standard of living has steadily improved. Some of us believed that China’s impressive progress is worthy of admiration, others were worried.


China’s sense of identity

Many participants noted that there isn’t “one China but many Chinas.” China is subdivided into numerous ethnic groups, and some of them were former invaders. Other participants noted that while there were many officially recognized ethnic groups in China, this formal recognition was of a superficial nature for two reasons. First, some ethnic groups are mistreated and, second, most Chinese are imbued by a strong centralist sense of identity. Bibhuti Mohanty noted that “the Chinese have never referred to their country as China (actually a Portuguese derivative). They have called it for centuries as Zhongguo (meaning ‘The Central Place’), which is also the current official name in their documents and currency notes.” He further informed us that “China still refers to people of Chinese origin, irrespective of how many generations ago they left China, as ‘Huaquiao’, meaning ‘Overseas Chinese’! There are actually 50 million of them.” Some participants also noted that the sense of family is profoundly ingrained in the Chinese sense of identity.

We can therefore why many Chinese people believe in the greatness of China. Totay, many of them profoundly believe, and hope, that they will surpass the United States and become the first economic power on earth. We can also understand why it is difficult for us (“westerners”) to properly understand China.</p.


China Today

After the collapse of Mao’s regime, in 1976, Chinese people were hungry for reforms and huge ones were accomplished. As the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 revealed, the people were ready to die to achieve them.

In 1993, in the Chrétien years, and just a few years after the Tiananmen crisis, Peter Russell lived an event that throws some light on the Chinese conception of democracy and politics. Peter’s project was based on a request by the Government of China for assistance from Canada on how China might proceed along the road to democracy. A project was undertaken by 5 scholars from the Chinese Academy of Social Science and 5 scholars from the Royal Society of Canada. The Canadian team organized two trips to Canada for their Chinese colleagues enabling them to examine every aspect of Canadian democracy in action. The Chinese hosted two conferences in China for the Canadians at which they discussed various aspects of democracy and how they might be developed in China. The project’s “deliverable” was a book of essays written by the five Chinese reflecting on how five aspects of Canadian democracy might be experienced in China. Peter said that the project may have helped reform the judicial system so that people would trust the courts to render justice in non-political cases, and to ensuring fair business practice in the growing private sector. But overall, the Canadians were struck by how much their Chinese colleagues feared that their participation in the project might jeopardize the career prospects of their children in the Communist state.

In our colloquium, some of the participants noted that economic transformations often go hand in hand with political reforms, and this is what happened in China. While the Chinese political system remains autocratic and controlled by the Communist party, huge reforms have been accomplished. The most important one being the peaceful replacement of the country’s top leaders.

Some participants noted that under the leadership of Xi Jinping China’s success story is now in jeopardy. Xi Jinping seems to be hanging on to power. Just as dangerous is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be an opposition to his venture. As a result, it seems that China is going back towards an authoritarian political system headed by one man.

The colloquium ended up with the notion that the future of China is uncertain. The key question raised remained unanswered:


Is the Xi Jinping era the beginning of the end of the New China?




Suggested Readings

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[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”Minxin Pei China under Xi Jinping 2018″]

[pdf-embedder url=”” title=”Evan Osnos on Xi JinpingReduced”]