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Domestic Instability and Chinese Foreign Policy

By Jacqueline Newmyer

It would be a mistake to consider prospects for instability within the People's Republic of China (PRC) apart from the future of China's foreign affairs. In dividing domestic from foreign policy, Americans impose a distinction between sets of issues that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elites perceive as connected. From Beijing's perspective, economic, social, religious, and political threats to the CCP's continued rule all have an essential external dimension. What is the significance of this link between domestic and foreign affairs? It is characteristic of a regime that is not only beset at home but also likely to interact with the rest of the world in ways that do not conform to American expectations.

Until recently, U.S. policy makers did not think much of the prospects for domestic instability in the PRC. From the construction boom in China's major cities to the growing U.S.-China trade deficit, signs of Chinese prosperity have been much easier to discern than indications of discontent with the regime. This is partly because, as Minxin Pei and Murray Scot Tanner have pointed out, while episodes of internal unrest have increased over the last decade, the Chinese Public Security Bureau's mechanisms for stifling disturbances and 'disappearing' trouble-makers have grown more sophisticated. (The U.S. executed 60 people in 2005. At an equivalent rate adjusted for population, China would have executed about 240 people. The actual figure for China in 2005 is estimated at 8,000 executions.)

Thanks to recent prompts from Beijing, however, Washington has now begun to consider China's litany of internal challenges. Perhaps first on Beijing's list is the potential for instability caused by economic inequality. Chinese officials are quick to bemoan the widening gap between urban magnates and migrant workers - especially in conversations with U.S. officials about China's currency regime. The PRC cannot afford to let the yuan rapidly appreciate, Beijing tells Washington, because any drop in exports would lead to a rise in unemployment among laborers, the most volatile element of society. Even as Hu Jintao has been hard at work promoting his new slogan, "Harmonious Society," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao recently explained to President Bush that of the 25 million jobs he needed to create per year, he was only managing to supply about 10 million. The regime has managed its financial and economic situation cautiously, but, to be sure, in an era of mass media, the quality-of-life disparity between a Shanghai cadre-cum-real estate mogul and a rural peasant without potable water reduces the CCP's legitimacy and contributes to the possibility of unrest, particularly in the event of an economic slowdown.

Second on China's list of domestic threats are challenges from ethnic minority populations - "split-ists" or "separatists" - including Tibetans and Uighur Muslims. In the wake of 9/11, Beijing appealed to Washington for license to squash potential Islamists within the PRC. Since then, Beijing has not only enjoyed a free hand to crack down on local "terrorists" but also proceeded aggressively with initiatives to flood minority regions with Han residents. China's efforts in Tibet appear to have extinguished residual flames of nationalism. Nonetheless, pro-Tibet activists in India, the U.S., and Europe, and Uighur links to Central Asia and the Middle East give Beijing cause to suspect outside powers of abetting internal troublemakers.

A third source of instability lies in the rapid rise in religious belief in the PRC. Over two millennia imperial China saw the rise of a congeries of regime-threatening sects that proved most disruptive when they mobilized peasants across different provinces. Today, the regime balks at the inroads that faith is making among wealthy urbanites. Materially prosperous but spiritually dissatisfied business people, including CCP members, are increasingly turning to Christianity as a source of meaning. Beijing has largely viewed Catholics, whose ranks have grown from about 4 million in 1949 to roughly 12 million today, as manageable because of understandings reached between the Vatican and the Communist hierarchy. But from only 1 million believers in 1949, Protestantism now claims about 40 million adherents in China today - the majority of whom are associated with underground churches or, worse, cult-like sectarian movements. Most Chinese Protestants do not belong to a formal organization with which the Party can deal, and some of the biggest churches trace their roots to Western missionary groups or exiled leaders in the U.S. Though none of these groups has ever seriously threatened the CCP's hold on power, in the eyes of Beijing, the menace to stability posed by a domestic religious revival is linked to foreign intervention.

Last but not least, the PRC could suffer a secular political uprising led by an assortment of pro-democracy, pro-human rights, and anti-corruption forces. Among Chinese intellectuals at state-sponsored think tanks, debates about how to bolster the regime's legitimacy and safeguard its future increasingly center on the choice between "Westernization" and "Confucianization." Further reforms in the direction of liberal democracy would be seen as moving the PRC toward a "Westernized" future. A rebellion led by would-be democratizers, human rights activists, or anti-corruption protesters would equally be seen as inspired by "the West." (The "Confucianization" path, on the other hand, would draw on China's own traditional political culture to create a bureaucracy populated by a learned scholar-elite.)

From economic inequality to political dissent, then, Chinese scenarios for unrest all include an element of foreign manipulation. What does this suggest about the PRC's foreign policy? U.S. experts offer opposing theories of how domestically embattled states proceed internationally. One view is that these regimes seek peace abroad to concentrate on ordering affairs at home. Another is that they tend to lash out, engaging in conflict to distract popular attention from grievances and rally support for the regime. Neither theory is particularly suited to the PRC case because neither takes seriously the way that decision-makers in Beijing integrate internal and external threats.

An alternative theory grows out of attention to the application of traditional sources of Chinese statecraft and strategy (texts like Sun Zi's Art of War) in the behavior of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese classics describe contexts in which neighboring powers are constantly seeking to undermine each other by means of infiltration, sabotage, and other deceptive operations, and the texts' overarching recommendation is to seize decisive moments. Neither cultivating peace nor launching diversionary wars to rally domestic support looms as large as exploiting opportunities for lasting gains through bold, sudden strikes.

Recent history bears out the continuing relevance of this advice in China. Under Mao and Deng, as Iain Johnston argues, the PRC proved remarkably prone to escalate against other powers. In its first half-century, at moments of domestic tumult and in periods of calm alike - from the end of the Civil War through the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the height of the Cultural Revolution to the relatively tranquil mid-1990s - the PRC launched unexpected military operations against the U.S., India, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and the Philippines. The principal aim of each action was to secure a concrete gain or decisively defeat a foreign power. As Beijing continues to navigate domestic challenges, then, U.S. policy makers would be wise to keep in mind that internal disorder itself has not disposed the PRC to peace or triggered aggression. Rather, the PRC has tended to strike when a rival's guard is perceived to be down, offering an opportunity to inflict a devastating blow.

Jacqueline Newmyer is president and chief executive officer of Long Term Strategy Group, LLC, a Cambridge, MA-based defense consultancy, and a postdoctoral fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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