An interesting sceptic look at China and the Chinese-Russian relations
Written by Igor Khodakov; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by Mona Lita exclusively for SouthFront
Are the people of China ready for a major war, its hardships and its enormous sacrifices? As unified as the Chinese society is, can it withstand the pressure of a large-scale armed conflict? In our prevailing power of stereotypes, these questions seem to be relevant.
Few people have doubts about a country with which Beijing wants a major confrontation. Taiwan can be dealt with without a large-scale war. Tianxia is not yet ready to oppose the U.S., and the Americans are not seeking to confront the awakened Dragon. It is doubtful that unregulated border disputes will lead to full-scale hostilities. The only one left is Russia. Alexander Khramchikhin writes this in a past article that hasn’t lost its relevance today: “China’s significant territorial claims to the Russian Federation have not gone away” (“China is ready for a big war”), and is further conducting large-scale exercises that include PLA marches for hundreds of kilometers, which only makes sense if you are preparing to attack your Northern neighbor and because you cant walk this much distance through Taiwan.
A break and cracks
First stereotype: the Chinese society is united; the positions of the ruling Communist Party are unshakable. On the surface, yes it seems unshakable but only on the surface. An opposition is forming in the Chinese community. In “An Idea for China”, Mikhail Khazin touches on this topic. To be exact, the opposition is not so much in relation to the Communist Party itself, as much as the current presiding policies. Namely, a part of Chinese society is unsatisfied with the gap in the levels of population welfare, which is a direct consequence of the past decade’s market reforms. Numerous officials to political and business elites have appropriated a significant share of an economic profit. Regardless of harsh measures, the inability of those in power to deal with corruption is causing discontent among population.
It is against this background that the Communist Party of China formed the so-called left-wing opposition, calling for redistribution of national income and social justice. Until recently, one of its leaders was considered to be Bo Xilai, the former Party secretary of Chongqing. Charismatic and influential, having been Red Guards man in his youth, he called to return to the Cultural Revolution policies and bridging the gap in the area of population welfare.
We cannot say that proposals of Bo did not meet the support of country’s political elite. In addition, the supporters of a former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin saw in him a future leader of China. Today, Bo is accused of corruption, removed from his post, expelled from the party and sent to jail. His wife was sentenced to death for the murder of a British businessman. But something else is important to us: there is a clear split in the CCP, and it is not due to behind-the-scenes inner-party struggle, but because of serious disagreement over a further socio-economic development of the country.
Second stereotype: the disciplined Chinese are politically passive, in masses religiously indifferent, and therefore no significant regime opposition exists in the bulk of the people. This is so from a political viewpoint, but not from a moral/spiritual sense. In the early 90s a movement appeared throughout China’s vastness called “Falun Gong”, the creators of which determine their goal as an achievement of a person a moral and spiritual purity. Presently, there are good reasons to see an extremist sect in motion, which isn’t conducive to the person’s harmonious personal development as much as it is damaging to the person’s psyche.
The book “Zhuan Falun” was written by the founder of the movement, Li Hongzhi and is on Russian federal list of extremist material. But that’s not the issue here: “Falun Gong” has never declared its opposition to the CCP and never claimed to be some sort of political movement. But its very existence is the opposition to the ruling regime. To understand its nature on one hand, and to see cause for the country leadership’s reasonable concern on the other, we will turn to a recent Soviet past for a comparison. In 1981, Karate in the Soviet Union was banned. One of the unofficial reasons was the gathering of certain youth groups that did not share communist ideals, but did not speak directly against them. Some masters of the martial arts were even detained, and those schools were closed down. It is the same story with the “Falun Gong”.
Except there are many more “Falun Gong” followers than there are those who practiced Martial Arts in the Soviet Union at the dawn of the 80s. Furthermore, a sociological research that was conducted in China in 1999 showed that there are more “Falun Gong” followers than there are Communists. The ruling party’s answer was a harsh one: the movement as well as its followers was outlawed. However, this repression had an opposite effect: it spawned a multimillion opposition within the country, perhaps imperceptible in peacetime, but in the time of a disaster, especially a military conflict it is capable of destabilizing a situation. It is unlikely that the “sect” supporters will defend the regime that is being accused of persecuting the regime’s followers and even torturing them.
Another aspect of the socio-economic life in China that should be taken into account is urbanization. It is not only expressed in the growth of urban population but also in the active migration of the labor force. The professor of Economics at Beijing University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Fan Gang is citing official statistics according to which the level of urbanization in China at the present stage is reaching 48%. This is impressive because this figure was only 18% thirty years ago. Fan Gang emphasizes that during this period more than 300 million Chinese moved into the city.
This Chinese urbanization is specific. It is enough to mention the hukou system, which limits the population’s mobility. Yet this urbanite, especially one living in a large metropolitan area, in terms of a mental attitude differs from the countryman. He is partly de- traditionalized, increasingly prone to hedonism and comfort, and as a consequence has a lesser desire to serve in the army. Accordingly, an increase in urbanization rates may well lead to a decrease in those wishing to serve in the P.L.A.
In the present time the situation is different. An overabundance of recruiting resources allows the country’s leadership to equip the army, including contracting, selecting the best in its ranks. But will it always be this way? Lets remember the U.S.S.R. once again; no one would even think about escaping the service in the early ‘80s, or even more so be proud of it. It has only been ten years and the situation ahs radically changed. And also, city growth is the spread of the Western model of civilization with its goods and its evils, and with which the Chinese leadership is greatly concerned. Very recently, the Communist Party made a direct statement of the country’s risk of spread of Western democratic values, alien to Chinese mentality and traditions.
The East – a common affair
Here is a brief on the Chinese attitude towards the Russians in everyday life. According to the people, in the north, the number of those who have been to China or those who live in her spaces is equivocal, especially those living on the border areas. The Russian language is known if not by all, by many. Many Chinese do business with our compatriots; a high percentage of them are “shuttle traders” who possess a very low level of culture. The Chinese accuse them of being drunk and rude. But in general, their attitude toward Russians is good.
The situation is different in the south of China: they see us in a neutral light and almost no one knows the Russian language, but a significant percentage of citizens speak English in varying degrees. And in the south, the “white man” is associated more with an American than a Russian. But what is interesting is that almost all of our compatriots who are in contact with the Chinese on their homeland noted that the latter do not view Russians as enemies. And as we know, every war is preceded by the appropriate propaganda, the creation of the enemy image. Nothing of the sort is happening in China in relation to Russia.
Mainstream media talk and write about the northern neighbor in a rather benevolent tone. Moreover, a number of Chinese experts are emphasizing on the ability of their country to help Russia to get rid of its commodities driven nature of the economy and help in agricultural recovery. Perhaps this phrase will bring an ironic smile to your face: yes, they will “help”, by a creeping occupation of the Far East. But lets not exaggerate the scale of the Chinese migrating into the region – analysts are testifying that immigrants from Central Asia rather than China are a much bigger problem. The Chinese immigrants’ interest in the Far East’s political and economic stability should also be taken in to account, like their rejection of converting the land they have settled on into a war zone.
Here is another question worth pondering: what is written about Russia in Chinese schools and university textbooks. It would be appropriate to mention this message that flashed in the news a few years ago: during an international student conference that was held in Altai one of the teachers suddenly learned that in Chinese history textbooks the territory from Western Siberia all the way to Tomsk is considered “temporarily lost”. In reply to a Russian student’s surprise to encounter such a passage, her Chinese colleague calmly replied that the Chinese are a growing nation and that sooner or later it would make its way here.
The Uighurs who live in Xinjiang do not present a real risk to China’s integrity. But in case conflicts with a neighboring country were to arise, the situation could drastically change. It is important to emphasize that for China this area has important strategic significance, being the largest energy base where a quarter of its oil and gas is concentrated. The Uighurs who are Sunni Muslims, make up 45% of Xinjiang’s population.
They have combat experience. In 2000, Russia handed over two Uighurs captured in Chechnya to the Chinese. According the head of the Service of Strategic Cross-border Planning Association Alexander Sobyanin, “The overpopulation pressure has always been high in Xinjiang. Traditionally the Chinese Turks families are large, and that is why no one tried to extent the well-known ‘one family – one child’ policy to XUAR. And the requirement to have no more than two children per family is taken hostilely here. High birth rates call forth unemployment. Today, a part of the Uighur youth who did not find a place at home are secretly leaving China to join the Muslim terrorist ranks of all suites”.
The Uighurs are fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State that is forbidden in Russia. The Chinese media also write about this. Uighur separatism, which is connected to IS poses a real threat not only to China, but also for Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Sobyanin writes, “However, a more serious threat to Russia are the plans Uighurs have in Central Asia where the Uighur “fighters for independence” are still referring to none other than “the territories of the West Turkestan, annexed by the Russian Empire”. The separatist Uighur organizations are linked not only to IS but also to “Al – Qaeda”. In the article “The analysis of the historical aspects of the Uighur issues” the deputy director of TSATU – director of Central Asia heading Tokhtar Tuleshov and the expert of the Association of the Military Political Scientists Boris Pluzhnikov specifically noted, “In the early 2012, the representative of ‘Al – Qaida’ Abu al-Libi referred the Uighurs from the Xanjiang-Uygur region for a call to war against the Chinese authorities”.
A corresponding video message was posted on Islamic websites. Al – Libi told the Muslim ethnic Uighurs that it was time to go back to their personal religion and to seriously prepare for jihad in the name of the almighty Allah. In addition, he appealed to the Muslims around the world to help the Uighurs. Al – Libi threated the Chinese government with terror attacks to be carried out as a revenge for the Uighur clashes with the police.
It is obvious, that in case of a war with Russia it would be strategically advisable for the CPLA to strike in the direction of the militarily weak Kazakhstan. But this will lead to the southern wing of the Chinese faction as well as its communication inevitable become under the Islamists’ attack, who are also based in Xinjiang.
And another point: with the built up of the military-economic potential the Chinese society will be undergoing a transformation. How will this be expressed? The Chinese stoicism and their indifference toward death in the face of disasters is well known. There are many examples of this from distant and not so distant histories. But times change, and with that the behavioral patterns of society, its mental attitudes are also transformed. In any case, a great war is inconceivable without the consolidation of society and the ruling elite. And again, how can we not recall an example from the Soviet past: at the brink of the WWII: “the fifth rank” was destroyed within the Red Army that was headed by the people’s genuine enemies like Tukhachevsky, Yakir, Uborevich and others. Were they to stay in their key positions, the USSR would have been destroyed or victory over the Reich would have come at a more costly price.
Only availability of military equipment, its quality and the training of personnel do not measure preparation for a large-scale war. It depends on the willingness of the people to bear hardships and deprivations, and in case of the Russian-Chinese conflict – to accept the use of nuclear weapons. Even the excess of the male population, which the Chinese leadership may be preparing to bring to the altar of victory, is not an indicator of the Chinese people’s desire to be killed at the front lines. At the time, Hitler underestimated the Soviet people’s degree of resistance. The result is known.
In addition, we have to understand that successful economic reforms have a downside. Lets refer again to the domestic experience and recall the era of Alexander III. The pace of the country’s economic development was the highest in the world, and its population grew just as rapidly. Outwardly, everything seemed more than well. But even then, the movement was headed toward erosion, which came out in the crisis of an ideology, the decay of the triad “Orthodoxy. Autocracy. Nationalism”.
Transforming mental fixations (in other words – secularization of consciousness) of all sectors of society made the public, if not alien to this ideology, then at least indifferent. The same happened with the Soviet Union – the country’s collapse was preceded by Communist system’s values crisis.
Yes, China is currently united, but its undercurrents can become a ticking time bomb of the slowing down of its development.
Igor Khodakov, Candidate of Historical Sciences