Debunking 13 myths about China

The USA harbours a love-hate relation with China dragon. The relation reflects distrust, fractiousness and tension coupled with watchful competitiveness.

arms race

China’s polity and society is shrouded in a cobweb of myths. Several countries with whom China has trade surplus suffer from an understanding deficit. China is, at once, feared and envied by many countries, the United States of America in the forefront. Its sheer size and population are awesome.

China’s economic progress has engendered apprehensions that it may overtake the USA and emerge as the new hegemon. The USA harbours a love-hate relation with China dragon. The relation reflects distrust, fractiousness and tension coupled with watchful competitiveness.

The USA looks upon China as a copycat out to obtain economic advantage for its state-owned enterprises through cyber-espionage. Cognitive dissonance in US-China relation is obvious. The USA likes China’s economic progress, as long as it suits American interests. But, it abhors China’s efforts to occupy more strategic space in the region around it, particularly the South China Sea.

China, too, wants to keep an eye on the USA. Its universities and think tanks teem with specialists on the USA, European Union and the rest of the world. There are 150 think tanks focusing on Australia alone.

Though India shares border with China, Chinese students have little interest in exploring Indian culture and history. The Chinese display an indifferent attitude, bordering ignorance about India. Let us mention a few of the myths about modern China heretofore.

Myth 1: China has no religion

During the 1920s, a Chinese intellectual Hu Shih proclaimed that China is a country without religion, and Chinese are a people who are not bound by religious superstition. Religion in China could never be eliminated.

It has however seen periods of tolerance and persecution. Qing dynasty built schools in place of temples, churches, shrines and spirit writing altars. The present government believes that secularism would rise pari passu with economic progress. Modern China since its establishment in 1949 has granted right to religious belief.

As such, China, now, has Buddhist association (since 1953), Protestant Church (1954) Islamic Association (1954), Daoist Association (1957), Catholic Patriotic Association (1957). Chinese are traditionally obsessed with survival, not eternity, or higher spiritual values.  Chinese philosophy of Daoism, Confucianism, and legalism are mechanistic.

They are concerned with values as a means to an end. Pragmatism is the key attitude. Buddhism stands secularized to align gods with wealth and kitchen not spiritual alignment.

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The Chinese society is in transition. Materialism now means faith in a bright future. Even spread of Christianity in both rural and urban areas is not tantamount to rejection of traditional values. During the Tang dynasty, Buddhism emerged as complement to, not repudiation material secularism.

Myth 2: Uyghur’s persecution and social issues

The Uyghurs, alternately Uygurs, Uighurs or Uigurs, are a minority Turkic ethnic group originating from and culturally affiliated with the general region of Central and East Asia. The Uyghurs are recognized as native to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China.

The Uighurs are the people whom Old Russian travellers called Sart (a name which they used for sedentary, Turkish-speaking Central Asians in general), while Western travelers called them Turki, in recognition of their language.

The Uighurs are the people who old Russian travellers called Sart (a name which they used for sedentary, Turkish-speaking Central Asians in general), while Western travellers called them Turki, in recognition of their language.

They are mentioned in Chinese records from the 3rd century. They first rose to prominence in the 8th century, when they established a kingdom along the Orhon River in what is now north-central Mongolia.

Insider dated December 24, 2019 reported that China has initiated a “Pair Up and Become Family” program to dilute Uyghur minority. Han Chinese men are sent to live with Uighur women in China’s western region of Xinjiang.

“Neither the girls nor their families can reject such a marriage because they will be viewed [by Chinese authorities] as Islamic extremists for not wanting to marry atheist Han Chinese. They have no choice but to marry them. It is alleged that the Han Chinese have been raping Uighur women in the name of marriage for years. China denies the allegation.

Be it observed that the Uighurs are not like Orthodox Muslims. Both the Pakistani and the Uighurs criticise each other. Andre Small (p.80, ibid.) states `Pakistan’s criticism of the Uighurs’ irreligiousness or fondness casts aspersions on their standing as Muslims’. It is said that `Turkistan separatists are supported by the United States or India in order to drive a wedge between China and Pakistan.

Read more: The China-Iran deal: Not about business but strategic communication

Chinese concept of Social evils differs from Pakistan’s. Divested of morality, an ordinary Chinese consider it just normal to give or take `body pleasure’ for money.

In Khanewal some Chinese engineers scuffled with police when it tried to prevent them from going to a `red-light area’. Recently some Chinese gangs have been busted at Faislalabad, Lahore and Rawalpindi for fake marriages with Pakistani girls including some underage and later exploiting them as sex slaves (Dawn, Tribune, etc. dated May 9, 2019). The police recovered illicit aphrodisiac `drugs’, `gold ornaments’, `dowry’, Chinese passports and weapons. It is generally believed that the arrests are just a tip of the iceberg.

In some Karachi areas, Chinese have rented congested adjacent housing units in various Karachi areas and turned them into `out of bound’ to Pakistanis. What they do there is anybody’s guess. Traditionally, Chinese prefer to develop and live in China towns wherever they go on the globe. In Pakistan, they have avoided doing so as what they eat (cats, dogs, monkey brains, insects) may sound revulsive and non-kosher.

Myth 3: Corruption almost eliminated

Xi Jinping  began anti-corruption campaign immediately after becoming general secretary of Central Communist Party in November 2012.The government arrested 184 ‘tigers’ besides tens of thousands of `flies’ (lower-rank officials).

XI constantly admonished Chinese not to divide history into the history of the People’s Republic of China into a Maoist period and a reform period. The latter period is distinguished austere Maoism by slogan `to get rich is glorious’.

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This slogan led to widespread corruption in bureaucracy. People had muffled resentment against corrupt bureaucracy. They hold CCP responsible for it.

XI instructed officials to remove their children from foreign universities. But, her own daughter, then an undergraduate student at Harvard did not come back. During 2005-2006, there were 62,500 Chinese students in foreign universities. By 2015-2016, their number rose to 3, 28,000.

Myth 4: Sino-US relations are stable

China is, at once, feared and envied by many countries, the United States of America in the forefront. Its sheer size and population is awesome. China’s economic progress has engendered apprehensions that it may overtake the USA and emerge as the new hegemon. The USA harbours a love-hate relation with China dragon. The relation reflects distrust, fractiousness and tension coupled with watchful competitiveness.

The USA looks upon China as a copycat out to obtain economic advantage for its state-owned enterprises through cyber-espionage. Cognitive dissonance in US-China relation is obvious. The USA likes China’s economic progress, as long as it suits American interests. But, it abhors China’s efforts to occupy more strategic space in the region around it, particularly the South China Sea.

Read more: Russia and China interfering in American Elections: Biden

China, too, wants to keep an eye on the USA. Its universities and think tanks teem with specialists on the USA, European Union and the rest of the world. There are 150 think tanks focusing on Australia alone. The mutual suspicion may result in unintended confrontation.

Myth 5: Chinese loans are predatory

The US has expressed its apprehensions about Chinese investment in Pakistan, Sri Lanka as elsewhere. For the US, the investments are a predatory debt trap that could lead to ‘asset seizures’ like Hambantota port of Sri Lanka.

The factual position is that Chinese infrastructure loans have not led to the forfeiture of a single valuable asset abroad. The US view is based on Rhodium Group study, which mentions only Hambantota port as the lone instance of seizure. The claim of forced lease or seizure is questionable. The Hambantota port lease, held jointly by the Hong Kong-based China Merchants Port and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, was negotiated over 2016-2017.

Payments of the principal and interest for the port loans included only about 1.5 per cent of Sri Lanka’s external debt repayment obligations. The Sri Lanka Ports Authority promptly paid dues using revenues from Colombo port, which includes a container terminal run by China Merchants Port.

China holds an estimated nine to 15pc of Sri Lanka’s low-interest external debt. It owes high-interest loans to Western commercial banks. International sovereign bonds account for about half of the external debt, with Americans holding two-thirds of their value and Asians only about eight per cent.

Read more: US uses battle against Huawei as proxy vs China

Sri Lanka is liable to pay interest averaging 6.3 per cent on international sovereign bonds and the principal must be fully repaid in about seven years. In contrast, more than two-thirds of the value of Chinese state funds lent to Sri Lanka from 2001-2017 (including two-thirds of the Hambantota port loans) were at two per cent interest, and mostly repayable over 20 years.

Media reports about Sri Lanka’s government being forced to sign the port away on a 99-year lease after failing to repay Chinese loans at 6.3pc are untenable.

The Sri Lankan government still owns the Hambantota port and funds received for the lease were used to pay off expensive Western loans. There is no Chinese military base at Hambantota

Myth 6: China wants to colonise Pakistan

China never harboured any such ambition. History tells that China did its best to ensure protection of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

A strong Pakistan is a bulwark for China’s security as well. Andrew Small, in The China-Pakistan Axis (page 34) tells `In 1982, a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft belonging to the Pakistan military left Urumqi, capital of the North-Western Chinese province of Xinxiang, headed for Islamabad, carrying five lead-lined, stainless steel boxes, inside each were 10 single-kilogram ingots of highly enriched uranium, enough for two atomic’ bombs.

He adds, `China began supplying both M-11s and M-9s in unassembled form, which required development of a dedicated missile assembly facility near Rawalpindi’ (p. 40, ibid.).

There are marked differences between China and Pakistan that rule out Pakistan as a colony for China. China’s pragmatism as `religion’, now dollar-orientation, obedient labour force, enlightened leadership with a world vision, and hard work ethos is different from Pakistan’s.

Take water aspect alone.

Our lethargy marks a contrast with China’s history. There are more than 22,104 dams in China over the height of 15 m (49 ft.). Of the world’s total large dams, China accounts for 20 per cent of them, 45 percent for irrigation. The oldest dam in China Dujiangyan Irrigation System dates back to 256 BC.

Read more: Six strategies for Indian Armed Forces to turn the tables on China

In 2005, there were over 80,000 reservoirs in the country and over 4,800 dams completed or under construction that stands at or exceed 30 metre (98 ft) in height. As of 2007, China is also the world’s leader in the construction of large dams. The tallest dam in China is the Jinping-I Dam at 305 metre (1,001 ft), an arch dam, which is also the tallest dam in the world.

The largest reservoir is created by the Three Gorges Dam, which stores 39.3 billion m3 (31,900,000 acre feet) of water and has a surface area of 1,045 km2 (403 sq mi). Three Gorges is also the world’s largest power station.

In July 2020 Pakistan belatedly re-inaugurated Diamer-Bhasha Dam. No-one knows what became of funds collected for Kalabagh Dam.

China’s Marxist-social metamorphosis defies our religious moorings. China was able to bridge the stark differences that existed between rural and urban lifestyles. The hukou system was designed to prevent rural to urban migration.

Our banking sector has consumer orientation. The Chinese system with about 37 tiers has investment orientation. China `entertained’ foreign investors in every possible way. `In 2001, a count of the out-of wedlock children produced by Shenzhen’s working women and mistresses over two decades numbered 5,20,000…the sex industry is one of the few robust conduits of money backs to China’s impoverished areas (Ted C. Fishman, China Inc. 2003, p. 98). There are karaoke clubs to entertain burly foreign investors.

Aside from Tiananmen Square political protest, China has no tradition of industrial protests. `A fundamental problem with the Chinese working class is that it was disorganized and its protests were often leaderless (Alvin Y.So and Yin Wah Chu, The Global Rise of China, p.144).

The so-called unions just collected funds to organise birthday parties and recreational events. In November 1999, the government announced new rules for public gatherings regarding assemblies larger than 200 to obtain approval from local public-security authorities. Chinese leaders have a world vision Weltanschanschauung. Pakistani sand-dune `leaders’ have none.

Myth 7: Chinese to be Pakistan’s second language

The popularity of a language rises or falls pari passu with a country’s place in the comity of nations. Historically, English, French, Russian, Arabic and mandarin were the languages of imperialistic or conquering states.

Shifts in power triggered shifts in the status of languages. English continues to hold sway as it has dominated the commercial, scientific, commercial, scientific and technological fields.

Sir Syed understood the link between power and language. Britain and France insisted upon enforcing English and French in their colonies. During the heyday of the Soviet Union, Russian was the lingua franca from Prague to Hanoi.

After the demolition of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the Germans began to take pride in speaking German at international forums. People follow language of the dominant power. In the subcontinent, the English language supplanted Persian, the language of the Moghuls. So much so, that that Persian is now archaic in South Asia.

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Hong Kong’s effervescence for mandarin is due to the rise of China. When, around 2050, China displaces the USA as the world’s premier economy, English is likely to give way to mandarin as the world’s new lingua franca.

In Pakistan, Sindh set the trend. The NED Engineering University and many private school systems started teaching mandarin. The Technical Education and Vocational Training Authority, Punjab, offers free language courses for students of all ages. To attract, Chinese investment in our country, we should say Ni hao to Chinese language.

Myth 8: The 21st Century will be China’s, not America’s

The fear is that China will surpass the USA within next 10 to 20 years. Cash-rich Beijing with over US$ 30 trillion in foreign capital-reserves will be increasingly uncompromising diplomatically. To entertain a rising Chinese middle class, the world would become more and more `Sinicised’.

The truth is that the Western view of China is a bit too alarmist. The world will have to compromise with China’s economic and cultural heft. The two world views can coexist. One is based on protection of individual self-interest, and the other is top-down Confucian patriarchy.

Yet, the diarchy may co-exist peacefully without a Manichian struggle of the ilk of good and evil, darkness and light. Be it observed, aside from hype China has so far been non-hegemonic at heart.

It has no desire to spin existing geo-politico-economic order out its axis. China will move on its peaceful trajectory for another thirty years. China is unlikely to replay misadventures of the Great Leap Forward’ and the `Cultural Revolution’ to re-shape the nation in Mao Zedong’s image.

Read more: US-China ‘Cold War’: how bad can it get?

The people are becoming more and more resentful against bureaucratic control, lethargy and even perceived corruption. On average over 150000 `public disorder events’ occur each year. Massive abuse of `eminent domain’ is conspicuous from compensating owners of seized lands at fire-scale prices.

Restructuring led to dislocation of workers. Internet is an outlet to fan concerns about government’s impartiality and favouritism. People are sick of fat-cat-like bureaucratic lifestyle.

Chinese ministry of state security has about 100,000 employees who employ sophisticated algorithms to monitor and censor sensitive online chats, and micro-blogs. Mao Zedong is still revered as `70 per cent positive and 30 per cent negative’.

Myth 9: Ascendancy of American-style individualism

Chinese are becoming better off with a rising middle class and concomitant changes in cultural outlook. Yet, they are far off from American ethos of `life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness’.

The cultural wave is manifest from China’s role rock scene, loaded with a rebellious spirit, and bands like Hutong Fist, Tomahawks, Catcher in the Rye, Twisted machine, Queen Sea,  Big Shark and Wild Children. Surely people have abandoned colorless conformity in favour of individualism.

Yet, the brutal truth is family life discourages individualism. `Pursuit of happiness’ is at best an adolescent fantasy. It is soon forsaken under stress of marriage mortgage, mother-in-law and motor-car ownership.

Parents teachers bosses never encourage defining oneself independent of society. The clan, not society is the primary productive unit of society. Ego gratification is not synonymous with individualism,. Success with societal acknowledgment is the norm, not solo flights.

Myth 10: Revolutionary influence of Internet

China is a country in East Asia and is the world’s most populous country, with a population of around 1.428 billion in 2017. As of July 2016, 730,723,960 people (53.2% of the country’s total population) were internet users.

They are free to play violent computer games, indulge in free music-downloads access to boot-legged movies, and e-commerce. Too, gap between rulers and the ruled have been narrowing. Anonymous sentinels (Weibo, China’s Twitter clone) relay reports of corruption in real time.

Yet, internet is unlikely to upend people-to-government relationship. Internet chats do not crystallise into massive organised dissent. Pre-occupied with welfare of their families few would dare risking trouble with authorities. Very few people knew of dissident Liu Xiabo’s arrest, or his Noble Peace Prize.

Read more: Hong Kong’s trading edge blunted by US-China scuffle

Chinese cyberspace is like a walled crystal-globe. People can gaze through it over the world around but they can’t take part in violent agitation. The government cleverly uses cyberspace in advancing social harmony. It facilitates e-commerce platforms. They expand supply and improve quality of consumer goods available in lower-tier markets, down to the rural fringe.

Digital technology has improved Party’s responsiveness. There are over 50,000 net-police monitor-bulletin-boards which alert leadership about discussion on sensitive topics and unharmonious rumblings before they flare up into untoward incidents.

Myth 11: Chinese people are akin to Europeans

Not so. Average Chinese values stability in family above individualism. There are no political or religious divides as in Europe: lackadaisical Italians versus industrious Germans, anti-institutional Protestants versus statist Catholic.

China displays differences in the north, dominated by bureaucratic state-owned enterprises and the south close to the sea, encumbered by governmental hierarchy. Generally, the Chinese have an identical world view.

As of November 2019, China’s population stands at 1.435 billion, the largest of any country in the world. According to the 2010 census, 91.51% of the population was Han Chinese, and 8.49% were minorities. China’s population growth rate is only 0.59%, ranking 159th in the world.

The major minority ethnic groups in China are Zhuang (16.9 million), Hui (10.5 million), Manchu (10.3 million), Uyghur (10 million), Miao (9.4 million), Yi (8.7 million), Tujia (8.3 million), Tibetan (6.2 million), Mongol (5.9 million), Dong (2.8 million), Buyei (2.8 million), and Yao (2.7 million), Bai (1.9 million). The identified 56 minorities remain outside Han cultural fold.

Myth 10: Inscrutable Chinese consumer

Usually reticent, Chinese evince warmth once trust has been established. They are not complicated and display warmth and directness in everyday attitude. They are attracted to Western brands just as any other consumer.

Myth 11: China growth bubble is about to burst

Beside COVID19 impact on economy, critics outline a host of challenges to Chinese growth model. They include rising inflation and commodity prices, wage increases inimical to low-cost manufacturing, bureaucratic hurdles to bold structural reforms, urban-rural income militating against social harmony, and an education system that squelches harmony. The fact is that resilient Chinese economy is not over-heating.

Read more: China’s growing power in Central Asia & Middle East: Challenge for the US

The economist noted that China’s accumulated investment in fixed assets is still low and real wages have been rising strongly, which should help boos consumption in the medium term.

Talk of popping bubbles is confined to high-end neighbourhoods in coastal capitals. Despite impact of the pandemic, Chinese economy is growing. The strategic agreement with Iran for supply of crude oil for 25 years secures China’s economic future.

China is emulating American experience in becoming an industrial powerhouse in the twentieth century. Formation of supplier-and-producer clusters is facilitates through cost-slashing in different regions now specializing in different sectors. The middle class has completed a successful production-consumption circle akin to the USA.

Myth 12: Burgeoning poverty due to unbalanced growth

China was able to bridge the stark differences that existed between rural and urban lifestyles. The hukou system was designed to prevent rural to urban migration. In China today, poverty refers mainly to the rural poor, as decades of economic growth have largely eradicated urban poverty. The dramatic progress in reducing poverty over the past three decades in China is well known.

According to the World Bank, more than 850 million Chinese people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. China’s poverty rate fell from 88 percent in 1981 to 0.7 percent in 2015, as measured by the percentage of people living on the equivalent of US$1.90 or less per day in 2011 purchasing price parity terms.

In 2017, China lifted 12.89 million rural people from poverty which put the poverty rate at 3.1 percent compared to its 4.5 percent the previous year. Around 500 million people, or 40 percent of the population within China, survive on $5.50 per day or less. Productivity has overpowered lack of innovation, creaky distribution networks, patchy tax collection, and even corruption.

Myth 13: China is militarily aggressive

China is accused of harbouring outlandish territorial claims in South China Sea, confronting Japan on the high seas and the Philippines.  Over 1000 ballistic weapons aim at Taiwan.

Its annual defence spending has been increasing by 13 per cent since 1989. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimates the overall 2018 figure at $250 billion and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) puts the number at $209 billion in 2017.

The US Department of Defense concludes that China’s 2018 defense budget likely exceeded $200 billion. In 2017, the magazine Popular Mechanics estimated that China’s annual military spending is greater than $200 billion, around 2% of the GDP.

Read more: US and allies stuck in Security Council as China and Russia use veto

But, be it noted that the U.S. spent $649 billion on its military to 2018, according to a report published in 2019 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. That’s significantly more than China, second on the list of top military spenders.

Of course China is now making aircraft carriers and missiles with range over 900 kilometers. Still, China is nowhere near the USA in military capability. Nor does it have any ambition to invade other countries or challenge USA’s military supremacy in any way.

Temperamentally, Chinese shield themselves from danger (The Great Wall). But, they have no itch to wage a war. India unilaterally `annexed’ Chinese territory in her maps. China did nothing more than protesting verbally or sending emissaries to India for talks.

Distilling the lesson

Though China wants to overcome present and future challenges, it has no manifesto detailing goals for the next two decades. The alarmist or envious view of a rising China engendered many myths. Once could however peek through XI Jinping’s pronouncements, or his predecessors, to sift his `benchmark vision’.

There are three benchmarks.  In the first ten years, the goal was to provide adequate food and clothing to Chinese population (already achieved). In the second phase, the plan is to build a moderately-prosperous country by 20120 with a per capita gross Domestic Product of around US$ 13,000. The final phase, 2020 to 2050, envisions complete modernization of both rural and urban parts of China.

Since early 2013, XI has been talking about `fuqiang guojia’ (`rich, strong, powerful country’). To realise his dreams, he need to stay in power. Yet, his dream is threatened by emerging challenges to China’s stability and development.

The most potent challenge emanates from US machinations to destabilize China (tariff and trade war, religious concerns, BRI/CPEC concerns).  True, there are social issues involving China’s unity, need for political reform in view of the Party’s long continuation in power and economic or political deterioration in the international environment.

Mr. Amjed Jaaved is editor of the monthly magazine, The Consul. His contributions stand published in the leading dailies and magazines at home and abroad (Nepal. Bangladesh, et. al.). He is author of eight e-books including Terrorism, Jihad, Nukes and other Issues in Focus. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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