A tale of two Chinas: Rhetoric on foreign domination and domestic instability

The following original article, submitted to Friends of Socialist China by Nolan Long (a Canadian undergraduate student studying politics at the University of Saskatchewan), shines a light on the absurdly contradictory Western media coverage of China. “First, China is described as a global superpower in terms of its supposedly dominating and exploitative foreign policy; on the other hand, China is represented as an unstable, backward, underdeveloped country, bound to inevitably collapse due to the failures of socialism.”

This portrayal and the various popular narratives associated with it – that China is engaged in “debt trap diplomacy”, or that the Belt and Road Initiative is a form of colonialism, or that the Chinese economy is on the verge of collapse – are promoted as part of an ongoing propaganda war, itself a crucial component of an escalating effort to contain and encircle the People’s Republic. These various claims “exist at the heart of the West’s insecurity about its decreasing relevancy and power in the twenty-first century.”

The falsity of this anti-China hysteria is amply exposed by its contradictory nature; and yet it is unlikely to go away any time soon. As Nolan concludes: “The tale of two Chinas presents a picture of Western insecurity and modern Chinese power, a theme that will increasingly come to the fore as China continues to develop on its own and on the world stage.”

Contemporary rhetoric on the People’s Republic of China, as disseminated by Western corporate media, is made up of contradictory claims about Chinese domination and Chinese instability. It is simple enough to find intentionally missing information or context, exaggerations, and even outright lies in the muniments of most corporate media. But a deeper analysis reveals two competing narratives, both of which have become increasingly (and paradoxically) common over the last few years.

First, China is described as a global superpower in terms of its supposedly dominating and exploitative foreign policy; on the other hand, China is represented as an unstable, backward, underdeveloped country, bound to inevitably collapse due to the failures of socialism.

Notably, the first typified China is used in Western capitalist media to generate fears about China’s development efforts in the Global South, which have largely been at the expense of Western hegemony and financial interests. Despite the positive results of the Belt and Road Initiative, capitalist media portrays China as a rapacious villain running rampant across the globe.

Here, China is described as an economic powerhouse. But when discussing Chinese domestic affairs, Western journalists suddenly think China is a poor, underdeveloped state, sometimes on the brink of complete collapse. These two conceptions of China cannot coexist, and go a long way in demonstrating the irrationality and lack of scholarship among anti-communists and defenders of American hegemony.

The portrayal of China as an exploitative global superpower has been ramped up since the Belt and Road Initiative propelled China onto the world stage. China had been globalizing its economy since the Reform and Opening Up under Deng Xiaoping, but it was with the launch of the BRI in 2013 that criticism of so-called Chinese imperialism and debt trap diplomacy became mainstream. The British government has raised “concerns over China’s growing role in international development, while promising that the UK will resist the risks China ‘poses to open societies and good governments.’”

Roland Boer’s Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: A Guide for Foreigners analyzes a “genre” of anti-communist thought on Chinese socialism which Boer calls the “ghost story” genre. This genre suggests that the Communist Party of China “has a long-term plan to undermine global institutions and take over the world.”[1] These “ghost stories” are often published in “less than reputable press.” The portrayal of China as an exploitative global superpower falls into this category. It portrays the CPC and China altogether as starkly anti-West in everything they do, set only on world domination and the destruction of capitalism.

“Debt trap diplomacy” has become an oft-repeated criticism of China’s foreign affairs, particularly in the Belt and Road Initiative. Amanda Yee writes:

U.S. politicians and corporate media often promote the narrative that China lures developing countries into predatory, high-interest loans to build infrastructure projects as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. As the story goes, China anticipates that the borrowing country will default on the loan, so that it can then seize that asset in order to extend its military or geostrategic influence – evidence of China’s so-called colonizing of the Global South.

These claims are in spite of the fact that China has never seized foreign assets because a country has defaulted on a loan. On the contrary, China’s BRI loan structure often provides the world’s most favourable interest rates to developing countries. Moreover, China has been known to restructure loan agreements when countries struggle with repaying them, or in other cases has even forgiven debt entirely. In Africa alone, China has cancelled 3.4 billion USD worth of debt.[2] With Zambia, China “called on Zambia’s other creditors to shoulder a ‘fair burden’ in the country’s debt restructuring.” This was part of a wider effort led by China to get itself and other creditor nations to ease interest rates during the COVID-19 Pandemic (called the Debt Service Suspension Initiative), given the increased economic hardships it placed upon already indebted countries.

It is also noteworthy that, as Michael Roberts writes, “China is not a particularly large lender to poor countries like Sri Lanka compared to Western creditors and the multi-national agencies” (such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank). It becomes clear that China’s BRI efforts are not predatory, nor are they debt traps. Whereas China is willing to restructure or forgive debt, the same cannot be said for the United States or capitalist IFIs, whose exploitative Structural Adjustment Programs and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers led to enforced inequality within indebted nations and between developed and devoping countries.

With the Belt and Road Initiative having produced nearly three-thousand completed or in-development projects already, there is, of course, reason for American politicians and corporate media to be concerned. American hegemony is being challenged with each new port, bridge, and road that China helps build across the Global South. But the accusations pushed by Western politicians and media are rarely more than outright lies. Michael Schuman wrote an article for the Atlantic, in which he made several claims about China’s foreign relations, whose baseless nature lends itself to the validity of Roland Boer’s “ghost story” typology.

Schuman claims that, despite Chinese commitments to peaceful development, “China will not be a pacifist power.” Many American politicians claimed that Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port, built by the Belt and Road Initiative, would be used as a naval base for the Chinese military. However, the Sri Lankan ambassador to China stated much to the contrary: “we have very clearly indicated to the Chinese side, it’s only an economic venture… China never asked us [for use of the port as a naval base]. We never offered it.” Despite fearmongering in the American capitalist press, China’s global efforts remain peaceful.

The next ghost story speculation from Schuman’s article claims, “history suggests that China will use force or coercion against other countries when they contest Chinese power.” Where is the evidence for this? To claim that modern Chinese diplomacy is informed by ancient Chinese history is to be both contemporarily and historically illiterate. While modern Chinese political theory has taken much from its dynastic past, modern Chinese governance is the practice of socialism in power. There is nothing to suggest China intends to use military aggression or threats of violence against countries that do not repay their debt, nor on countries that refuse to join the BRI.

Lastly, Schuman states, “seething at what they consider humiliations inflicted by Western powers…China is on a mission to regain the upper hand.” He goes on, “China only tolerates relationships it can dominate.” If this is true, then why has the PRC expressed interest in forming a “Polar Silk Road” branch of the BRI, which would bring China into economic partnership with Russia (already a member of the BRI) and Canada (an important capitalist power, not a member of the BRI)? Relationships with these two countries are surely ones that China could not dominate. As it stands, the Polar Silk Road effort “is still modest, research-based and focused on maritime navigation.” Canada, however, has joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, perhaps indicating a potential willingness to join the BRI in the future. Chinese interest in the Arctic, specifically through Canadian and Russian partnerships, demonstrates its commitment to working with powerful capitalist states in the Belt and Road Initiative, debunking Schuman’s claim that the BRI is a vessel for China to enact domineering foreign policy relations. Moreover, American interest (against the expressed sovereignty of Canada[3]) in the Arctic sets the US and China at odds, further exemplifying that the BRI is also about protecting weaker states from American aggression.

It is plain to see that the reality of China’s foreign affairs does not line up with the spectacle propagated by the American capitalist media and politicians. These lies, exaggerations, and omissions are part of a conscious initiative to falsely portray China as an out-of-control state set on dominating and exploiting all weaker nations in its foreign policy efforts. But this is just one portrayal of China pushed by Western interests; on the other hand, Westerners are told to see China as a weak and crumbling country itself.

The genre that depicts China as approaching a complete economic and political collapse is referred to by Roland Boer as the “secular apocalypse” typology; “this type is also known as the ‘China doomer’ approach, in which someone seeks to predict yet again the apocalyptic crash of China’s economic and political system…it is quite easy to get such a work published in one or another less than reputable press.”[4] Boer places Gordon Chang’s book, The Coming Collapse of China in this category. While this book was released in 2001, the People’s Republic of China has curiously not yet collapsed.

Forbes has published numerous articles claiming to forecast the collapse of the Chinese economy. Lauren Thompson claimed that the Chinese economy was moving into decay, thus dooming the country’s efforts to “become a superpower.” Also in Forbes, Milton Ezrati wrote that the largest problem facing Beijing is “the country’s planned and centralized approach to economics.” His article takes the ridiculous position that central planning is a problem everywhere, including in the West with nationalized industries, because “no one can see the future.” Even if one ignores the huge successes of socialist economic planning in the Soviet Union, this is still fundamentally incorrect. He argues that “market-based economies [neoliberal economies] try to capture future needs through the separate plans of tens of thousands of firms and individuals.” This is simply untrue, as Western industries constantly repeat a cycle of overproduction, proving that they are far worse at “seeing the future” than Chinese central planners. The only reason the capitalist model continues working (and the reasons it has worked throughout history) is because of its periodic economic booms, being bailed out by austerity governments, and imperialism and (neo)colonialism.

Nathan Sperber addressed the capitalist impulse to forecast the “downfall of China.” He writes that from 2013-2023, China’s economy

has expanded by 70 per cent in real terms, compared to 21 per cent for the United States. China has not had a recession this century – by convention, two consecutive quarters of negative growth – let alone a ‘crash.’ Yet every few years, the Anglophone financial media and its trail of investors, analysts and think-tankers are gripped by the belief that the Chinese economy is about to crater.

How does one reconcile the fact that China has been on an upward economic trajectory for the entire history of the People’s Republic with the consistent murmurings about the incoming Chinese economic crash among Western ‘experts’? Sperber offers one explanation, saying “the essential thing to bear in mind about Western coverage of the Chinese economy is that the bulk of it responds to the needs of the ‘investor community.’”

American claims about Chinese instability and decline exist at the heart of the West’s insecurity about its decreasing relevancy and power in the twenty-first century. Now being far surpassed by China in terms of industrial and manufacturing output, Europeans and Americans have become increasingly concerned about China’s rise in the global financial and information sectors. In order to tolerate China’s meteoric rise in these industries, Western capitalists have resorted to two tactics: portraying this rise as cataclysmic and detrimental to the developing world; and claiming this rise is all a mask for an unstable, decaying Chinese economy. The American and European media have pushed these claims largely for hegemonic reasons. But the problem lies not in the fact that their claims are false (large media companies can spread false narratives and get away with it most of the time), but in that these two claims are contradictory, thus exposing that falsehood. The tale of two Chinas presents a picture of Western insecurity and modern Chinese power, a theme that will increasingly come to the fore as China continues to develop on its own and on the world stage.

[1] Roland Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics: A Guide for Foreigners (Singapore: Springer, 2021), 11.

[2] Kevin Acker, et al., Debt Relief with Chinese Characteristics (Washington: John Hopkins University, 2020), 3.

[3] Government of Canada, Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy: Exercising Sovereignty and Promoting Canada’s Northern Strategy Abroad (Ottawa: Government of Canada), 5.

[4] Boer, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, 10-11.

One thought on “A tale of two Chinas: Rhetoric on foreign domination and domestic instability”

  1. Western “Corporate-bin-Laden” media’s perpetual gloom and doom narratives on China are a desperate fantasy fueled by a dying elite that refuses to gracefully transition to a Multi-polar world community of civilized nations.

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