Cultural evolution

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

Susan Shirk has enjoyed enviable access in China for nearly three decades. As a student visiting in 1971, she met with then premier Zhou Enlai who was so charmed he told her: “I wish Susan Shirk was president of the US.” Later, she was one of the Clinton administration’s main experts on China, including during the Nato bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade.

Given the news every day about China’s inexorable rise, it may seem eccentric that Shirk labels the country a “fragile superpower”. It is not just the economy that seems to outstrip all the sceptics, but diplomacy as well. While Vladimir Putin’s Russia apparently revels in picking new fights, China is making friends rapidly. Border disputes with a host of neighbours have been resolved and smouldering suspicion has been turned into constructive partnerships.

According to Shirk, an academic at the University of California, that is the “responsible” side of the Chinese personality. But in her extremely convincing book, she shows that there is another “emotional” side which, driven by unresolved internal tensions, could still push China into a military confrontation.

Chinese diplomats joke they get sent calcium pills in the post by citizens, to make sure they have a stiff backbone when dealing with the US, Japan and Taiwan. The Communist party has been happy to promote nationalism to fill the post-Marxist void. But, drawing on off-the-record conversations with Chinese officials, Shirk argues that the leaders run scared of being outflanked by nationalist critics. China “today is a brittle, authoritarian regime that fears its own citizens”. She adds later: “Every foreign policy official I have interviewed describes him or herself as feeling increasing pressure from nationalist public opinion”.

Taiwan is a problem partly of the party’s own making. “Public opinion about Taiwan has been created by 50 years of CCP propaganda,” an academic tells Shirk. But now the public is so fiercely against full sovereignty for Taiwan that many Chinese believe the regime would fall if a Taiwanese declaration of independence went unchallenged. China’s leaders feel “trapped”, she says, aware that a tough response would provoke US intervention, fearful that weakness could see the party overthrown.

If this sounds like a rebuke of China, it is not meant that way - Shirk offers a guide on how its leaders see the situation and how to avoid miscalulations. Because the situation is finely balanced, her advice to the US feels a little contradictory - keep a strong military presence in Asia to dissuade rash Chinese actions, but don’t flaunt military strength for fear of enflaming nationalism.

Why do so many Chinese care so much about Taiwan? Propaganda only explains so much. In China Road, Rob Gifford gets another part of the answer from a man on a bus across the Gobi desert. What does he hope for from the west? “What we want most is respect,” the man says.

Until recently the US National Public Radio correspondent in Beijing, Gifford, was given a dream assignment: a two-month road trip on Route 312 from Shanghai to “Eurasia Road” in Korgaz, on the border with Kazakhstan. It is a 3,000-mile journey during which the country gets poorer, less populated and less Chinese the further east he goes.

Gifford spent 20 years in and around China. The best moments of his often charming portrait are the encounters with people most travellers would never meet. He finds a Daoist hermit who gives him a mobile phone number so they can keep in touch, a group of Amway reps who sell breath-freshener in the Gobi with missionary zeal, and the owner of a roadside cafe who runs a brothel in her back room with a poster of Mao over the bed. The book works less well when he uses casual encounters to launch into geopolitical discussions.

Gifford’s acquaintances all claim their country has no aggressive intentions, but they also often demonstrate one of his main themes - that for all China’s new-found prosperity, there is still a strong sense of victimhood. Regaining Taiwan and holding onto Tibet and Xinjiang are so important to many Chinese because they are considered a way of overcoming the “hundred years of humiliation” at the hands of the colonial powers.

Gifford’s journey starts and ends on Shanghai’s Bund, the riverfront street that was the symbol of British colonialism in China for a century from the 1840s. Behind the Armani stores and cocktail bars that now line the Bund, some of the resentments created by the opium wars are still alive.

Geoff Dyer is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent

China: The Fragile Superpower
By Susan L. Shirk
OUP £15.99, 334 pages
FT bookshop price: £12.79

China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power
By Rob Gifford
Bloomsbury £12.99, 352 pages
FT bookshop price: £10.39

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.