Parliamentary Committee Report on UK-China Relations

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recently put out a report on the UK’s relations with China.  This was seen by some as indicating a turn to a more cautious or suspicious line towards China.

I tend to read these reports more for what it tells us about how people think about the issues.  As I’ve indicated before I think UK foreign policy thinking tends towards an undifferentiated global liberalism that doesn’t provide a basis for prioritizing one thing over another.

This report has quite a lot of this but also some signs of greater appreciation of real world constraints.

The reading of China seems quite plausible.  China likes order but has some reservations about current one.  A central driver of Chinese external behaviour is the security of the regime, which also translates (as Max Weber would expect) into a concern with questions of prestige.

The report spends quite a lot of time discussing a whole list of contentious issues in relations with China; the South China Sea, the treatment of the Uighurs and the state of democracy in Hong Kong, Huawei, Belt and Road Initiative, influence activities in the UK and gives some consideration to what should be done about them but the report seems to swing between a faith in an abstract legal order and a rather one on one confrontational stance.  One of the strangest things in the report is the demand that the FCO produce a report on situations where it has successfully changed China’s position.  By the time that a country like China has a well-defined position it is going to be extremely difficult to change it and even if it does change its mind it will be very careful to obscure what has happened.   Also a good diplomat will not boast about this.

In relation to British policy the report points to the apparent disconnect between the Ministry of Defence, which seems quite keen to send an aircraft carrier to the South China Sea, and the Treasury  which has its own emissary to China outside the normal diplomatic framework. The Committee wants a statement of strategy towards China that can guide the actions of all government bodies.  That doesn’t seem unreasonable but UK government is quite capable of producing a strategy that is simply a list of departmental preferences and doesn’t set priorities.

Because China is developing a global presence there should be a China strategy but this needs to be developed in the context of an Asian strategy and an overall international strategy.  The report keeps returning to the question of influence and treating China in isolation actually makes this question much more intractable.  Putting China in an Asian context may show ways of working with Asian (and other) countries to push things in a desirable connection.

There is also a need for a greater recognition of the differences in motivations on different issues – it’s probably much easier to influence issues around Huawei or even the Belt and Road than it is on those that are seen in Beijing as to do with national cohesion, which of these issues are going to have be treated things that are protested for forms sake and which are going to be subject of a political strategy that expects to get a result.  The rhetoric of rules based international order tries link everything together and make it all equally important.  Strategy pushes towards choice and discrimination in the real world.

The Centrality of the National

I think that biggest error in contemporary Anglosphere understandings of world politics is our inability to recognize the implications of the principle of nationality.  I’d emphasize that I’m not talking about nationalism but about the importance of the idea that practically everything on the planet can be assigned a nationality and that the “nation-state” (or more accurately “nationalized state society complex) is the fundamental unit of government.  You may be an internationalist but you still carry a passport and are almost certainly marked by what Gieselinde Kuiper would call, following Norbert Elias, “national habitus”.

The typical Western liberal perspective falls into an opposition between two clusters of ideas

state/ politics / official / government

 vs

society / private / unofficial /people / non-governmental.  Specific social sectors: culture, education, science, sport can also be found here.

What’s missing is that all of the second cluster can also be understood in national terms.  The national provides a set of associations that can bridge the implied gap between the two clusters. It’s a national government and a national sports team. It’s much easier to make sense of discussions about influence, public diplomacy, diasporas, cultural relations, soft power if we recognize the importance of activating or minimizing the national association.

Here’s a couple of nice examples.  The Australian government has a new scheme to make ‘foreign influence’ more transparent and universities who host Confucius Institutes are reluctant to register.  “If Confucius Institutes have not been registered, despite being substantially funded from Beijing, it may be because they are thought to confine their activities to “culture and language”. No politics.” The writer of the article makes the point that Communist China sees culture as political.  This is true but the more fundamental point is that in China (or in any other country with cultural relations programmes) “cultural and language” is certainly part of the national.

There’s also an interesting piece on the Turkish diaspora in the Balkans that has some wonderful quotes.  A lot of it is about the popularity or lack of it Erdogan among the diaspora but I was struck by:

“Take the citizenships of the countries you are living in,” Erdogan said. “Don’t say no. Take it. If they give it, take it.”

He explained: “You are representatives in your countries. You should learn your countries’ language, integrate with your country, enter politics and improve our relations. But never forget Turkish language, culture and your Turkey.”

A the end of the 19th century this was the kind of idea that you found in Italy or Germany or China, each had diasporas that were coming to be seen as part of national influence and an economic resource, even if people had to give up their citizenship if they maintained their culture they were still part of the nation.  This is the reason why all three adopted citizenship laws based on biological descent so that people had the option of returning to the homeland.

The strength of national associations can be rhetorically emphasized or minimized, later in the piece we get this

“Turkish identity is not a national identity,” he said. “It spreads across nations. It weaves itself into other identities. It’s not tied to Turkey. It’s much older, and much vaster.”

Somewhat ironically the speaker has been reported thus

“Ibrahim from the alliance of NGOs that champions the interests of ethnic Turks in North Macedonia credited Erdogan for pioneering an expansive new vision of what it means to be Turkish in the region — underwritten by increased funding in hospitals, schools, agriculture, mosques and banks.”

The core point is that opposition between politics and culture misses the importance of the national as a set of associations.  The national is not necessarily political but it is vector through which the political can travel.  Cultural relations strategies have always turned on this gap between the national as cultural and the national as political.

What’s More Limited? Chinese Influence or the Concept of Soft Power

I’m writing a chapter for a forthcoming Handbook of Soft Power so I’m kind of grumpy about the whole thing again. In this frame of mind in the last week I’ve spotted a couple of pieces about the limits of Chinese soft power, notably one by Joe Nye that have caused further irritation.   Nye correctly points to China’s tendency to bully its neighbours and the limits imposed by its political system both in the negative attitudes towards it abroad and the reluctance to unleash its civil society to spread its influence abroad or the negative attitudes to some investments in Africa. I don’t actually disagree with these observations but I do think that he’s tending to reduce Chinese influence to a matter of sentiment and missing out the importance of its economic expansion this underestimation is a direct effect of how soft power is conceptualized.

The starting point for the chapter I’m writing is the argument that when we talk about ‘soft power’ we mix up two things: ‘soft power’ as a theoretical language and the thing that it’s supposed to describe. What is that thing? For the moment let’s call it ‘non-coercive national influence’ (NCNI), hence ‘soft power’ is one language that can be used to describe how countries have an effect on other actors but it is not the only one.   In the chapter I’m using the history of French and German concepts of external cultural action as alternative languages for thinking about NCNI. If you step outside ‘soft power’ as conceptual framework and look both at the history of practice and at alternative ways of thinking about NCNI the peculiarities of the soft power framework come into focus

In French or German practice there has always been a close relationship between economic and cultural factors in their national influence. Nye has always seen the ‘economic’ as part of hard, coercive power this isn’t entirely wrong as in the case of Merkel and Tsipras but this isn’t the whole story. From a historical perspective the cultivation of economic relations and the construction of cultural and educational relations and image building go together. Teaching the language or offering scholarships facilitates economic relations. Offering a scholarship or building a factory is about providing opportunity. Constructing an economic presence may lead to opportunities for coercion but it also constructs opportunity. Non-coercive Influence isn’t just about attitudes. The expansion of China’s presence in the world is offering opportunities to all kinds of people and regardless of their attitudes to China’s politics they are taking them up. In taking up those opportunities their attitudes may or may not be influenced but the creation of relationships with actors in China is likely to create other effects; valued relationships, understandings, further opportunities.

What’s Different about Confucius Institutes?

Marshall Sahlins has expanded his attack on Confucius Institutes into a longer (but still pamphlet length) version.

His basic complaint is that the Confucius Institute system is infiltrating Western education systems. This is an organization that is part of the Communist Party directed Chinese state, it teaches simplified Chinese which means that students can only read works published in the PRC since language reform and the agenda of the institutes has to exclude Taiwan, Tibet and Tiananmen. He provides examples of CI’s attempting to take over all China related teaching in institutions.

I share the pamphlet’s concerns but Sahlins is only focusing on one country and as result there’s a danger of overstating how different the CI system is.

Firstly, locating institutes inside educational institutions is unusual but it isn’t unique.  At least some of the branches of the Spanish Instituto Cervantes are located in Universities.

Secondly, attempting to influence education systems is the bread and butter of cultural diplomacy. As usual exhibit A is France’s defence of, and promotion of, the French language but states have been heavily involved in the promotion of the study of themselves for a long time – Hungary was funding a lectureship in at the LSE in the interwar period, also consider the promotion of American, Canadian or Indian Studies.

Thirdly, while there are probably a few cultural relations organizations that have zero relationship with foreign policy most do.

Fourthly, CI’s check the political reliability of staff. That’s probably not that unusual. Keep in mind that historically much of France’s cultural relations work was done by the Foreign Ministry so even if the director of the Institut had an academic job somewhere they were on secondment to the Quai. In the early years of the Cold War the British Council had defections and you can be sure that after that there was more of a check on who they were sending abroad at least to certain countries.

The specific problem with the CI system is not any of these things in isolation. It’s the combination of these with fact that the PRC is a Communist state which makes many people in the West read anything the CI does (or doesn’t do) through a political lens.

Sahlins documents cases where Universities and education authorities have rejected or refused to renew CI contracts and I would expect that there will inevitably be more of these cases particularly in view of the current ideological tightening in China.

The irony is that by either moving outside education systems or by very ostentatiously abandoning politically contentious elements of the system the CI would work rather better for China. After all the medium is the message. If the CI’s boost ties to China there will be plenty of other opportunities to expose people to approved PRC narratives without generating damaging contestations.

New Paper on Link Between Language Teaching and Foreign Investment.

One of the issues that French embassies are supposed to keep on top of is the status of French in the local education system. Of course French opens the way to the French education system but there’s also the saying that if you speak French you buy French.

Given this belief there’s an interesting paper forthcoming in International Studies Quarterly that probes the link between language and Foreign Direct Investment. Previous research has found a relationship between official languages and investment but the new paper by Kim et al looks at data on which languages are actually taught in schools and finds a robust relationship between language teaching and inward investment.   That is if you want to attract investment make sure that your country teaches the language of the country that you want to attract investment from. They recognize that English is a special case but what’s especially striking is the consequences of starting to teach Chinese. A country gets that gets a Confucius Institute can expect a 900% rise in Chinese investment five years later.

I’m less convinced by some of the discussion of the causal mechanisms behind the quantitative relationship but here’s some evidence that diplomats can use to persuade host governments that language teaching has some benefit.

Kim, Moonhawk, Amy H. Liu, Kim-Lee Tuxhorn, David S. Brown, and David Leblang. ‘Lingua Mercatoria: Language and Foreign Direct Investment’. International Studies Quarterly, 1 October 2014, n/a – n/a. doi:10.1111/isqu.12158.

A Tale of Two Diasporas: Chinese Control and British Indifference

At the Wall Street Journal Blog there’s an interview with James Jiann Hua To, about his book Qiaowu: Extra-Territorial Policies for the Overseas Chinese. This discusses the policies adopted by China to monitor, protect and supervise the tens of millions of Chinese citizens who live outside the borders of the PRC

As To puts it

The purpose of qiaowu is to rally support for Beijing amongst ethnic Chinese outside of China through various propaganda and thought-management techniques. For the vast majority of the 48 million overseas Chinese around the world, many will be oblivious to qiaowu and its activity. The main target groups are those who are open to and even welcome receiving qiaowu and closer links to China and its foreign service, such as newer migrants or PRC students abroad.

In contrast last weeks Economist had a piece on the British diaspora.  Despite five million Brits living abroad the message is the UK doesn’t really care:

Of 193 UN member states, 110 have formal programmes to build links with citizens abroad. Britain is not one of them. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s database of Britons abroad is patchy. Of all the high-flying expats with British passports your correspondent asks, only one—Danny Sriskandarajah, a migration expert based in South Africa—has had any contact with local embassies or with UKTI, Britain’s trade-promotion body. And his Indian friend has received much more attention from his consulate.

Indeed, India is a trailblazer in this field. It has an entire ministry for its emigrants. Mr Gamlen says it partly has this to thank for the success of its IT industry, built by Indians lured home from Silicon Valley and Europe. Other countries are similarly welcoming. Italy and France even reserve parliamentary seats for their diasporas.

Just because a country has a programme it doesn’t mean that it does anything but it’s interesting to note a certain continuity. After the First World War the British government mounted an enquiry into why some expatriate communities didn’t seem to have been as helpful to the war effort as those of some other countries. The report recommended programmes to cultivate British identity including subsidies for British schools. In another continuity the Treasury said there wasn’t any money (eg Fisher J (2009) A Call to Arms: The Committee on British Communities Abroad, 1919-1920, Canadian Journal of History, 44: 261–86.)

It’s tempting to attribute this difference in official attitude to regime type(authoritarian control versus democratic indifference and I’m sure that this is part of it, but France and Germany have always had extensive provision for expatriates regardless of political regime.   Part of the difference is can be attributed to differences in how these four countries conceptualize the nation. This is an issue I’ll pick up in my next post.

When China Was Cool: Mao’s Little Red Book

The Cultural Revolution with its hordes of Red Guards waving their copies of Selected Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung was a disaster for China but paradoxically it represents something of a high point for China’s cultural influence in the world. There’s a fascinating new collection of essays that explores the global impact of Mao’s Little Red Book, edited by Alexander C. Cook of University of California, Berkeley it covers the origins, diffusion and global reception. Some of the chapters focus specifically on the book others look more broadly at Maoism

Cook’s collection starts off by looking at the genesis of the LRB. Ironically, party officials in Beijing initially favoured the Selected Works over the LRB but as the Cultural Revolution took off they quickly changed their line. Between 1966 and 1970 650,000 tons of paper was used to print Mao’s work which was ‘slightly more’ than all the books printed in China between 1949 and 1965. In 1966 at least 234.6m copies of the LRB were printed in China.

There’s a chapter discussing the translation and international dissemination of the LRB that includes some useful material on the role of the Foreign Languages Press as a channel for dissemination for dissemination of information about China after 1949 – interestingly enough it was originally set up as a purely commercial enterprise. The target for the book were the ‘in between countries’ with the developing world and the European allies of the superpowers as particular targets.

Most of the chapters deal with the reception and impact of the book and/or Maoism more generally. Tanzania provides a case where there were good government to government relationships, India and Peru are cases with Maoist insurgencies.   There’s discussion of the reaction in four communist countries, non-aligned Yugoslavia, pro-China Albania plus the USSR and the DDR. The former wasn’t a target of the campaign and wasn’t that interested. Although pro Chinese Enver Hoxha was suspicious of the subversive effects of the Cultural Revolution. The Soviet Union was terrified at having a billion apparently deranged Chinese just across the border and the reaction both political and satirical seems to have helped to squeeze the last drops of revolutionary enthusiasm out of the Soviet system. In East Berlin the Chinese embassy was a popular source of LRBs for visitors from the west but citizens of the DDR were banned from entering for fear of catching the Maoist bug.

I’m particularly struck by the impact of the LRB in the West and the impact on the whole trajectory of Marxism movements but on the left more generally.   in the West it became such a cult item that leftist groups in the West (including the Black Panthers in the US) were able to raise funds by reselling LRBs that they got free or cheap from Chinese sources.   In Italy and France Maoism exacerbated the generational crisis within the Communist Parties that was already emerging; many of the ‘best and the brightest’ were pulled away from the PCI and the PCF towards a variety of Maoist groups (in Italy there was even the emergence of Maoist-Fascism – I guess they wore black Mao jackets). But also there’s a broader push away from orthodox political economy and class struggle towards concerns with the Third World, race and gender.

Of course the impact of the LRB was more a matter of context than content, the ‘spiritual atomic bomb’ dropped in the context of the waves of protest that were sweeping across the world in the late ’60s – if the context is right you can just throw out the message and wait for it to take root.

Reading China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa

In case you missed it among the never ending flood of publications on Chinese soft power I’d just like to draw your attention to Kenneth King’s, China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa: The Case of Education and Training which offers an interesting take on the question.

King is retired University of Edinburgh Africanist who approaches the question of Chinese soft power through the perspective of aid for ‘human capital development’ (HCD) rather than from the more common perspectives of International Relations or Communications. This is valuable in itself but King also throws in lots of (sometimes implicit) comparisons with the approaches of other countries to HCD which really help to give perspective.

King sees a great deal of continuity in the Chinese approach to Africa dating back to the 1960s, this is rooted in a paradigm of poor helping the poor or as it would be seen today South-South cooperation. One of the points here is that while a Western aid agency such as DFID will be operating in paradigm of a one way altruistic transfer the Chinese model places emphasis on mutual benefit. One of the themes in the book is the extent to which there is a convergence between the Chinese model of aid and that of the countries operating within the framework of the OECD Development Assistance Committee. While there is some convergence it remains quite limited. For instance while many countries have signed up for universal primary education as part of the Millennium Development Goals China prefers to focus educational assistance on the HE sector.

A bit chunk of the book focuses on activities conducted through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) this dates back to the 1990s and provides the umbrella within which bilateral cooperation takes place. Much educational cooperation takes place through this framework. In African terms Confucius Institutes (which are also discussed) are a latecomer as numerous HE partnerships have already been in existence for a considerable period. FOCAC is run out of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce which also houses the main aid department.

There are some nice stories that to my mind show how influence is built over time. By providing scholarships to study in China, students are incentivised to learn Chinese. If they learn Chinese and spend time there they are in a position to develop other relations in China or work with Chinese firms. There’s the case of a student who decides to go and study in China because there are so many people who have studied in Europe or North America and by going somewhere different he will have a differential value in the market place. You see how education and training, language and commercial links work together to reinforce each other.

In reading this it occurred to me that it’s possible to see the whole Chinese approach as a very classical cultural relations paradigm – one that has probably existed in rhetoric and theory rather than practice in the West. It’s about constructing enduring relations between countries on a basis of mutual interest and equality. The connection between education and economic relations may offer the basis for longer lasting relations than the more rigorously altruistic perspective than you find at DFID.

USSR-PRC Cultural Relations and the Soviet Tyler Brule Part 2

At the Cold War History Project there’s an interesting collection of documents on cultural relations activities between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China during the 1950s.  Several of the documents express the fears that rather than cementing relations between the two countries they are actually undermining them.

I’ve written before about the ‘Soviet Tyler Brule’ Boris Polevoi and his fears that the poor standard of Aeroflot was undermining the image of the USSR and he pops up again here with a blistering report to the Central Committee of the CPSU which ends with him returning to his critique of air travel in the USSR

And finally, concerning the Soviet side of the airline which is currently contributing to the connection between Moscow and Beijing.  Our international lines have improved their work somewhat to the western countries, but this portion is as before in extremely bad shape, and revealing this for all to observe, as this line is used by a large collection of people from diverse nations, from Europe and China, is becoming a matter of political significance.  Our airplane, on which there was a Chinese state security delegation headed by members of the CC returning from Poland, on 16 October was delayed for an entire day on the trip from Krasnoiarsk to Irkutsk because they could not find the appropriate fuel.  On the return trip in Novosibirsk we had to change from an international airplane, as there was a smaller collection of passengers continuing on to Moscow.  And on this plane there was a Czechoslovak delegation headed by the Minister of Foreign Trade, and a Chinese delegation.  Two flights were cancelled.  The airport building was magnificent, but the service remained the same as when it was a peasant’s hut.  In three places along this route, maintaining the connection to China, hang copies of the well-known, if it might be said, pictures of Nalbandian, which illustrate Stalin and Mao Zedong, with Mao Zedong with the appearance of an agitated student attempting to pass an exam given by a professor.  These pictures are nauseating even in the original, and here hang like copies from a bazaar.  In general it would be better to decorate the airport in the foreign fashion, with large, colored and beautiful photographs and cities and locations traveled to by the planes, instead of pot-boiler copies of well-known works which can only evoke shudders from someone possessing even a limited amount of taste.  In Novosibirsk across from the entrance to the airport on two columns hangs an enormous plywood shield, entitled “The USSR—the leading socialist power in the world.”  A giant red map of the USSR is drawn on it, and to the side are two columns, in alphabetical order, of the some ten countries of the people’s democracies; thus China in this list comes after Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary (Vengrii), and the GDR.   The Novosibirsk comrades, seeing this map, are completely devoid of a sense of humor, even as the following is written on the large map:  population 200 million people, and on the small map—China—600 million.  We ourselves have seen the amusement of foreigners as they look at this map.

More Western Soft War Aimed at China

At the Jamestown Foundation Nicholas Dynon of the Line 21 Project has a nice short piece on Chinese perceptions of Western ideological ‘soft war’.  In the Chinese perspective the West is engaged is a project that aims at ideological dominance.  This is simply a new case of  the ‘peaceful coexistence’ strategy that dates back to the time of John Foster Dulles.  This requires a dual response: ideological vigilance at home and the effort to ideologically shape the international order.

Dynon points to the work of Zhao Jin of Tsinghua University

in which “morality” and “justification” become the basis for a state’s relative power. In this sense, we see a link between moral authority and soft power: the more widespread the acceptance of a state’s moral authority within the international system, the greater its soft power. The logic of commanding the international moral high ground within a soft war era thus requires that a state achieve moral authority among a more dominant collection of states than do its competitors.

In reading this piece I’m struck by two things:

Firstly, how much this echoes the latter days of the Soviet Union when the KGB devoted huge amounts of effort to hunting down ‘ideological subversion’ , by coincidence last week War on the Rocks posted a link to a transcript of a 1969 meeting between the KGB and the Stasi devoted to just this issue – from their point of view any act of dissidence is evidence of Western interference.

Secondly, Zhao Jin makes a good point but what is the claim to moral leadership that China can make?  Essentially it’s a defence of a Westphalian state centred order, reinforced with a Herderian claim that we ought to have lots of different nations to bring out the diversity of the human spirit.  I think state-based orders are good but all state based orders have also had some kind of ideological or cultural content that doesn’t remain with state boundaries or within state approved cultural relations channels; that true whether that’s black market Levi’s during the Cold War or jihadi videos today.  Certainly I think that there are lots of people who will support the state sovereignty argument against western ideological exports but the problem is that the Herderian argument for diversity may work in theory but in practice nationalism isn’t that cuddly.  It can work to bind people and state but at the cost of alienating the neighbours.  We’re also more relaxed about small state nationalism than big state nationalism.

China is much more dynamic than the Soviet Union was but if it’s going to compete ideologically it needs something that is more universal that nationalism.