By David Monyae
In his important book, On China (2011), former United States Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger narrates an encounter he had with China’s Premier Zhou Enlai at which Kissinger described China as a mysterious place with mysterious people. Zhou queried what that meant, even though the implication was clear; for centuries, China was an enigma to the outside and even after the accession of the Chinese Communist Party to power in 1949, the country remained largely closed to the outside world.
This wilful self-isolation had a negative impact on China’s international image because it allowed foreign observers to form and promote impressions of China that were not always palatable. Since its reforms, started by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China has been opening up to the rest of the world in multiple ways, ranging from membership in multilateral organisations, invitation of foreign direct investment, international party-to-party relations, and China’s going-out policies that have seen an exponential increase in China’s presence, through multinational organisations, non-state entrepreneurship and tourism outside China.
This growing visibility has had mixed consequences for China and the burgeoning number of its partners and detractors. To its enthusiastic partners in the developing world, China’s increasing influence on global affairs and economics provides a model for how developing countries could be prosperous without following liberal-democratic dogma.
To its detractors, China’s increasing influence and preponderance on global affairs threatens the status quo that has largely favoured Western players. Central to these circumstances and perceptions is the importance of diplomacy and messaging which largely should be China’s responsibility.
While commemorating the 40th anniversary of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan” at the Great Hall of the People on the 2nd of January last year, President Xi Jinping said, “China must be on guard against ’black swan’ risk while fending off ’gray rhino’ ”. Black swan refers to “unpredictable events” while gray rhino is a “highly probable, high impact yet neglected threat”.
In the coming few days, top Chinese Communist Party leaders will meet at Beidaihe for the annual retreat to critically assess prevailing domestic, regional and international events. There are numerous issues that the Chinese leadership could ponder about at this important gathering, ranging from Covid-19 and its impact on the economy, divesting floods in Jiujiang, trade war with the US, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the border dispute with India and the worsening tension the US.
At this particular juncture, China can best be described a country under siege similar to the early phase of the 1949 revolution. The US and a few developed countries such as the UK and Australia have mounted an unprecedented frontal diplomatic, economic and ideological assault against China. The attacks on Huawei and TikTok are examples of things to come.
The US Health Secretary Alex M Azar II visit to Taiwan has ultimately crossed the red line. It no doubt opens the possibility of a forceful unification of China not just with Hong Kong but also the renegade territory of Taiwan.
In other words, the US’s provocative moves in Taiwan might be the catalyst in making Taiwan a perfect centenary gift for President Xi Jinping and the CCP leadership next year.
* David Monyae is the Director for the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg
* The views expressed here don’t necessarily represent those of IOL.