Daniel W. Drezner

The most absurd edge of the ‘China as behemoth’ meme

The most absurd edge of the ‘China as behemoth’ meme

I see that The Powers That Be at FP are highlighting my foolhardy unconventional wisdom about China’s rise on their splash page.

Given the Hu-Obama summit and subsequent flurry of China commentary this week, it’s worth highlighting the most absurd data point I cited in that article — Forbes’ magazine’s decision to name Chinese President Hu Jintao the world’s most powerful individual. Their explanation:

Paramount political leader of more people than anyone else on the planet; exercises near dictatorial control over 1.3 billion people, one-fifth of world’s population. Unlike Western counterparts, Hu can divert rivers, build cities, jail dissidents and censor Internet without meddling from pesky bureaucrats, courts.

With these two sentences, the editors at Forbes managed to demonstrate an even shallower analysis of domestic politics than their Dinesh D’Souza cover story on Obama, which I didn’t think was possible.

Let’s review just a smattering of coverage about Hu Jintao’s current ability to exercise iron-willed control over the Chinese bureaucracy, shall we? First, Gordon Chang in The New Republic:

Hu is sometimes called the world’s most powerful person — Forbes magazine gave him that accolade in November — but he is a weak leader back home. Just how weak was revealed in two startling incidents within the past three weeks. On Tuesday, after the state-run Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute performed the first flight test of the J-20 stealth fighter — an unmistakable slap in the face of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was visiting Beijing at the time — Hu professed not to know that the test had occurred….

If the Chinese leader was telling the truth, the test flight reveals a remarkable defiance of civilian authority by the flag officers of the People’s Liberation Army, an obvious attempt to undermine the military cooperation Hu said he wanted to foster. Or if, as is more likely, Hu did in fact know about the timing of the test, he nonetheless said something that made himself appear inept. One has to wonder about a political system that creates incentives for its top leader to publicly imply that he is both ignorant and weak.

Either way, the unmistakable impression is that Hu seems to have much less influence than is often assumed. This could be due to the fact that China is in the middle of a transition to the next generation of political leaders — led by Xi Jinping — who are gaining in power as Hu loses his in the long run up to the actual handover.

Next, the Economist:

China’s new raw-knuckle diplomacy is partly the consequence of a rowdy debate raging inside China about how the country should exercise its new-found power. The liberal, internationalist wing of the establishment, always small, has been drowned out by a nativist movement, fanned by the internet, which mistrusts an American-led international order.

Then there’s Drew Thompson in — hey, it’s FP!!

China’s national security decision-making process is opaque, and so this worrisome disconnect — who knew what when — is difficult to ascertain with certainty. It is highly improbable that Hu was unaware of the development of this major military advancement. His role as chairman of the Central Military Commission ensures that he is well briefed about major programs, and he doubtlessly approves their large budgets. What is not known is how much oversight and control the central government leadership in Beijing had over the PLA’s decision-making process that lead to highly visible tests at the Chengdu air base just as Gates was visiting China.

And, finally, David Sanger and Michael Wines in the New York Times:

China is far wealthier and more influential, but Mr. Hu also may be the weakest leader of the Communist era. He is less able to project authority than his predecessors were — and perhaps less able to keep relations between the world’s two largest economies from becoming more adversarial.

Mr. Hu’s strange encounter with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates here last week — in which he was apparently unaware that his own air force had just test-flown China’s first stealth fighter — was only the latest case suggesting that he has been boxed in or circumvented by rival power centers….

President Obama’s top advisers have concluded that Mr. Hu is often at the mercy of a diffuse ruling party in which generals, ministers and big corporate interests have more clout, and less deference, than they did in the days of Mao or Deng Xiaoping, who commanded basically unquestioned authority….

"There is a remarkable amount of chaos in the system, more than you ever saw dealing with the Chinese 20 years ago," Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser and Mr. Gates’s mentor, said Saturday. "The military doesn’t participate in the system the way it once did. They are more autonomous — and so are a lot of others."

Now, to be fair, it’s possible that China is learning how to play the authoritarian equivalent of the two-level game. Even if that’s true, however, China is playing that game very badly — and they’re playing it in policy arenas that are guaranteed to trigger a balancing coalition rather than accommodation.

There are a lot of other areas where your replacement-level American commentator is vastly exaggerating China’s power. But Forbes’ editors easily win the… the….

OK, contest for readers — name the award that I want to give to writers who vastly exaggerate China’s rise!