China can go for great stretches these days looking like the model of a postmodern, 21st-century power. Visitors to Shanghai see soaring skyscrapers and a booming economy. Conference-goers at Davos and other international confabs see sophisticated Chinese diplomats using terms like "win-win." Western leaders meet their Chinese counterparts and see earnest technocrats trying to avoid the many pitfalls on the path to economic modernization.
But occasionally the mask slips, and the other side of China is revealed. For China is also a 19th-century power, filled with nationalist pride, ambitions and resentments; consumed with questions of territorial sovereignty; hanging on repressively to old conquered lands in its interior; and threatening war against a small island country off its coast.
It is also an authoritarian dictatorship, albeit of a modern variety. The nature of its rule isn't visible on the streets of Shanghai, where people enjoy a degree of personal freedom as long as they keep their noses out of politics. It is only when someone challenges its authority that the brute power on which the regime ultimately rests shows itself.
In 1989, it was students in Tiananmen Square. A few years ago it was the Falun Gong. Today it is Tibetan protesters. Tomorrow it may be protesters in Hong Kong. Someday it may be dissidents on a "reunified" island of Taiwan.
This is the aspect of China that does not seem to change, despite our liberal progressive conviction that it must.
Nevertheless, it is true that, in the 1990s, many China watchers insisted it was only a matter of time before China opened, but today, says Kagan, “this all looks like so much wishful thinking.” Ultimately, though China watchers talk about it becoming a “responsible stakeholder,” we should not expect too much, and above all we should bear in mind that, as Kagan puts it,
[t]he interests of the world's autocracies are not the same as those of the democracies. We want to make the world safe for democracy. They want to make the world safe, if not for all autocracies at least for their own. People talk about how pragmatic Chinese rulers are, but like all autocrats what they are most pragmatic about is keeping themselves in power.
In my opinion it is also very interesting, and in a way connected with Kagan’s remarks, what Professor Norman Geras has to say about the basic argument of those who, opposing a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, are dismissive even of a “semi-boycott,” namely of a stay-away from the games’ opening ceremonies (“China isn't bothered by international criticism, for its standing in the world... does not rest on anyone's approval but on military and especially economic power”):
It's hard to avoid the counter-thought that if open disapproval of its human rights record can't hurt the Chinese government, then approval of or indifference towards it also can't, and more certainly can't. And disapproval does have the advantage that it might be welcome to Chinese critics of the Beijing regime - human rights activists, democrats, those kinds of people.
This definitely seems to be the most reasonable, fair and aboveboard of all possible counterarguments.