Standing in line to board a plane from China to Malaysia and seeing Chinese tourists managing their US dollars and Malaysian ringgits in their wallets, reminded this writer of a great political feat pulled off by the old fox, war criminal Henry Kissinger. One of his greatest Machiavellian tricks was his ability to create a split between China and the Soviet Union. By separating the two powerful communist states from each other and forcing them to compete, Washington gained the upper hand against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and ushered in the unipolar world order, albeit for a short time.
Before proceeding further, let us be clear. This is not to deny that China has made great strides in many fields, but these are not as dramatic as they appear to be when viewed in the broader context of development elsewhere. So, why does one constantly hear or read in the corporate media about Chinese greatness? Let us look closer.
China is certainly a great regional power but it seems a majority of its citizens still trust the US dollar more than the Chinese Yuan. In Asia, one can easily exchange Chinese currency into any local currency. Yet Chinese tourists to Malaysia take US dollars with them, not their own currency, the Yuan. Sure, there could be some econometric explanations but this does not change the fact that even the Chinese middle class sees the US dollar as international king. It is highly unlikely that US citizens traveling to Malaysia would carry Chinese, British, or Japanese currencies; they will simply take US dollars.
There are several reasons why the West is constantly beaming the message of a fast-rising China. One is that by promoting contemporary China, the West is indirectly promoting its own superiority. China has become powerful only after accepting the supremacy of Western neo-liberal capitalism. Beijing operates a Western capitalist system with a Chinese twist.
By promoting China’s achievements since it sided with NATO against its ideological comrade, the Soviet Union, the subtle message that cannot be ignored is that there is no alternative to the Western political and economic world order. Even China had to accept neo-liberal capitalism.
Having lived in the Soviet Union, this writer cannot help but think how Lenin and Trotsky would view Chinese “communism.” They would dismiss it as a sham. If the term “munafiq communist” were applicable, it would certainly apply to China.
The observation about Chinese tourists heading to Malaysia is a small but important symptom of the limitations of China’s influence. Over the past 40 years, the Chinese ruling elite have not been able to create their soft-power appeal. Chinese studying abroad are becoming more liberal, Western-oriented, and are not converting anyone to Confucianism or communism.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, “the number of Chinese Protestants has grown by an average of 10 percent annually since 1979. By some estimates, China is on track to have the world’s largest population of Christians by 2030.” This data indicates a significant weakness in the Chinese model. China has a rich indigenous philosophical tradition. If the Chinese have been unable to use their centuries old philosophical wealth to counter the philosophical and intellectual inconsistencies of Christianity, they will not be able to counter the most successful religion (din — way of life) of our times: liberalism. The success of liberalism is not only grounded in its sophisticated intellectual tradition but also in the fact that most powerful imperialist state systems lend material support to advance it.
China’s lack of soft-power highlights the fact that Beijing’s growing ambitions will be advanced primarily through hard power, something the Wilson Center has also pointed out. It appears that the Chinese regime does not understand the nature of soft power, much less how to advance it in a sophisticated manner that involves creating a narrative of exceptionalism. A good example of this would be the reports given by Iranian journalists who traveled to China in 2018 under the All-China Journalists Association 2018 Belt and Road Journalists Forum. The Iranians were not impressed by what they saw. The default impression of China in Iran is that of curiosity. If China is unable to impress its trading partners, how would it impress societies that have a default negative impression of China?
The crude handling of the Uighur Muslim minority in China is probably the most obvious sign of backwardness of the Chinese political model. Its archaic approach is a sign of public policy weakness. It also creates an automatic negative impression of the Muslim world, which pretty much surrounds China.
Chinese global expansion in the new multi-polar world order is a positive phenomenon only if it can be properly utilized. China’s split with the Soviet Union was a positive development for the US only because Washington was able to utilize it to its advantage. Do Muslim socio-political entities possess the same type of political prudence? The broad answer is no. However, the current leadership in Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, and Iran does offer some hope. Together, the four Muslim countries possess a somewhat principled leadership that has the popular support of their respective people. They should begin to formulate a joint China policy. The bitter experience of dealing with the US should be a sobering lesson for the Muslim world.
Washington pursued a policy that fostered divisions and led to the subjugation of powerful Muslim states. Beijing will adopt a similar approach. With China in the driver’s seat, a tragic situation may arise for Muslims. They might rue the day when Washington was dominant. As pointed out by the director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, Zafar Bangash, “It was the Muslims who brought down the USSR, but it was not the Muslims that filled in the power vacuum. It is Muslims who are bringing down Washington’s imperialist supremacy, but it is not Muslims who are filling the power vacuum.”