China & Snyder’s “Myths of Empire” (2): Does the Model Fit China?


I didn’t know the PLA likes Led Zeppelin…

Here is part one, where I argued that China reasonably fits the prerequisites for Jack Snyder’s theory from Myths of Empire. Here is an application of it to China to see how it works:

2. Contra Snyder, China’s modernization is being led by the state and the party, not as much by the military. That’s true. But clearly the PLA does have something of that ‘state within a state’ feel of Germany and Japan’s military early last century. The PLA’s budget has exploded over the last two decades, and like other second world militaries (Egypt, Pakistan), the PLA has lots of business interests (including casinos I’ve even heard) that suffer little state oversight.

3. There is pretty clear oligopolization of the economy. And if anything, it is getting worse recently with the return of SOEs in China (still 80% of the economy). Back in the 90s, everyone seemed to expect these would die out, but they are hanging on and have made a comeback recently. And clearly the government has its hands on the commanding heights (both old, like heavy manufacture, and new, the banking industry). However, Snyder’s liberal counter-coalition – cosmopolitan exporters interested in good ties with foreigners and workers interested in welfare over warfare – does have clear push-back in China. For all the corruption and rent-seeking coming out the China’s growth, the export lobby has clearly played a restraining role against the PLA and ideologues of CCP on foreign policy.

4. Also contra Snyder, China is not lead by an imperial coalition as openly as Germany or Japan was. As usual in such states, the military plays a big role, and lots of people think the PLA is on the rise, given China’s unexpected belligerence in the last few years. I agree. But the CCP still plays a huge role; I still think it is the coalition broker, even if it slipping post-Deng and relative to the PLA. I don’t think anyone would see China today as ‘cartelized’ as the USSR in the late 70s/early 80s, or as Germany in the decade before WWI. China’s exporters especially have a big voice, as increasingly does the banking industry, if only because of all those dollars (reserves and T-bills) whose value will evaporate if there’s a real war. Following Snyder though, China is neither an democracy, nor a unitary executive. Its politics is dominated by big, often rent-seeking, interest groups, all of them in bed with the government, and with growing influence for the military. The question is whether Snyder’s military-heavy industry coalition will clearly emerge from this tangle and push foreign policy in a more aggressive direction.

5. There has been pretty serious ideologically nationalist grooming of the population. (On the patriotic education campaign try this and this.) The old Maoist CCP didn’t stress Confucius or Chinese history that much (that was feudalism), nor the newly ‘found’ 100 years of humiliation (there, but not central to the ideology). Also, the incessant Japanophobia, with the special attention to the Nanking massacre, is new (however justified – the Japanese experimented with chemical weapons on the Chinese). If you go to Tiananmen Square now, it’s all nationalism not Mao. There’s huge (the biggest I’ve ever seen) TV monitor on-site running a continuous loop of heroic imagery of China, including what has to be the biggest flag waving heroically in the sunshine over windswept mountains that the world has ever seen. If you didn’t know China was the most awesomest place ever that got unfairly stomped on by Japan and the West, a visit to Tiananmen will cure you of your American foolishness.

The question is how much of this is directed internally, to prevent ‘splittism’ (my favorite Chinese neologism), and how much is actually indoctrinating the Chinese population into Snyder’s outward-oriented imperialism. But the former may bleed into the later; clearly, the CCP is playing with fire in teaching young Chinese in this way. In 2005, when Chinese students attacked the Japanese embassy, a lot of people thought the government let it go on for a few days, because the students were expressing their new patriotism. There was similar thinking regarding the Chinese flaps with Japan in the last few years over the coast guard ramming and Diaoyu/Senkaku. This is Snyder’s ‘blowback’ – an ideology rolled out to defend the current ruling coalition (post-Tiananmen Square crackdown, post-communist nationalism as justification of continued CCP rule after the Cold War) becomes a real force in politics in the next generation, because they actually believe this stuff.

6. China is being semi-encircled as Snyder would suggest. Its behavior in the last few years scared everybody. Certainly the Chinese students I have taught are convinced that China is being encircled and that the US is probably behind it. Like Germany and Japan, China has few allies; it impresses, but doesn’t persuade. Its also probably true that a break-out war would badly isolate China, generate an enormous counter-coalition (including likely even Russia and India), and would result in a major defeat that would entrain independence for its periphery, most obviously Tibet.

In sum, it seems to me the fit with Snyder is mixed at best:

a. Chronologically and ideologically, China should be a late, late developer, but it is better classified as a late developer. I wonder how Snyder could fit that in?

b. As late developer, it’s not really generating a powerful imperial coalition at the top as Snyder says it should. There is some cartelization, yes. SOEs are rent-seekers closely connected to the state, they dominate heavy industry, and they are protectionist-mercantilist. And the PLA is growing in importance and independence (mostly because the party is declining as a broker). But the party and exporters especially add diversity to that top coalition, and I am not sure Snyder can explain that in context of late development politics.

c. There is a virulent nationalist ideology being consciously and instrumentally distributed by elites for legitimizing reasons. The patriotic education campaign almost perfectly fits Snyder in both content (nationalist hysteria and foreign enemies) and purpose (buttressing the dominant coalition against domestic liberal opponents and an expansion of the franchise). Super prediction there. But the question is whether that nationalism is directed inward to buttress the CCP leadership role, or outward as the collection of strategic myths about expansion that Snyder (borrowing from van Evera) lists: offensive détente, enemies as paper tigers, cumulatively paying conquest, bandwagoning, etc. I am not a huge expert in the campaign, but it seems more worried about Chinese internal issues (development, splittism, do what the party tells you to do), than about offensive imperial myths and the value of expansion.

d. So my sense is that Snyder’s model predicts a nasty imperialist oligarchy atop China’s cartelized politics telling its citizens that China must expand against its growing list of enemies keeping it from its place in the sun. This should eventuate in a break out-war against a coalition including the US, Japan, SK, Australia, and maybe India and Russia. But I don’t really see a full-throated imperial coalition at the top of China now (I guess Snyder could argue that it is coming soon and that signs suggest that emergence), nor am I sure that the myths the CCP is distributing are offensive imperialist, so much as internal nationalist (although Snyder might argue that the later eventually leads to the former).

Cross-posted on Duck of Minerva.

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2 thoughts on “China & Snyder’s “Myths of Empire” (2): Does the Model Fit China?

  1. Very interest articles, especially point 5 and conclusion C. Watching the video above, and changing the topic: in security terms, do you think a country is at their strongest or weakest during military parades? If they were actually to be attacked at that moment would it not turn into Pearl Harbour with all their forces stuck in a traffic jam?!

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