As China Awakens, America – and Pakistan – Should Take Note

By Akbar Ahmed

“When China wakes, she will shake the world.” Napoleon’s famous comment on China has had China-watchers scratching their heads for two centuries as to what exactly he meant. Was it a warning to Europe of a potential threat from the East? Or was he reflecting upon the fascination of his time with Chinese culture and its silks and ceramics?


We may know the answer soon. China is awake and stirring. News of building projects and economic initiatives across the globe, including in its remote areas, are a testimony. So are some of the statistics. Take these at random: a Chinese billionaire is said to be created every week; China’s space programme is aiming for Mars; China has over 20 million students in higher education and some quarter of a million students in the United States. It can even boast the ultimate sign of wasteful conspicuous consumption – Chinese students in the US, children of the elite, driving luxury cars.

While the U.S. and China are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, there are few more important relationships in international affairs today than the one between these two.

Chinese films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000, established the fact that the new China could produce technologically and artistically sophisticated films that could win awards in the West and yet still proudly celebrate its own cultural traditions.

The scale of China’s dramatic success has settled one great contemporary philosophic debate – the superiority of Capitalism over Marxism, which the Chinese say in private is now as dead as a dodo – while opening another. Which is better, an open democratic system, however noisy and unpredictable, or a highly centralized and controlled one? The US and other democracies argue for the former; China is the living example of the latter.


The Global Importance of US-China Dialogue

While the US and China are at opposite ends of the political spectrum, there are few more important relationships in international affairs today than the one between these two. How they manage it will determine the future of the planet. The potential for conflict is high as China, the new kid on the block, appears to challenge the US across the globe, but so are the prospects for peace as leaders of goodwill on both sides, appreciating the global nature of the relationship and the consequences of its breakdown into conflict, strive for understanding. 

That is why I felt privileged to be part of a small group of Americans who were in Beijing to participate in a track-two dialogue to promote understanding this July. While regular diplomacy is a formal process in which bureaucrats and senior statesmen meet to present “official” positions in the glare of the media, “track-two” diplomacy involves more informal, personal and off the record dialogues, which can sometimes be more effective. 

Our host was the Consensus Media Group. The subject was counterterrorism. We were led by the internationally renowned peace activist Dr. Chris Seiple of the Institute for Global Engagement. Seiple has been working with compassionate devotion in some of the most troubled regions of the world since 9/11. Also leading the group was Col. John Gallagher, the special assistant to the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, who will take over from Seiple as head of the institute in the next few weeks. The group included a former congressman, a former lieutenant general, a former Muslim assistant to President George W. Bush in the White House and a senior official from the State Department. 

During the conference, I had a chance to observe the close interactions of the Americans and the Chinese. At the end, I even shared a comment which was appreciated by both sides in good humour.

There is a Great Wall of suspicion and stereotypes separating the two peoples, I said. Since the last century the Chinese have seen Americans as arrogant, crude and disrespectful of other people’s cultures. They imagine Americans like John Wayne in his cowboy films. The Americans, for their part, see the Chinese as humourless, cold and sinister. Almost from the start of Hollywood films, the Chinese were cast as villains from the Fu Manchu series to Dr. No. Who can forget the swarming hordes of young Chinese girls swinging deadly weapons with the aim of killing the white heroine in Tarantino’s epic Kill Bill – a not so subtle echo of the Yellow Peril. 

Yet, I noted, as the dialogue proceeded, these stereotypes melted. The Americans were impeccable in their behavior, courteous and ready to listen with respect. The Chinese were warm and gracious hosts; and they displayed a sense of humour. One of them said when the Chinese travel abroad, some of them tend to “behave badly.” He explained that when being rebuked, people will ask, “where are you from?” and the Chinese will promptly reply, “we are Japanese.” When I mentioned this to a group of senior academics at Peking University who had invited me for a lecture, one of them chuckled and admitted, “that was exactly what I said when I went abroad.”

Perhaps the greatest lesson that emerged in the recent U.S.-China dialogue that I attended was the importance of face-to-face meetings with open minds and hearts and at convivial meals.

Perhaps the greatest lesson that emerged in the recent US-China dialogue that I attended was the importance of face-to-face meetings with open minds and hearts and at convivial meals. Free from files and official agendas, people of different backgrounds see each other with empathy as fellow human beings.

The two nations have a complex relationship. Both are wary of each other. They rattle the sabre with noise and bluster one moment and talk of global peace the other. The US complains of China’s aggressive presence in the South China Sea and its human rights record – especially in dealing with its minorities living at its periphery like Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia. China, in turn, complains of American “double standards,” pointing to its human rights record in dealing with its prisoners or encouraging China’s neighbours like Japan to challenge it while talking of peace. The Chinese will say that while European powers and Asian ones like Japan have invaded China, China has not crossed its borders to conquer other nations. 

On the surface no two peoples are so different. American society is creative, noisy and open; Chinese society is centralized and structured. Take a look at how Americans walk and look compared with the Chinese. Every American emphasizes his or her individuality in style. There is usually a swagger and lilt in the walk. It is as if the individual is saying, “I’m at the centre of my universe. I matter.” In contrast, the Chinese walk with a slower pace, dress to blend and carry themselves as if to say, “I am just one person, but I represent over one billion people who are like me.”

Of course these are stereotypes and the similarities are greater than we may imagine. Both are superpowers aware of their rich histories and their place in the world today. Both are intensely patriotic. People in both nations want to get on with their lives and do the best they can for their families.


China Unified

The locations of the iconic symbols of the two nations reflect the different nature of their societies. While in the US the defining symbols are spread across the land – the White House in Washington D.C., the Statue of Liberty in New York and Mount Rushmore in South Dakota – the unchallenged centre in China is located in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. 

The traditional Chinese viewed the imperial kingdom as the centre of the universe. At the centre of the centre is Tiananmen Square, with the greatest symbols of identity laid out in perfect symmetry on its four sides – the Forbidden City on one side, Chairman Mao’s grand Mausoleum opposite it and the Party Congress and the National Museum taking up the other sides.

In Tiananmen Square, culture and power, party and politics, the past and the present, fuse in monolithic solidarity. The message is loud and forcefully clear. As if to underline the centrality of China’s vision, Mao’s gigantic portrait hangs on the entrance to the Forbidden City. There is a banner proclaiming long life to Mao outside the Presidential Palace, the apex of power, which is also located there. Chinese visitors, who come in the thousands daily, many from outside Beijing, are here to celebrate their identity and nourish it. On any given day some three to four thousand of the faithful and the curious line up to pay homage to Mao. Tiananmen Square to the modern Chinese is what the Vatican is to Catholics, Amritsar to the Sikhs and Mecca to the Muslims.

Given the centrality of Tiananmen Square, protestors complaining of human rights violations have demonstrated here over the last few decades. The image of single protestors standing up to the tanks in 1989 has become one of the iconic symbols of modern political discourse. Security is everywhere and visitors are carefully watched for any signs of trouble. Aware of the symbolism of the place, China is not taking any chances.

Akbar Ahmed at the Great Wall with New York baseball cap
Akbar Ahmed at the Great Wall with New York baseball cap.


Change in China

At the entrance to Peking University, the oldest and most prestigious in China, hangs a frame with words handwritten by Mao. He worked at the university and this would suggest an affiliation with the institution. In fact Mao was a lowly employee in the library and his experience of “liberal” professors was an unhappy one. He found them mean and petty. He would later excoriate intellectuals, mercilessly bashing them for the Cultural Revolution.

In contrast President Xi Jinping studied at and obtained a Ph.D from Tsinghua University in Beijing, the other great educational institution of China. Tsinghua, created with American assistance, reflects the classic American campus with red brick buildings, sports facilities and green lawns and hedges. It offers world-class programmes with an emphasis on science and technology. Faculty and students here are constantly interacting with the outside world. Mr. Tingyi Wang, a brilliant political science student, is a typical example. He is currently based at a university in the Persian Gulf region and heading for a think tank in Saudi Arabia after his visit later this summer to Harvard University. Xi’s own daughter studied at Harvard, under a pseudonym of course.

Xi in particular has relied on Tsinghua for his political reforms. His youngest cabinet minister in charge of the environment is from the university. It has allowed Xi to introduce a modern idiom and practice into traditional Chinese politics. He has also clamped down on corruption, for example recently sacking over 200 senior military officers. Ling Jihua, a top political official, was publicly charged with corruption and expelled from the Communist party to make an example. Editorials in the press laud these initiatives. 


Shanghai Cooperation Organisation

It is with this background of dramatic change that we need to look at one of the boldest Chinese initiatives that could potentially alter the economic and political fortunes of entire nations and regions of the world. It is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Launched some two decades ago – and bolstered by the additions of India and Pakistan this summer  – the SCO now has a membership of roughly half the world’s population. In the last few years it has become President Xi’s favored vehicle for conducting foreign policy and implementing his vision for global trade.

That vision, called the “One Belt, One Road” policy, envisages a breathtakingly ambitious programme to create trade routes linking these societies with each other and with Europe. Plans are still vague, but I heard talk of a land route that will evoke the Silk Road through Central Asia, to the Middle East and on to Africa and then Europe. There is also a maritime route along the coast of China and Southeast Asia, down to India and into the Middle East and on to Europe. Pakistan is a vital link in this scheme of things.


China-Pakistan Economic Corridor

The Chinese talk of Pakistan as an “all-weather friend,” reflecting exactly how Pakistanis see them as well. The Chinese in private will go through the list of other close allies and point to their flaws: the North Koreans are seen as erratic, the “crazy younger brother,” a scholar at a dinner remarked; Burma or Myanmar has let them down and they can never fully rely on Iran, according to another scholar, as it appears “too keen to be seduced by the US” That leaves Pakistan – and Pakistan alone, in spite of its alliances with Western nations, has stood by China through thick and thin. China has reciprocated with a mixture of emotion and real politik – it has just signed its biggest defense deal ever according to analysts, which gives Pakistan eight first-class submarines. It is a strange and unlikely love affair.

There are, however, contradictions and tensions in the relationship. Pakistanis are an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, and Islam, because of the tense political situation in Xinjiang, is not a popular religion in secular China today. There is also a public debate about the extent to which Pakistan should be supported. Those opposed to it point out the nature of Pakistan’s corrupt politics and breakdown of law and order. The broad Chinese view of Pakistan is that of a favorite younger brother constantly landing in trouble. The Chinese will express their protective affection for Pakistan and in the next breath talk of the need to ensure its stability and encourage its prosperity.

China has just signed its biggest defense deal ever according to analysts, which gives Pakistan eight first-class submarines. It is a strange and unlikely love affair.

It is this relationship that explains one of President Xi’s central pieces in the “One Belt, One Road” policy – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Xi’s commitment may be gauged by the fact that he has announced some 45 billion dollars for the project. It is breathtaking in its scope and vision and could alter the fate of the beleaguered Pakistani nation. It is a plan to connect China by road and high-speed train to the port of Gwadar on the Pakistani coast and transform the sleepy little town into a major international commercial and trading hub like Dubai across the Gulf. There would be economic spin-offs as trade and commerce would grow along the corridor.

As a Pakistani American I am accustomed to the familiar Western media stereotype of Pakistan as “a nation of terrorists.” Yet I was surprised to discover this was not the case in China. On the contrary, when people learned of my Pakistani background, I was treated with respect, kindness and affection. They would say, “You are family.” Sometimes strangers would take selfies with me, as if I was a movie star, after they discovered my Pakistani connection. Pakistanis feeling down because of the nonsense in Western media should visit China to cheer themselves up.

In Beijing I was also privileged to be hosted by the head of the New Classic Press, which had just published the Chinese translation of my book “Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam” (2010). He said it was the first book to be translated from English by their press, as the tradition is to translate books from Chinese into English. He said there had been intense debate about publishing the book as it was about Muslims, a controversial subject.


Challenges Ahead

By committing himself so publicly to these global schemes, Xi has put his neck on the line. If they succeed, he gets the credit, if they fail, he is directly to be blamed. He faces undercurrents of resentment in the massive military and civil bureaucracy already feeling the pressures of his anti-corruption drive. They may start a go-slow campaign. Xi also faces the simmering anger resulting from the growing gap between the rich elite and the vast majority.

Xi’s highways will take the Chinese through ancient tribal societies in South and Central Asia and Xi needs to pay attention to the situation in Xinjiang and deal with it through wise and compassionate policies. Otherwise Central Asian tribes will sympathize with their fellow Muslims in China and unrest will grow. We saw the recent protest attacks on the Chinese – or anyone who the Turks thought was Chinese, which included Koreans. Such clashes could further inflame the border areas and jeopardize these projects. There is also the ever-present danger of US-China relations deteriorating to a point of conflict because of some minor incident that escalates. In this situation Pakistan has a potential role to play.


The Pakistan Card

With Pakistan’s good relations with both China and the US, it is ideally placed to help bring the two powers together, as it did in the past. It is sometimes forgotten that Pakistan facilitated President Nixon’s historic visit to China. 

The current global geopolitical alignment for the first time in history has both the US and China maintaining good relations with both India and Pakistan. While noting the unmistakable affection for Pakistan in China, I saw no overt signs of hostility towards India. On the contrary, Chinese scholars talked with optimism of the new relationship between China and India. They pointed to President Xi’s visit to India and Prime Minister Modi’s visit to China, which were conducted in an atmosphere of cordiality and resulted in billions of dollars in economic deals. But reality warns us that India and Pakistan are so conditioned by their hateful rivalry that they will turn any event to their favor and against their opponent. Perhaps the vast economic and political benefits that are possible in China’s initiatives will influence them in this case. In spite of the numerous naysayers, those of us who dream of a peaceful South Asia taking its place on the world stage as a cultural and economic powerhouse see a ray of hope in today’s situation.

Those of us who dream of a peaceful South Asia taking its place on the world stage as a cultural and economic powerhouse see a ray of hope in today’s situation.

We are still left with Napoleon’s enigmatic comment. The answer to the inherent question contained in it may be tied to Xi Jinping’s vision of the future of China. In either case, it is time to watch the awakening of China with interest.

The article was first published in The Huffington Post, July 2015:

About the Author

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He has served as a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and was the First Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. Previously, Ahmed was the Iqbal Fellow (Chair of Pakistan Studies) and Fellow of Selwyn College at the University of Cambridge. He has also taught at Harvard and Princeton Universities. He is the author of over a dozen award-winning books including a quartet of studies published by Brookings Press examining relations between the West and the World of Islam after 9/11: Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization (2007), Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam (2010), The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam (2013), and Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire (forthcoming). 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of All China Review.

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