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High Anxiety

THE GREAT WALL AND THE EMPTY FORTRESS China's Search for Security By Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross, W.W. Norton: 288 pp., $29.95

June 29, 1997|GORDON H. CHANG | Gordon H. Chang is the author of "Friends and Enemies: The United States, China and the Soviet Union: 1948-1972." He teaches in the history department at Stanford University

At midnight June 30, Hong Kong will revert to China. It is a moment fraught with peril and promise. For China, as the authors of this sober and balanced book note, is on the verge of becoming one of the world's great economic power, but one beset by anxieties--some legitimate, some not--over its security. How China attempts to resolve its security dilemma, and how other nations respond, will largely determine whether a successful post-Cold War order will be established in the 21st century.

Andrew J. Nathan and Robert S. Ross are two of America's leading scholars on Chinese politics and foreign policy. Their book is a welcome corrective to the dire predictions of war and overheated jeremiads heard so often during this time of troubled United States-China relations. Nathan and Ross harbor no illusions about the real difficulties posed by China's emergence as a great power, but they offer something that alarmists fail to do: a realistic assessment of China's actual security predicament.

The metaphors in the book's title help the authors make their point well. The "great wall," of course, refers to the ancient fortification that symbolizes the ability of China's leaders to mobilize immense resources for security purposes, but the wall also dramatically illustrates China's historic geopolitical vulnerability. The wall's purpose was to protect the country from neighboring enemies, but it failed dismally on a number of occasions. Thus, the wall emphasizes the persistent precarious nature of China's geographical place.

China's leaders--no matter if they were imperial/feudal, nationalist or Communist--have in the past, and will for the foreseeable future, look at a challenging environment. During the last 50 years, easily within the personal memory of tens of millions of Chinese, the country has been embroiled in major military conflicts with every neighbor or at every point along the perimeter of its vast territory: with Japan in the 1930s and 1940s, with the United States on the Korean peninsula in the early 1950s, with India in the early 1960s, with the Soviet Union in the late 1960s and with the Vietnamese Communists in the late 1970s. A good case can be made that defensive considerations largely explain China's behavior in each instance. And although China's border areas are more stable and secure than at any other time in the 20th century, the potential for trouble for Beijing remains.

The other metaphor in the book's title, the "empty fortress," refers to an incident described in "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," a Chinese classic of war and politics. Facing a superior invading force, a wily commander threw open his city's gates, disguised his soldiers as civilian laborers and lounged with a flute in full view on the defensive parapets. The enemy, concluding that such nonchalance indicated a strong defense and possible trick, delayed their attack. The city's commander won the crucial time he needed for the arrival of reinforcements.

In this way, the "empty fortress" symbolizes the use of stratagem in China's state-craft; the element of maneuver, bluff and deception in dealing with adversaries. And like the "great wall," the fortress suggests both weakness and strength. Chinese leaders have often resorted to creating appearances of strength to overcome actual weaknesses.

Throughout this century, China has eluded foreign understanding because of the opaqueness of its political processes. Chinese success in veiling intentions complicates matters too. Thus, American observers often fall into interpretive traps. One of these is demonizing China, as was done earlier in this century when its people were seen as the "yellow peril," a racialized threat to Western civilization, or during much of the Cold War, when the Chinese Communists were feared as a fanatical horde bent on world domination. Neither view was accurate.

Another trap has been to project Western values and hopes onto the Chinese, thereby transforming them into proto-Americans. Nineteenth century missionaries, the lobbyists for the Chinese nationalists in the 1940s and 1950s and even many supporters of China's post-Cultural Revolution move toward an open society were bitterly disillusioned when China did not meet their expectations.

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