Why China’s Global Leadership Needs to Begin in Pyongyang

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 3 2013 7:11 PM

China’s Empty Dreams

If Beijing wants to be taken seriously as a global leader, it needs to begin to deal with the nightmare that is North Korea.

President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping attends the BRICS summit in Durban on March 27, 2013.
Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit in South Africa in March

Photo by Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

Xi Jinping, China's new president, has taken power, made his first foreign trip, and reintroduced his (well-dressed) wife to the public. And now, in the reverse and sometimes obtuse way these things happen in China, he has launched his political campaign. An editorial in the People's Daily this week explained how, under his leadership, the Communist Party will pursue "the China Dream" in order to "achieve national prosperity, revitalization of the nation and its people's happiness." The phrase "China Dream" is echoing throughout the Chinese media, figuring in politicians' speeches and Internet parodies. ("China dream smothered by smog" was the headline of a blog post on Beijing pollution.)

It may turn out to be an empty slogan: After all, the content of the China Dream—what it is, how to get there—is still vague. It might have something to do with fighting corruption. It clearly has to do with building support for the increasingly distant and elitist Communist Party. But according to the People's Daily, achievement of the China Dream also includes the reversal of the "humiliation" China has long suffered at the hands of foreign powers. Xi seems to be calling for renewed patriotism, and maybe more: "Revitalization" appears to apply to not only the nation but also to its military power and international position.

Which is all fair enough: China is a large and rapidly growing economic power. It's only natural that China should begin to play an important international role. But if that's what Beijing wants, why doesn't it seize the opportunity? The Chinese could begin to play a valuable and prominent international role right now, one that would win their government friends and admirers and might even, over time, reduce the U.S. military presence in North Asia by eliminating one of the region's most serious potential conflicts: Starting today, the Chinese could put an end to the grotesque farce that is the North Korean regime and, together with the United States, usher in the reunification of the Korean peninsula.

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Should China's leaders simply want the North Korean regime to stop launching missiles, after all, they don't need to play around with sanctions. Nor do the Chinese have to respond to North Korea's outrageous military threats with a show of air power, as the U.S. military has done. They could just cut off energy supplies or food deliveries to Pyongyang: They are the major supplier of both. And if they wanted real change in a regime that keeps tens of thousands of its people in concentration camps directly modeled on Stalin's gulag, China could open its 800-mile border with North Korea. The resulting exodus would surely do for North Korea what the collapse of the Berlin Wall did for East Germany.

Some Chinese are already convinced of the need for change in their nation's North Korea policy. Deng Yuwen, an editor at a prominent Communist Party newspaper, argued in the Financial Times in February that China should "abandon North Korea" and "take the initiative" to facilitate Korean unification. China watchers assumed that such an article, by such a person, must have been sanctioned by some influential person and might even reflect the new leadership's views. But if someone approved it, he wasn't influential enough: Deng has been "suspended indefinitely" from his job.

Clearly, some in China's establishment are ready to change—but others are not. Whether out of nostalgia for their brothers-in-arms or because they think it's still useful to have an alter ego to antagonize the Americans and the Japanese, some in China's establishment want the North Korean regime preserved. In other words, some in China's establishment are still wedded to an anachronistic idea of China's role in the world and, indeed, to an anachronistic idea of the world: International politics is a zero-sum game, what's bad for the imperialists is good for China, and "patriotism" means anti-Japanese riots and aggressive rhetoric about islands in the South China Sea.

But then, North Korea itself is an anachronism, a creation of the 1950s, a state so vicious and inward-looking that diplomats visiting Pyongyang are encouraged to leave their cellphones behind in the relative liberty and security of Beijing. If China's new leadership keeps propping up this regime—which it helped create and which it has supported for more than half a century—then we'll know that the "China Dream" really is just a slogan. If, on the other hand, China's leaders want more respect, they can earn it by resolving a crisis that really is of their making.

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