Some 2,400 years ago, a Chinese king invited a legendary military strategist named Sun Tzu to give a demonstration in military training — using women from the palace.
Sun Tzu agreed, organizing 180 of the king’s beautiful young women into two companies. He made the king’s two favorite concubines officers in charge, and explained the principles of marching.
The women treated this as an uproarious joke. An ancient account explains that when Sun Tzu beat the drum to signal “right turn!” “the girls only burst out laughing.”
So Sun Tzu patiently repeated the instructions and beat the drum to signal “left turn!” Again, the women simply burst into laughter. So Sun Tzu seized the two favorite concubines, accused them of failing to maintain discipline — and beheaded them. Now the other terrified women followed orders perfectly.
That’s the kind of historical tale that members of China’s Politburo absorbed while growing up — and reflect today. In battles over Google and the currency exchange rate, they model the hardheaded Sun Tzu, accepting that making omelets will require breaking eggs.
So look out.
One of the most important diplomatic relationships in the world is between China and the U.S., and it is deteriorating sharply. What’s more, many experts believe it will get considerably worse over the coming year — and one reason may be that China’s leaders seem to feel as if they have their backs to the wall.
We tend to think of China as an invincible force rising up to challenge the West, but today’s disputes — and a corresponding domestic crackdown — seem to reflect the leadership’s sense of vulnerability. From abroad, we are awed by an economy that sometimes soars at nearly 10 percent a year. At home, the leaders appear to worry about a fragile society and the risk that a rise in unemployment could lead to vast social upheaval.
That’s one of the reasons China is adamantly refusing to let the renminbi rise further. There’s no question that China’s undervalued currency irresponsibly creates global imbalances — but if you’re in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound, your concern is just staying in power.
Likewise, I’d bet that it is the government’s sense of insecurity — not strength — that has the leadership fulminating about Google. When the Chinese government jostled with Google, young Chinese didn’t leave flowers at Zhongnanhai to show support. Rather, they left flowers and supportive notes at Google’s headquarters in Beijing.
“Patriotic education” and carefully nurtured nationalism mean that in many disputes between China and the West, the Chinese people and the Chinese government stand together. We in the West see human rights in Tibet as a moral imperative and a rising renminbi as an economic imperative; Chinese citizens and leaders alike see these issues as part of a 200-year-long string of Western imperialist efforts to bully or dismember a fragile China.
But the Internet is different. The Politburo doesn’t want a free Internet, and the people do.
Mostly, I think we exaggerate the disaffection of Chinese toward their government. Most Chinese citizens aren’t very political and aren’t deeply upset by the lack of a ballot — as long as living standards continue to improve. And many Chinese prefer a local search engine, Baidu, to Google.
Still, ordinary Chinese are profoundly irritated by corruption, nepotism, lies, official arrogance — and hassles when they try to use the Internet.
The United States government has been reluctant to support financing for the proxy servers that enable Chinese or Iranians to leap firewalls. That’s because the most effective software to evade censorship was devised by Falun Gong, a religious group that is despised by the Chinese government. The fear is that China would be outraged. But we shouldn’t let that dissuade us, for we have a powerful interest in chipping away at firewalls that protect dictatorships.
The mood among young Chinese reminds me of Taiwan or South Korea or Indonesia in the 1980s, when an increasingly educated middle class — beneficiaries of enlightened economic policies of oppressive governments — grew to feel stifled and patronized by their governments. Eventually, in each case they upended one-party rule and achieved a democracy.
Chinese leaders surely fear that parallel, and that is likely to be one of the reasons they are cracking down frantically on dissent. But again, all this may be a sign of weakness, not strength.
The Communist Party’s greatest success is the extraordinary economic changes it has ushered in over the last three decades with visionary policies and impressive governance. Its greatest failing is its refusal to adjust politically to accommodate the middle class that it created. And its greatest vulnerability is the way it increasingly neither inspires people nor terrifies them, but rather simply annoys them.