The original version of this interview can be found here (Italian).
A year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic, revolutions, wars that end and others that seem on the verge of beginning: the intricate world of international relations is complex to understand, especially in the historical period we are experiencing. In the era of globalization then, whatever happens anywhere in the world has consequences for us. This is why it is important to stay up to date, and given this reason, we have tried to comprehend these issues in greater depth together with Lorenzo Lamperti.
Lorenzo Lamperti is currently editorial director of China Files, in addition to doing editorial coordination for the Italy-ASEAN Association. He also writes about China and Asia for several newspapers and research institutes, including La Stampa, Il Manifesto, Affari Italiani, Eastwest, ISPI, IAI, and Wired.
Dr. Lamperti was asked about the People's Republic of China, the relations between it and the United States, China's position towards Afghanistan, and much more, going on to touch on some of the "hottest" points and places in the world.
Lorenzo, could you tell me in general about the PRC before the advent of Covid-19? Also with reference to the figure of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Before Covid-19, China was experiencing a period of great growth from all points of view, both economically, with important growth percentages from Deng Xiaoping’s great openings onwards, and from a political point of view. In the last twenty years especially, growth has been not only economic but also political and geopolitical. I would identify three fundamental moments of this growth, with great importance on the political aspect. At the end of the 90s, the United States above all, but also Europe, thought that they could integrate China not only into their "architecture of globalization" at the commercial and economic level, but also at the political level, thus homologating the Chinese model in the image and likeness of the Western model. It was the period in which Fukuyama wrote "The End of History", and it was believed that capitalist democracy was the only plausible system of government, and therefore it was thought that, by integrating it slowly, China could homologate itself. This was not the case, and there were, as I anticipated, three key moments in this lack of homologation. The first was that of September 11, 2001, here we start to pull the strings of a process that began at that time there. So, war, export of democracy, war on terror and, of course, focus on a part of the world that has allowed and provided China with a period of twenty years of strategic opportunities that Jiang Zemin spoke of at the time. This period ended a little earlier than twenty years, since Jiang Zemin spoke in 2002, and the USA retired from Afghanistan in August 2021, but he was a good prophet. Secondly, there was the financial crisis in 2007/2008, which did not touch, or only partially affected, Asia, and China in particular, whereas it impacted the West significantly. I am talking about the waves of sovereignty that have swept Europe, and Trumpism in the United States. All these elements made China believe that the Western model had entered a phase of decline, if not of real decadence. We have also seen this rhetoric recently, for example in commentary on the assault on Capitol Hill on 6 January, and it has also been used with regards to Afghanistan.
How does Xi Jinping fit into these twenty years of strategic opportunities? He has certainly brought great changes to the message addressed internally and externally by the PRC. From the beginning, Xi has, on the domestic front, reconnected with a whole series of traditions of Chinese culture and Chinese history, which had been neglected or disowned during the Maoist period. Xi Jinping's first visit as president was to what is believed to be the birthplace of Confucius, which sent a significant message. There has been an extensive anti-corruption campaign, which we are seeing a resurgence of in recent months. So we’re seeing a progressive construction of a circle of loyalists at his side in the system of government. Take for example the Politburo in Xi's first term and that of the second term: the percentage of Politburo members who had previously worked with the president has increased dramatically and is expected to increase even more at the next congress. On the external front, he launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which, initially, was erroneously perceived only as a commercial interconnection project, when it was, and is, something more. It is in fact inevitable that, while using China's existing architecture of globalization (we have seen, for example, the occupation of top roles in the various international organizations by Chinese officials), there is the proposal of an alternative model, at least at the rhetorical level.
Still speaking of Xi Jinping, there are those who see, and have seen, the similarities between the current Chinese president and Mao, not least the inclusion of Xi's ideology (思想, sīxiǎng) within the Statute of the Communist Party of China (CPC), while he is still in office and alive. In your opinion, is this an exaggeration or are there actually similarities between these two figures?
In my opinion, the component of the man alone in command is often exaggerated in the Western media. Of course there has been and there is an evident personalization, for example with regard to the inclusion of his thought in the Statute, as well as the research centres that have arisen, and continue to arise, especially since 2017. Or even, in the news of the last few days, the inclusion of the study of Xi Jinping thought in the school curriculum. Therefore, the notion that there is a component of Xi's elevation above his predecessors is undeniable, but that this means that everything depends exclusively on his figure I consider to be an exaggeration. The CCP has a very complex structure within it and maintains, although at this moment probably in a minimal form compared to the past, a sort of dialectic that is not transposed to the outside world. It is undeniable that Xi has centralized power on himself and his loyalists, and this can be seen as a sign of strength, but also as a possible form of weakness or at least uncertainty. However, it must be remembered that Xi has eliminated the constraint of the two mandates. Somehow, China has accustomed us to constant surprises, and when we think we have understood it there is always something new, as Professor Kerry Brown told me in an interview published in Il Manifesto last month. So we speak, for example, of the exhumation of the title of "helmsman" (舵手, duòshǒu) for Xi. The elimination of the two-term constraint does not guarantee Xi the presidency for life, but it may mean the creation of an ad hoc role, exclusive to him, perhaps not in the 2022 congress, but in that of 2027. And maybe Xi Jinping will create a role as a supervisor or protection of the correct action of the CPC. All of these dynamics can also be functional to this. Xi has certainly centralized power. He has a preponderant role in all the ganglia of China's politics and life right now, but he is still not a single man in charge.
You mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). I wanted to ask you about the impact that Covid-19 has had on this and the possible future it will have.
In the first weeks it was thought, illusorily, that the problem was limited to China. There were those who argued that this would be Xi Jinping's black swan. We actually saw that it was none of that. If ever the BRI was someone's black swan, it was for Trump, at least temporarily. Given what is happening these days and what will happen in these coming weeks, there could be a revival of Trumpism, which has never died. So, the impact was initially thought to be much more drastic not only on the BRI, but in general on China's role in global supply chains. This was not the case for two reasons: the first is that China was the first major country to emerge from the health emergency, and in 2020 the economy grew by 2.3% (it was the only major economy to grow). So, on the one hand, health management has allowed us to get out of the health and economic emergency sooner, yet on the other hand we have seen the readiness, the flexibility that we have learned to expect of the Chinese government, which has promptly reshaped its BRI, its Silk Road, based on health. We have, for example, seen the start of the so-called "mask diplomacy", and then the so-called "vaccine diplomacy" which have been carried out in a virtually undisturbed way for a long time because the West and the United States, as long as they have been in serious difficulty in finding health materials and vaccine doses, have operated following a very protectionist line from this point of view. Now it is starting to change but, simply put, China has been able to act, almost undisturbed, on that front for a long time, and therefore has supported its BRI project with this reformulation in terms of health. It is clear that summing up is still not possible, as we are still inside the pandemic unfortunately, and our conclusions are readily changed from one week to the next. At this time, surely the de profundis rhetoric that had been sung for the BRI at the beginning of the pandemic turned out to be wrong.
Speaking of the United States, in your opinion, is the term "Cold War", sometimes used to define the relations between the PRC and the United States, exaggerated?
Yes, absolutely, it is exaggerated because the Cold War, the real one between the United States and the Soviet Union, was based on two main elements among many: the clear separation between two spheres of political influence and the existence of two very different economic systems, which were not interconnected with each other. It is evident that this case presents neither of these characteristics, that is, there has been much talk of a "decoupling" of world economies, but it is a hypothesis that most analysts consider almost impossible. It can occur in some circumscribed sectors, such as technology, which is obviously the one that is being talked about the most also due to its links with the security front. But to think that we can do without China commercially seems impossible to me, not only from the point of view of Asian countries or those most involved in the various Chinese commercial projects, but also on the part of the United States and the West itself. Therefore, an economic decoupling, as had occurred during the time of the real Iron Curtain, I consider to be a complicated thing, to say the least. Take the example of Taiwan and semiconductors, which is one of the most sensitive issues since Trump imposed a ban on Taiwanese companies from exporting to Huawei (华为, huáwèi), especially when it comes to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), a global leader in semiconductor manufacturing. From then on, its place was occupied by MediaTek, which is another Taiwanese enterprise. This is to say that severing ties, beyond the rhetoric that there may be, is very difficult. From the same point of view at the political level, we are no longer in a world where there are two clearly visible and opposing spheres of influence, but rather in a world where spheres of influence are interpretable. For example, it would be rather unusual to consider making India into an anti- Chinese agent, despite the fact that this is often mentioned in Western media. Something similar occurs with the Southeast Asian countries, where Kamala Harris recently did not want to choose which side to be on, but still wanted to pursue a binary relationship where the United States may guarantee security and defensive partnerships. On the other hand, the trade opportunities offered by China are undeniable.
Now for a "big" question, or maybe a series of questions together. Tell me about the issues related to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea.
Let's say that these issues are some of the most delicate aspects concerning diplomatic relations with China. Let's start with the most "internal" one, that of Hong Kong. We are seeing that Hong Kong is now increasingly effectively integrated into the People's Republic of China. After the great protests of 2019, there was an escalation from the legislative point of view aimed at repressing street protests. This was followed by real activism, with the law on national security leading to the first members of society convicted. At the end of July 2021, on the other hand, there was an action aimed at repressing the more institutional political opposition. Therefore, there was electoral reform and a strong pressure on all forms of associationism. In recent months, for example, the teachers' union has been dissolved, and it has not been the only case. We have seen the introduction of the bill on film safety, which will be introduced from 1 September, so these pressures will also begin to affect artistic expression. Hong Kong is becoming increasingly integrated into the Chinese system, an integration that was already predictable; the transition phase was supposed to end in 2047. Certainly, there has been a strong acceleration; there is a sort of early retirement of the "one country, two systems" model (一国两府, yīguó liǎngfǔ). What can you do about Hong Kong? Almost nothing. It is a question really, whether you like to hear it or not, within the PRC, in the sense that the local government is adjacent to the Communist Party in Beijing and therefore the opportunities for manoeuvre are very few.
The issue related to Taiwan is different; one of the most interesting examples of Asian democracy with a government that cannot be controlled by Beijing. Comparing the situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan is a mistake. Surely the Chinese government wants to get this message across by using, among other things, a number of rhetorical weapons. The Afghan affair has also been reshaped to raise the pressure on the Taiwanese. The Economist recently called Taiwan the "most dangerous place in the world" but I believe that right now no one wants a war. An invasion could take place in three cases: the declaration of independence as the Republic of Taiwan, which the Democratic Progressive Party (PPD, 民主进步党, mínzhǔjìnbùdǎng) does not want to do . Tsai Ing-wen, current president of the Republic of China, despite always being defined as "anti-Chinese", is actually a centrist, able to attract consensus both from those who want the status quo and from those who have a little more aggressive attitude towards China. If anything, we must ask ourselves what the future trajectory of the PPD will be. However, a declaration of independence seems to me to be highly unlikely at the moment.
A second option for which China may want to invade Taiwan is that of an internal Chinese weakness. We know that China is a militarily cautious country, unlike the United States. But one can imagine that a domestically weakened China, a CPC with less grip perhaps due to the slowdown in economic growth obviously all in a completely hypothetical future, could have less to lose now with military action. I think China would not move if it did not have the certainty of winning a hypothetical war, and it's not just about going to invade Taiwan, it's also about controlling a territory. Take into account the fact that the rhetoric of the potential invasion is a bit of a game for everyone. It is playing into the hands of China itself, which sends a message internally that it does not give up its grip on Taiwan and that, sooner or later, it will take it back. They’re also sending a message to the outside, warning other states from meddling in something that the PRC considers an internal issue. It is a message that should also be fed, clearly, to the United States, fomenting the theme of the Chinese threat to focus, even militarily, on that front; it is a message that could also be food for Taiwan itself, because it can remind the world that it is on the front line and needs help. We must always keep in mind the rhetorical element behind these speeches. The real risk can be that of an uncalculated accident: with the increase in overflights of Chinese military aircraft, the passage of warships in the strait and so on, the chances of an accident increase, yes. That said, I don't think any of the parties involved want an accident to happen right now.
Last thing, the South China Sea, an issue partly linked to the Taiwanese question. The South China Sea is another very complex issue, which cannot be tackled via tanks, and by this I’m referring to the statement from Mike Pompeo when he was still US Secretary of State. In July 2020 he said that the United States was ready to support all the territorial claims of the various countries of Southeast Asia, a sort of attempt at an enlistment campaign among the countries of the anti-Chinese Southeast. To think that the countries of Southeast Asia can be ready to enlist in an anti-Chinese action is, at the very least, utopian. There are, among other things, great differences in positioning between the different countries of the ASEAN region. For example, we saw the visit of Blinken's deputy, the new secretary of state in Cambodia, who was not allowed to enter the naval base that was at the time financed by US infrastructure and who is now suspected instead of opening its doors to Chinese naval vehicles. Instead, we have a more assertive Vietnam, but also a Vietnam which, as we saw when Kamala Harris' trip was delayed, had its Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh meet, without warning, the Chinese ambassador Xiong Bo. So, to think that these countries can easily take action or decide which side to be on is difficult. The movements of the Philippines, a former American colony (even the United States has a history of colonization behind it, although we often tend to forget it), are an interesting case. In recent years, with Duterte as the current president of the Republic of the Philippines, they came very close to China. Many times the Philippine president had said that he would tear up the military agreement with the United States and in the end, after a long tug-of-war, and this was confirmed and joint military exercises were also carried out. This is a signal to be taken into account, however this does not mean that the Philippines is ready to take sides against China, but at least they have returned to a position of balance with respect to what seemed to be happening in recent years.
What about China's position in Myanmar?
I shall start by saying that Myanmar and Afghanistan are two completely different situations, but they have some similarities in the sense of the Chinese approach to issues. This is to make it clear how the Chinese government actually moves and how sometimes these moves are misread and misunderstood by the West. I refer to the fact that when there was the coup in Myanmar, people suddenly began saying that China could be behind the coup, behind the military action. As evidence in support of this thesis, the interests of China in Myanmar and the meeting of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi with the leader of the Burmese army a few weeks before the coup were cited. But they do not mention that, on the same visit, Wang Yi also met Aung San Suu Kyi. However, it was not until January, 31 that there was an Aung San Suu Kyi government and the military was there just watching: the Burmese military was however an inescapable actor in Burmese politics, and there was a complex balance in which the military were always the ones who certainly never left and those with whom one had to talk, regardless. Even the Japanese Foreign Minister, in a tour almost coinciding with the Chinese one, did the same thing. Yet this is a normal diplomatic practice: you meet the Tatmadaw (Burma Army, Ed.) and you meet the National League for Democracy. Another element to take into account: China is interested in stability; it does not care who can bring it. It can be the military junta and it can be the Taliban, or it can be the government put there by the United States. The important thing is that the situation is calm where China has interests from a commercial or political point of view, or security. It may be true that they have developed a strong relationship with the Burmese military junta, but this is because at a certain point it was identified in the military junta as the interlocutor that can give a form of stability. That said, it is not that the coup brought benefits to China, because in previous years business went very well with the National League for Democracy. Xi Jinping and Aung San Suu Kyi, both children of revolutionary fathers, had a very close relationship on a rhetorical level, and they had spoken of blood ties between the two peoples. Thus, the view of Aung San Suu Kyi as the heroine of Western anti-Chinese democracy and the Burmese military junta put in power in some way by Beijing is not only a simplification, but a mistaken view. It is forgotten, for example, that India provided the first submarine to the Burmese army in the last months of 2020; or that the vaccine distributed in Myanmar is the Indian vaccine, not the Chinese one. This is to say that things are a bit more complex than they are told.
Tell me more about Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, Chinese interests, as I wrote a few days ago in an article in Il Manifesto, are basically of three dimensions. Here too, dialogue has been carried out in recent years both with the Taliban and with Ghani’s government, which no longer exists. The visit of the Taliban to China at the end of July is also mentioned here, though the phone call between Xi Jinping and Ghani, around mid-July is mentioned a little less. The dialogue was open with both sides.
Returning to the three points, the first thing that interests China most, despite the fact that we are talking about economic interests (which are there but there are more interests in political power than anything else as there aren’t large Chinese investments in Afghanistan at this time) is related to the issue of security. This is because Afghanistan borders the Chinese province of Xinjiang through the Wakhan corridor. That area of territory that came into the possession of the Taliban months ago, led to dialogue with the Taliban. That area, among other things, limits with two other very "hot" territories (a region of Tajikistan in which there was a war in the 90s, and a part of Kashmir administered by Pakistan), on which there have always been very strong claims. In addition, Beijing fears that this territory could serve as a basis for a possible return of the Uyghur insurgency in Xinjiang. China cares about securing this area, and this is the first interest, to make sure that the Taliban can actually keep the territory under control, which in reality appears uncertain. The second dimension is the one linked to commercial interests. In this case commercial interests are instrumental to the overarching objective, which is that of security, and not vice versa. Then there is also the rhetorical dimension, in showing how the United States failed in Afghanistan and now it has gone, leaving the country in these conditions, giving way to a whole rhetoric of betrayed allies that serves instead to put pressure on the Taiwanese. But the rhetorical dimension is ephemeral, it can change in a matter of weeks. These are events in progress and therefore it is not a stable situation that we have in Afghanistan, but rather far from it.
Last question: what is the possible future for the PRC in the post-Covid era?
China, even in the post-Covid-19 era, has and will certainly have a fundamental role on international balances at the geopolitical, diplomatic, and economic level. It is an actor with whom, even if arbitrarily, we must somehow create dialogue, and we must find a form of dialogue, maybe even via recalibrating relationships. They are an actor you can't think you can put in the corner. There are a whole series of topics on which cooperation could actually be found in some way. However, a different form of communication to the one that has developed in the last year on both sides must be found. The West should approach China with less prejudice and try to understand its context more. For its part, China should try to open up more to the world, something that does not seem to happen if you look at its political-economic trajectory. Perhaps start by reopening the borders, a theme that is dear to many, giving the opportunity to many people, and I think also to many Italian students who have remained outside China, to return to the country they had chosen to conclude their studies and build their future.
This interview was conducted by Malvina Montini, a member of European Guanxi's Strategic Communications Team. The English translation of this interview was completed with assistance from Calvin Oliver, lead Editor of European Guanxi’s editing team. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the interviewed and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
Malvina Montini has a double bachelor's degree, obtained from Ca' Foscari University in Venice, where she graduated with honours in Chinese language and culture, and Capital Normal University in Beijing, where she obtained a Master of Arts in the Chinese language. During that time, she spent two years in Beijing, China. She is currently attending a double master's degree between the University of Turin (ToChina Studies) (just graduated) and Zhejiang University. She is the Editor in Chief of The Password, the journal of the students of the University of Turin.
The original version of this interview, in Italian, can be found in The Password, a free newspaper, managed by the students of the University of Turin, and aimed at all young people who are curious to know more about the world, about the facts that happen day by day, and to better understand the world in which we live.