A NOT SO AMBIGUOUS SYMBOLISM – Wen Jiabao at the NPC 2012
Something very interesting happened in China last week. It brought to mind my essay on ambiguous symbolism and future uncertainty, because it was one of the most unusual and unexpected cases of great power positive signalling I’ve ever witnessed (I was only a toddler during Perestroika, so it doesn’t count). During the international news conference following his farewell speech to the National Party Conference in Beijing, retiring Premier Wen Jiaboa suddenly began telling the foreign press about his country’s need for political and economic reform, and stating that he believed the international march towards democracy could not be held back ‘by any force.’
It is not often that we hear the leader of a totalitarian regime personally apologising for his country’s shortcomings. Even more unexpected is the sight of that statesman becoming what can only be described as ‘visibly emotional’. What will John Mearsheimer be thinking right now?
Politicians cannot read each others’ minds, and so every political and military manoeuver must automatically be interpreted as suspicious until proven otherwise, for the sake of sovereign security, even if it means forsaking global security. Mearsheimer has posited this for the past thirty years, especially concerning China. Is he just going to chalk this episode up to a bad day for Wen? That the actions of one statesman, no matter how influential, cannot be considered as indicative of the whole state?
I believe that Wen Jiaboa cannot be merely dismissed as an overemotional politician on the way out, and therefore irrelevant. I believe that his speech was a barely coded message to the Western world that China is gearing itself up for change, not for hegemonic conquest. Therefore any move of provocation on the West’s part now will merely serve as a shot in the foot, sending China back into the autocratic dark, instead of encouraging it out into the democratic light.
In the great blame game that is realpolitik it is the ‘other minds’ problem (identified by Hertz, Hollis and Smith, explored by Booth and Wheeler) which most diplomatic and undiplomatic activity revolves around. Robin Jervis warns us that we have to be able to interpret positive and negative signalling between states and recognise which of his four ‘world model’ security dynamics we are in. Failure to do so and behaving inappropriately as a result can prove catastrophic in international relations.
If we are to believe that the men at the centre of power in China are in fact men and not robots, then we have to believe that Wen is representative of these men. And if we do that, then we don’t have to read his mind, he is telling us. China is ready to come in from the cold.
North Korea, on the other hand, is not.
North Korea is in big trouble. Whereas some of it’s older caste military brass might have once been ready – worn down finally by age and experience – to dip a toe into the waters of international relations, its newly anointed leader is not. In true Stalinesqe style, Kim Jong un has overseen a brutal purge of military generals he suspected of disloyalty, even having one blown up with a mortar. This activity, coupled with his pursuance of the nuclear missile launch in defiance of the nuclear security summit and despite recommendations from his Chinese backers, proves to the international community that he has little to no regard for the rules even of realpolitik, let alone diplomacy.
The little pie boy is following his father’s time honoured tradition of scaring the international community into giving him food by launching nuclear missiles. Not exactly forward thinking. Theoretics around international politics are premised on the notion that foremost, a statesman is concerned with the health and protection of his own sovereign state. What happens to the theories then, when state leaders appear to be concerned with no such things. When their infrastructures are crumbling, their people are starving and their international activities are suicidally provocative?
Or maybe we should all be relieved we can finally stop worrying about China and concentrate on the real nuclear maniacs.