Can Manila influence Beijing?
It does not require any special access to realize that friends of China have already launched several attempts to try to moderate Malacañang’s position on South China Sea issues; we live, after all, in a famously porous polity. But the question is: Are there similar attempts, on Manila’s part, to influence the public agenda in China?
The paradox of the new China is that it is both a closed regime and an open system. Traditional readings of the Chinese political framework, Andrew Mertha writes in an important paper revisiting the concept of “fragmented authoritarianism,” neglect the reality that “although China remains authoritarian, it is nevertheless responsive to the increasingly diverse demands of Chinese society.”
Will Beijing prove responsive to a concerted Philippine effort to prove the legitimacy of its South China Sea positions? To narrow the focus even further: Are there countervailing forces within China that might prove amenable to the Philippine view, and help influence official Chinese action?
Shaoguang Wang’s proposed typology of six agenda-setting models at work in China seems to suggest that an opening might exist—especially if Mertha’s own research into unlikely “policy entrepreneurs” in China (he names three types, specifically: officials on the bureaucratic periphery, journalists and nongovernment organization activists) is also taken into account.
Wang’s models are ultimately based on the distinction between the public agenda (“issues that have achieved a high level of public interest and visibility in society”) and the policy agenda (“issues under serious and active consideration by political decision makers”). He classifies his six models according to the level of participation in the setting of policy (officials, advisers, citizens) and the level of participation in creating public interest (low or high). The result is a classification scheme that seems to evolve toward “more democratic” approaches: closed-door and mobilization (when decision-makers initiate the agenda); inside-access and reach-out (when advisers are the initiators); outside access and popular pressure (when the public seizes the initiative).
Wang places special emphasis on the sixth model of popular pressure, which “did not often come into view until the late 1990s.” This is an approach increasingly open to Chinese citizens who seek to help set the policy agenda “through presenting the facts and reasoning things out” and also, crucially, through mobilizing public opinion to influence officialdom. (Mertha, an authority on China’s so-called water warriors, describes two antihydropower protests, one completely and the other partially successful, which we can include in a list of examples of popular pressure—the Yangliuhu and the Nu River initiatives).
But can friends of the Philippines in China credibly present the facts and reason things out in a way that will mobilize favorable Chinese public opinion? Steve Tsang’s seminal work defining the post-Deng Xiaoping political system in China as “consultative Leninism” suggests the inherent difficulty of any such project.
Tsang identifies five distinctive characteristics of the consultative Leninist state: the Communist Party’s unquestioned supremacy, which requires an obsessive focus on “staying in power”; continuing reform within both Party and state “to pre-empt public demands for democratization;” a “commitment to enhance” the Party’s responsiveness to public opinion; dedication to “sustain rapid growth and economic development by whatever means;” and (the fifth is worth quoting in full): “the promotion of a brand of nationalism that integrates a sense of national pride in a tightly guarded narrative of China’s history and its civilization with the greatness of the People’s Republic under the leadership of the Party.”
In the new China’s revisionist account of the last half-millennium of its history, the Middle Kingdom’s self-satisfied withdrawal from the world (symbolized in the hai jin decree putting an end to oceanic voyages in 1432, toward the end of the life of the great Chinese admiral Zheng He) has been completely reimagined. Unfortunately for the Philippines, the new China’s expansive claim to all of the South China Sea has become part of this tightly guarded historical narrative, whose primary purpose is to promote nationalism as the new, unifying ideology.
Tsang writes: “The choice of nationalism as the new though informal state ideology is meant to enhance the Communist Party’s capacity to stay in power …. [But] The nationalism thus promoted is essentially xenophobic in nature, which encourages the Chinese people to identify with a rising China under the leadership of the Communist Party in juxtaposition against the West that is portrayed as uncomfortable with China’s resurgence and historical unity.”
It might be folly for the Philippine government to take on a fourth track of engagement, of seeking possible countervailing forces in China, especially when the odds are stacked. But friends of the Philippines might step into the breach. Perhaps the country’s taipans can sponsor roundtable discussions in China. Perhaps an exchange of journalists can be arranged. Perhaps Philippine and Chinese universities can organize a series of forums on Mariano Ponce, Sun Yat-sen’s Filipino friend whose history of the Philippine revolution became required reading among Chinese revolutionaries at the beginning of the 20th century. None of these initiatives will resolve the competing territorial claims, but they might help create the conditions for resolution.
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