The spy balloon event could not have come at a worse time for the Chinese Communist Party.
The U.S.–China relationship has fallen to a low point, and many in the U.S. government and private sector demand economic delinking from China. As soon as delinking was mentioned, the CCP showed strong opposition. It labeled the U.S. as having a Cold War mentality and stated that delinking is a lose-lose situation for both China and the U.S., and so on.
Of course, the Chinese Communist Party has its reasons for saying so. China is a major manufacturing country, and, under the CCP’s current system, China uses its low-human-rights advantage and artificially low exchange rate to export cheap goods to the world and profit from it while the CCP seizes technologies from other countries. This is the CCP’s favorite model of “globalization.”
The balloon’s message could not be clearer: Hey, U.S., we don’t need to pretend to be friendly with you.
If we achieved a high degree of delinking, the CCP would not be able to obtain cutting-edge technologies and large profits from the democratic camp, and it would be economically unsustainable for the CCP to rely primarily on countries like Russia and North Korea. So, a high-degree delinking would force the CCP to be self-reliant. And once such a dictatorial regime is closed, internal conflicts will intensify, as was shown during the Cultural Revolution. So, what the CCP fears most is delinking. Thus, logically, the CCP should now lower its stance and wave olive branches to the U.S. The CCP’s recent appointment of the dovish-looking Qin Gang as foreign minister did just that. Now, the spy balloon seems to undo this effort.
The question, then, is this: Why did the CCP do such an illogical thing? Was it intentional or an accident? I see two messages from the incident.
First, it shows the brazenness and naked aggression of the CCP.
The Chinese Communist Party has behaved in the world in recent years like a barbaric nouveau riche. Not only does it not play by the rules at all, but it also deliberately goes around provoking democratic countries and shows off its newly gained capabilities. For example, it has been circling Taiwan with warplanes on an almost-daily basis and sending wolf warriors around the world to bully other countries. In the spy balloon incident, the CCP did not accidentally expose a secret operation but deliberately let the United States know that it has such a great capability to invade our home. This blatant provocation means that the CCP has, in fact, completely tossed its usual mask of modesty.
The message of the spy balloon sent by the Chinese Communist Party could not be clearer: Hey, U.S., we don’t need to pretend to be friendly with you. You can keep seeking “guardrails” between our fight — we are bound by no rules.
Second, the balloon incident shows the systematic incentive for communist officials to favor radicalism over conservatism.
For politicians in all communist states, being more radical is always better than being more conservative. What I mean here is that generally when officials make policies, they may deviate from the official line to the left, i.e., being more radical, or to the right, i.e., being more conservative.
For example, in terms of economic policies, being more radical or left means a stronger emphasis on state intervention, and being more to the right or conservative means giving more emphasis on the market or private businesses. These are all deviations from the central government’s policy, so, in theory, the leadership will have to stop the policy and reprimand the official who promoted it. However, throughout communist history, committing the error of being more to the right is always more severely punished than committing the error of being more to the left.
The reason is the nature of communism. Communism is a radical ideology put into practice in state policies. Communism advocates using means of violence to achieve its goal, which is to destroy private ownership and the market, and centralizes power in the hands of the communist party. So, if a communist official adopts a policy more radical than the official line, he may be acting too hastily and need to be corrected, but he is headed in the right direction. In other words, his intention is good but just needs to be more practical. Thus, for this kind of error, the communist state usually just gives light, symbolic punishment. The radical official is usually later reassigned to another lateral position or even given a promotion.
But, for an official who is too conservative in policymaking — for instance, overemphasizing the private sector or advocating reconciliation with the U.S. — the error is categorically more serious, and the official can be easily labeled a Western sympathizer or even a traitor. Naturally, this kind of error is more severely punished.
Historically, the two liberal-leaning leaders of the CCP, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were sacked for being too soft on students who demanded democracy.
So, it is likely that at the lower level of the Chinese political/military regime, the officials decided to send spy balloons to the U.S. without asking for approval from the top. If they succeeded, they would get rewarded; if they failed, well, their intention was good — attacking and humiliating the U.S. — so they would just get a slap on the wrist.
This peculiar incentive for CCP officials to take more radical and aggressive behaviors, plus China’s rapidly expanding military, guarantees that we will see more and more outright aggressions from China in forms that we have never seen before.
Shaomin Li is professor of International Business at Old Dominion University and author of The Rise of China, Inc.: How the Chinese Communist Party Transformed China into a Giant Corporation.
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