By Dr Tenzin Tsultrim, TPI Fellow
The current perception of China’s international relations which was decided by a very centralised and cloistered elite in Beijing, is no longer valid as it used to be, as the number of actors who participated in the formation of the country’s foreign policy had grown within the Chinese government as well as increasing by outside it(Lanteigne, 2009:19). China’s domestic politics and its foreign policy have been effectively influenced in recent years by the people’s political demands in the form of changing of political culture and new forms of political participation, namely, demonstrations and passive resistance (Quansheng, 1992:162). The history of China is replete with periods, where people played a great role in the political events in the course of time. From Taiping rebellion to Boxer rebellion, from May Fourth movement to the Tiananmen Square Movement, whenever the common people stood up against the Chinese empire, the Chinese government reminded them of their true duties for the people and the country. There are many events in China which influenced its foreign policy with its neighbouring countries. After the establishment of People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the leadership of Mao, China began a five-year plan. After the failure of first five-year plan, the second five-year plan under the name of ‘Great Leap Forward’, launched in 1958, was vigorously pushed forward, resulting in millions of deaths due to starvations and other reasons. It was a campaign to dramatically accelerate China’s economic development. It was based on the Mao’s firm belief that human will power and effort could overcome all obstacles. However, from 1959 to 1961, China experienced an economic depression.
Even present Chinese scholars agree that the famine during the Great Leap Forward caused tens of millions of deaths. Chang and Halliday, co-authors of critically acclaimed book ‘Mao- The unknown Story’ argued that during this period roughly half of 30 million Chinese died. An official estimate by Hu Yaobang in 1980 put the death toll at 20 million (Schram, accessed on 17 July 2016). Historian Stuart Schram validated Chang and Holliday’s figure to 37.67 million. Hence the people’s reaction against the government about the failure of Great Leap Forward began to grow. The Chinese felt that an attempt to divert popular attention from the difficulties at home would be useful. Since India had quite a bit of political clout and was popularly believed to be reasonably strong militarily, such an adventure would be a worthwhile diversion (Tsultrim, 2010:45). The existence of diversionary theory in the international relations, also states that leaders who are threatened by domestic turmoil occasionally initiate an international conflict in order to shift the nation’s attention away from internal troubles. In other words, it shows that domestic turmoil in the country can have its strong influences on the foreign policies of China.
The architect of China’s Foreign Policy, Mao Zedong: a weak economy generated a weaker foreign policy under Mao
Economic conditions are another domestic factor that could affect foreign policy. For example, China’s foreign debt increased from zero in 1979 to $16 billion in 1985, to $40 billion in 1988, and more than $50 billion in 1990(Kim, 1990: 248). Such a development may give conservatives sufficient leverage to alter China’s international borrowing policy substantially and thus dramatically slow the pace of China’s integration into the world capitalist market (Quansheng, 1992: 173). Since China lacked the capital and technology to build many large industrial plants, the Government appealed to the people to build small factories in the countryside. These rural factories were not well planned, however, and goods they made were often of poor quality. The production goals of the Great Leap Forward could not be met (Perry et al, 1992:736). After the failure of Great Leap Forward, the Chinese economy was in great disorder. More than 30 million people have lost their life. Like India, the fate of China was mainly decided and determined by Mao Zedong, who was an indispensable leader of China and for a long time Chinese foreign policies were determined only by him. The first two paramount leaders of the People’s Republic, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, had consolidated power to the point where they were central to much decision-making in both domestic and international relations policies (Lanteigne, 2009:19). On one hand, the era of single leader dominating the foreign policy decisions was over; instead most decisions on the international level must be made through ministerial and bureaucratic consultation. Further, non-governmental actors, including businesses, NGOs and lobby groups, have been transformed from irrelevant actors to stronger players in Chinese foreign policy (Lanteigne, 2009:24). From 1978 to 1985, for example, there were long-lasting debates about Soviet Socialism among these think tanks (Central for International Studies and the Institute of Contemporary International Relations) as well as intellectuals and government bureaucrats. These debates fostered the internal preparations necessary for Beijing to normalise its relations with Moscow by the end of the 1980s (Quansheng, 1992: 171). After the debacle of Great Leap Forward, the Chinese economy was completely in bad shape. Tons of food grains were imported from other countries because of the failure of crops.
In 27 years under Maoist’s rule (1949-76), China’s doors were closed to the outside world, especially the West. Hence China was more interested in strengthening its economy than trying to meddle or interfere in other countries’ affairs. Because of this reason, for a few decades China entered into self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world in strengthening its economy as well its political structures. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), China received lots of aid from the Soviet Union in different fields. However, their relations were later strained and the help from the Soviet Union was also automatically stopped. This put further pressure on China, as China needed the help of a developed country to acquaint them to the know-how of new science and technology for the development of Chinese economy. [Source]
*Dr Tenzin Tsultrim, PhD, is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. He has contributed a chapter to the book on China’s Foreign Relations and Security Dimensions (2018, Routledge Publishers, edited by Geeta Kochhar). Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.