The world Chinafied
Several years ago, I happened to be in a shopping mall in a random country in Southeast Asia sipping coffee and watching a fashion show. It doesn’t matter where – I hate place-dropping, the geographical equivalent of name-dropping, where you casually insert the name of a place as an irrelevant detail into a story to prove your worldliness.
Mostly locals filled the mall, but it was far from a difficult venue to find. There was nothing impressive about me being there, just a tourist following in the footsteps of millions of other tourists, the coffee from a shop that wasn’t Starbucks but could have been (it likely featured a picture menu so I could order by just pointing), watching the local wares in local fibers from local designers.
That’s when it hit me. The world is evolving. Some might say developing. One could even say modernizing. (We’ll save for a later discussion the political baggage of those terms.)
But the world is not Westernizing, and it certainly isn’t Americanizing.
A recent example: the April 19 “China Brief” newsletter from Foreign Policy highlighted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Global Citizenship Initiative, which at its core seeks to assert China’s culture as distinctly non-Western, derived from ancient Chinese wisdom and ways.
It’s a bit short on detail, the initiative, that is.
Mid-April also saw the results of a U.S. Justice Department investigation: the arrest of a pair of individuals for operating a “secret police station.” in New York City. Specifically, the duo, who initial reports have identified as U.S. citizens, were charged with acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government and obstruction of justice.
The gist of the indictment is that the U.S. has accused the pair of being agents for a division of the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, the Fuzhou Municipal Public Security Bureau, sent to the U.S. to monitor the activities of Chinese nationals and quash any criticism of the People’s Republic outside its borders.
Whether or not these allegations can be proven - that China is seeking to monitor its citizens around the world through surveillance that could very well violate the sovereignty of those locales - remains to be seen. The city of Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province, is at a minimum highly symbolic.
Fujian, on China’s Southeast Coast, north of Hong Kong and across the narrow strait from Taiwan, was one of the early epicenters of the Chinese diaspora, the dispersal of its citizens to far-flung corners of the world. Seafarers, cooks, and merchants, scores of them departed Fujian’s shores in search of riches or better lives elsewhere.
Fujian is the reason nondescript logging camps on the edge of nowhere towns have Chinese restaurants; the majority of America’s original Chinese eateries were staffed and started by Fujianese. Which, of course, brings us to Taiwan, as well as America’s new-found attention to the Pacific.
Despite regular visits from the U.S. Speaker of the House, Taiwan’s been having a tough time keeping diplomatic friends.
Honduras recently switched alliances from Taipei to Beijing, sounding a bit like a jilted lover in the process. “From now on, you’re the one real China for me,” they could have said.
Honduras has joined the ranks of Panama, which made the switch to the People’s Republic in 2017. Given the amount of Chinese investment following the expansion of the Panama Canal, with barely an American company in sight, the switch made a certain sense.
Two years later, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands followed. Last year the Solomons and China inked a security pact, potentially giving way for Chinese police to patrol the island. To safeguard order around Chinese facilities, of course.
Al Jazeera, for one, has reported that since Tsai Ing-Wen’s 2016 election as president, the republic has seen nine nations switch allegiance to China.
In the mid-1990s, 30 nations recognized Taiwan. Today that number is 13, the bulk of them island states in the Caribbean and Pacific. Palau remains a steadfast ally of Taiwan, as does the Marshall Islands. So does Vatican City.
As it turns out, Federated States of Micronesia President David Panuelo was unsuccessful in convincing his compatriots to turn from Beijing to Taipei. This despite his letter accusing China of monitoring him outside of its borders, something I’m sure both the U.S. Departments of State and Justice were quite taken with.
If I were an American policymaker, I would not yet look at the Pacific with a sense of doom.
But I already know that I would look with growing pessimism that my vision of an ideal society would be the one to be followed.
Gabriel McCoard is an attorney who previously worked in Palau and Chuuk State. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.