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The Elephant in the Room

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– A think tank on China.

The definition of the scope of this observatory must deal with the complexity surrounding each aspect of this Country, starting from the very concept of China. It coincides with certain geographical boundaries. China is a continent expanding from the Mongolian steppe to the Himalayan peaks and from the Wakhan corridor to the East China sea. At the same time in a political connotation, it also includes the island of Taiwan and parts of the Kashmir region. The reinstatement of the national territory, which was undermined in the 1800s under the blows of colonialism, is a fundamental principle of the People’s Republic. The Chinese Constitution’s prologue is centered on the concept of class struggle and fight against Western and Japanese imperialism. Modern China has therefore an ambiguous approach to its millenary history. It maintains its multinational and yet centralized structure, as well as continuing its bureaucratic tradition, centered on meritocracy trough examination and on the division on administrative levels. At the same time, it is a revolutionary project, which turned Chinese society upside down, starting from the traditional organization of clan families. Revolutionary objectives are not accomplished, yet. The authority of the Chinese State is based on a social contract aimed at achieving a social model enabling moderate prosperity for its people, a fifth of mankind.  On the international level, its purpose is to foster cooperation between sovereign nation States, regardless of their form of government. The core of these contradictions, true or apparent as they may be, is the Chinese communist party. With 90 million members, it is the fulcrum of Chinese public life, from daily to spiritual aspects. It is an entity as complex as the country it rules. It draws the political life around its orbit, while its institutional role is undefined. It adapts itself to the multiple needs of Chinese reality, showing from time to time the face of a smart manager of an ecofriendly business in Shanghai or Shenzhen, other times that of a Beijing apparatčik or that of a village leader from Hunan. More than any other contemporary intellectual movement it has been able to predict and use to its benefit the dynamics of globalization, of which it is a champion in the era of Trump’s “America First”. Meanwhile, within China, it maintains a decisive control on the dynamics of globalization. It strictly regulates foreign investments, it avoids great migratory fluxes, it limits RMB convertibility and most importantly it restricts citizen access to the global Internet. The Chinese relationship with Internet may be the focus of a think tank on its own. Far from hindering China’s access to the potential inherent to the online industry,  the Great Internet Firewall, a system which blocks webpages that refuse to block certain content, has allowed Chinese e-commerce industries to expand without the pressure of competing with US behemoths. This created fertile ground for a local and surprisingly anarchic market to compete and thrive, allowing Chinese online businesses to prosper. Some of these became behemoths themselves. Unlike their US counterparts, it is national and not global behemoths. Now, in the age of Internet regulation, a phenomenon regarding both the East and the West, the “Chineseness” of online monopolies such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, allows the Chinese government to claim sovereignty within the defined borders of a national cyberspace. What is more, the doctrine of national sovereignty over cyberspace is appealing to all countries that do not share Western democratic ideals, in particular Asian and Islamic States. These aim at accessing the wealth brought by online industry, but not at the cost of allowing Western values to permeate their social fabric. This leads us to an issue, which is of great importance, and yet grossly underestimated, that is the aptitude of Chinese social models to be exported or replicated, at least in part. Aspects such as a technocratic vision of politics, the tendency to consider different political systems not as a goal, but as a mean for governance (white cat, black cat, as long as it catches mice, used to say Deng Xiaoping), make the Chinese experience partially replicable in developing countries. It is evident that China’s relevance is not confined to the fact that it is the largest economy in the world, but also due its centrality in every event affecting us. From the race to Artificial Intelligence to the spread of unknown illnesses, from the fight against poverty to the future of Western democracy, China is always at the center, as a partner, a competitor or a term for comparison. It is a gigantic elephant in the room. Yet, in the West and not only, China it is the great untold story of our time. This is a consequence of linguistic and cultural barriers, of the Eurocentric tendencies affecting us, but also of the restrictions to the freedom of Chinese citizens to tell their stories. Further difficulties derive from the need of adapting the description of events to the importance they cover in Chinese society. It is not uncommon that due to political, institutional and cultural differences, events that have a great importance in China are considered here to be irrelevant, and vice versa. The most glaring examples of this asymmetry can be found in juristic studies. Our attention of Western jurists immediately goes to the Chinese legal structures that find an immediate resemblance in our systems, or, in other words, to the study of legal doctrines which we know and understand. But this must not go to the detriment of our knowledge of the more peculiar Chinese institutes. Five-years plans, the National Development and Reform Commission, the State Asset Supervision and Administration Commission are all concepts, which we are unfamiliar with, and yet they determine Chinese life. Also, the study of Western legal institutes in China must occur in the full acknowledgement the different position that these institutes have in the Chinese system.

The consequence of mastering such a vast and complex mosaic of information is that the country that we should familiarize ourselves with is often treated as a mysterious monolith or, worse, it is framed in the stereotypical conceptual architecture of the Cold War. Our travels, our commercial and cultural relations increased. But the same cannot yet be said with regard to our ability as a mass society to assimilate the information that a serious debate implies. In the past few years, in Europe and Italy, the number of periodicals on China skyrocketed, as well as the amount of think tanks and correspondents. Some of these perform an excellent and useful job. But all this is not enough. On the one hand, the emphasis is often on those aspects of Chinese life that condition us closely. But, in the grand scene of overall Chinese affairs, these often only have a minor role. On the other hand, there is a lack of widespread knowledge over the manner in which China relates to the great questions of our era: environment, cyberspace regulation, the contradictions of globalization, the migratory fluxes. And it is to the creation of such familiarity and widespread knowledge that this small think tank aspires.

The Elephant in the Room aims to offer short and accessible essays on current issues of international politics and global phenomena, through the analysis of China’s role. The disciplinary perspectives will be those that are usually treated on Aperta Contrada, and therefore are: environment, culture, as well as law and economy. Equally inspired to Aperta Contrada’s model is also the format of papers, which will be of a length comprised between 2000 and 5000. The format of references can be chosen by the author and language can be Italian or English.

By Giulio Santoni


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