China’s new tributariesAfter a local court recently convicted members of the family that controls the Lotte Group of management malpractices, a Chinese online media organization specializing in military affairs posted a threat. “When you offend China, you will face enormous consequences,” it said. A day after the Korean Coast Guard threatened Chinese fishing boats illegally operating in Korean waters with machine gun fire, Baidu, one of China’s largest internet portals, posted this as its top story: “Korea revealed its true nature after Moon Jae-in’s visit to China ended empty-handedly. That’s crazy retaliation against China.” The portal also published a criticism of the Korean media, which pointed out China’s rude treatment of President Moon during his state visit. “Korea is making complaints after comparing Moon’s visit to the visit by U.S. President Donald Trump. Isn’t that a case of too much self-esteem?”
China was stretching an interpretation of the convictions of the Lotte Group clan, suggesting they were related to the conglomerate’s decision to offer a site for a U.S.-led antimissile system. Baidu omitted the fact that the Chinese fishing ships, armed with metal spears, resisted the Korean Coast Guard’s order to leave and rammed into them.
Of course, such arguments were not made by the Chinese government or major media in the country. And those remarks probably did not reflect the beliefs of the majority of Chinese people. And yet, taking into account the degree of press freedom and internet censorship in China, we can’t see these written attacks as minor mistakes or a chance happenings.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the Communist Party Congress in October supports such an assessment. In the speech, he made 69 mentions of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The term has been used by Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping. It was actually an economic term to refer to “socialism with capitalist factors such as a market economy.” But Xi’s usage was quite different. It was more about ideological identity. In order to overcome imbalances in growth — the new problem of a new era — Xi wants to strengthen China’s socialist ideology and continue to concentrate power in the Communist Party.
Is it possible to fool a people who have already tasted capitalism with anachronistic socialist ideas? Xi believes that big data and artificial intelligence will make his plan possible. This is called Digital Leninism. The idea is that Big Data and artificial intelligence will control the society and economy in order to realize the kind of effective socialist society that Marx and Lenin could not have even dreamed of. The final destination is, of course, a powerful China that accomplishes growth and equality that is far superior than those found in Western democracies. That is Xi’s Chinese dream.
Controlling the internet is a means to accomplish this grand vision. Over the past three years, 10 million internet accounts critical of the Chinese government were shut down, and that is no coincidence. When such ideological control is turned to the outside world, the Chinese dream will become the Korean nightmare. China, which already demands a new type of “major country relations” with the United States, is pressing the revival of asymmetrical tributary relationships on its neighbors. The shabby treatment of Moon and the violence against Korean journalists were all part of the plan.
In a new global order crafted by China, we must wake up from our illusions and get serious. Even in the final days of the Qing Dynasty, China never let loose its reigns on Joseon. If a small country begs for mercy before a superpower, avoiding cruelty will be the best it can hope for. We must remember one thing: If we want goodwill, we must have strong fists. That is particularly true in the face of a strong China. How to maintain such power is our biggest challenge.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 27, Page 34
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.