As thousands of Chinese demonstrators air their anger about Japanese control of the barren Diaoyu Islands, the potential for a bloody cataclysm increases. From Argentina’s seizure of the Falklands to German moves into Alsace-Lorraine, history has seen too many wars that began when societies respond to their internal tensions by making senseless grabs for land. China is changing, too. And if its one-party regime lurches towards either democracy or populist dictatorship, the dangers of militant nationalism will only grow.
While Chinese possession of the Diaoyu Islands would do nothing for Chinese prosperity, Japanese control can be portrayed by the bellicose as a crime against China. This is already beginning to happen; one Chinese demonstrator carried a banner declaring, “Even if China is covered with graves, we must kill all Japanese.” Sentiments like these have long encouraged ambitious men, from Alcibiades in ancient Athens to William Randolph Hearst before the Spanish-American War, to over-hype external threats to conjure up a conflict that serves their own interests.
Since Deng Xiaoping, China has had pragmatic, disciplined leaders who have understood the folly of putting old grudges ahead of economic self-interest. Yet China today is a regime dominated by a small elite, a subset of the Communist Party, which itself contains only 6 percent of the Chinese population. Systems controlled by small groups tend to veer either towards democracy or autocracy, and both paths pose dangers to the outside world.
The obvious threat to oligarchies like China comes from the masses that are now outside the power structure. But a strong elite can usually face down outsiders. The more likely challenge comes from within — from ambitious insiders, like Julius Caesar or the Chinese populist Bo Xilai, who believe that public support can propel them upwards. In an autocracy, the top dog is quick to punish such ambition. But in a diffuse oligarchy like China, insiders are constantly jockeying for eminence, and there are few natural limits to personal authority. That supply of would-be leaders is a constant danger to stability.
Such instability can lead to dictatorship. At the end of the Roman Republic, the oligarchy of the Senate gave way to emperors who turned military adventurism into popularity and unquestioned power.
British history suggests a more encouraging possibility. When the American Revolution drew to a close, only 3 percent of Englishmen could vote, and representation was even rarer in Scotland. But popular unrest convinced the House of Lords to accept the 1832 Reform Act that greatly expanded the electorate. Later leaders, including the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli, backed further reforms in the hope that new voters would show their gratitude at the voting booth.
Yet even a successful move to democracy is no guarantee of peaceful behavior. Those new British voters were remarkably keen on imperialism.
Either path to change in China raises the risk of appeals to settling old and new grievances. Chinese history provides abundant fodder to build hatred against outsiders, like the Japanese.
For better or worse, America can do little to influence China’s political future. We must neither abandon our allies nor demonstrate wanton weakness. But we can give China’s ambitious nationalists fewer grievances to work with.
Alas, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, like then-Senator Barack Obama before him, wants China to be labeled a currency manipulator. Sparking a trade war with China will do nothing for our economy, but it will aid the anti-Americans in China. By contrast, a federal initiative to support learning the Chinese language and culture would convey respect — and teach our children something useful.
Symbolic gestures of honor and respect will help. The Olympics could have been a golden opportunity to honor Chinese achievements, but many Chinese, according to The Economist, were offended by the treatment of their country’s athletes. Every ignominious Olympic defeat by an American is a diplomatic victory of sorts, because when other countries best us athletically, they will resent us less. Our athletes performed superbly, but we can still help reduce China’s sense of victimization by feting the Chinese Olympians conspicuously on our soil.
Today’s Chinese regime seems likely to put economic growth ahead of bellicosity, and Americans benefit from less expensive iPads and clothing. We cannot eliminate the risk that political change will yield more populist nationalism in China, but we can remember that keeping the peace is worth a little modesty on America’s part.
Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is author of “The Triumph of the City.’’ His column appears regularly in the Globe.