How to Move China

Theories about China’s attitude toward North Korea often begin and end with the view that what the country fears, above all, is an inflow of refugees in the event of a North Korean collapse. But Chinese leaders have several other concerns, and current US efforts to persuade China to rein in its ally must take them into account.

DENVER – “Insanity,” Albert Einstein is reported to have said, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” For those who have long scoffed at the possibility that China might be willing to deal decisively with its pesky North Korean neighbor, the results of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Beijing will be all too predictable.

But, for those who watch China’s ever-changing internal political landscape carefully, there is much happening that more than justifies Kerry’s trip. Indeed, if US President Barack Obama’s administration is to be criticized for its handling of the latest North Korean “crisis,” the main problem has not been too much reliance on China, but too little.

Theories about China’s attitude toward North Korea often begin and end with the view that what the country fears, above all, is an inflow of refugees in the event of a North Korean collapse – a spillover that could rend the delicate ethnic quilt of China’s northeast provinces. The problem is that, while some Chinese do worry about refugees, “China” cannot be regarded as a collective noun with a singular view about anything; like any complex modern state, China contains many different views about many different issues.

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