How to Move China

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.

Of course, there are those in Beijing who worry day and night about North Korean refugees; but there are also many in Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere who worry about the chronic crisis that North Korea’s periodic outbursts cause in an otherwise stable region of the world. As President Xi Jinping eloquently put it at the annual Boao business forum on Hainan Island earlier this month: “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gain.”