China & North Korea in 2018: A Quest for Internal Power

(Picture Taken by Fanghao Tian, 2017)

2018 has been a long road of soft-power changes throughout Asia. From a heartily optimistic outlook for India’s growing economy, to an increase in diplomatic engagement between China and Japan, 2018 is a year for fluctuations in international polarity. The two primary focuses of the recent news cycle, however, have been changes in Chinese leadership and leadership regulation, as well as Chinese relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK).

Many events relating to these topics have led to a large draw in focus from Western countries onto the DPRK and China. However, this Western focus steers primarily towards the possible influence of East on West. It is important not to forget the internalized trends and actions of the grand Eastern Powers, especially in times such as these.

Chinese focus on the DPRK (as with the rest of the world) has been on a steady rise. With now multiple visits by DPRK leader Kim Jong-un to Chinese President Xi Jinping, it is only natural to assume there will be an increased focus by the Chinese People on the Korean Peninsula. As shown below, Google searches of the key phrases “Kim Jong-un,” “DPRK,” and “North Korea” have increased dramatically relative to the past five years. This data set includes the searches thus far in 2018, considering that the past several months of searches have already surpassed full years’ in recent history.

The past five years of Google searches in China on the listed key phrases. Data provided via Google Trends and visualized via Tableau.

But even with this increased attention, growth in one topic does not necessarily make it the most influential. While the Western World focuses on North Korea due to its possible Western interference, China has its spotlight shining on their current (and ongoing) President: Xi Jinping. The past year of Google searches within China show a much larger focus on the country’s now President-for-Life than on the DPRK. Even general searches for the term “North Korea” were, for the majority, well below the number of searches on Xi. The United States, as compared to China, has a drastically lower focus on Xi relative to Kim and North Korea. Looking at the latest data available on US searches, we notice a drop followed by a recent surge, likely due to the fluctuating status of a Kim-Trump summit.

(The past 12 months of searches in China for Xi Jinping v. Kim Jong-un. Data and visualization via Google Trends.)

(The past 12 months of searches in the U.S. for Xi Jinping v. Kim Jong-un. Data and visualization via Google Trends.)

These very opposing levels of focus on key topics lead one to question their bias regarding which is more important. In order to better understand the other side of these trends, I decided to discuss the current internal changes in the Chinese Government with my good friend: Dr. James Chan.

Over the course of our conversation, Dr. Chan explained that, in his view, the situation in China is not on a set or constant shift, but rather that the environment is changing day-to-day. He went on to say rapid-fire changes may be turning China into a “pressure cooker,” but these headline-worthy events are distractions to assist Xi in maintaining his rank.

Perhaps the most interesting thing Dr. Chan said over our discussion was that no one will be able to make drastic changes for China right now, “not even Mao himself.” This statement took me by surprise as, from my view, most of what is being reported on China presently appears to be drastic changes. When I asked how this made any sense, Dr. Chan explained that, in China, most large-scale events relating to leadership would not lead to immediate mass change, but “maybe [they would] if this were the Western World.”

Kim & Xi shaking hands during Kim’s visit to China, Photograph from KCNA / KNS / AP

At this point, Dr. Chan and I began to discuss a topic which we often come back to: unlike the U.S., China is not driven primarily by leaders, but driven by its people and their ideologies. For this reason, I believe it is important from a Western perspective to keep in mind the prevailing cultural habits within China. Not just for the sake of respect, but also to better the Western analysis of Chinese affairs. As we draw closer to direct diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea, we also go further into Xi’s indefinite term as China’s leader. Given global focuses, it is likely that, outside of China especially, small acts of diplomacy will achieve greater focus than Xi’s uses of executive power.

It is because of these present and likely upcoming large changes in internal leadership and power that we, not as leaders, but as citizens, must push for greater communication and understanding with the Chinese people. Without a focus on such topics as the DPRK, relating information will eventually make itself seen. But without a focus on the people of China, we have no viable understanding of China itself.

As an international business major in the Chatham University Business & Entrepreneurship Department, I am thankful to Dr. Tingting (Rachel) Chung who assisted in teaching me how to use the programs utilized for procuring and visualizing the research for this article. I am also thankful to Dr. Chung and the department for assisting in helping me network with international contacts to communicate with in order to gain a diversified and data-driven view of global events. Thanks to Dr. Chung, I had the opportunity to assist in the the creation of Chatham’s “Global Marketing Strategies: A Successful Business Mindset” event, where I met Dr. Chan, leading to my gaining a contact so experienced in Chinese affairs.

Trevor Borsh is a second-year Chatham Business student majoring in International Business, alongside a minor in Political Science. He is also pursuing the European Studies Certificate. This is Trevor’s first year working within the Chatham B&E Department, and he looks forward to promoting advancement and global outlooks for students and the university alike

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