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What is driving China's recent thuggish approach to foreign relations?

November 9, 2010

China was deft in its diplomacy for decades, but
its recent heavy-handed behaviour is changing Asian opinions
By Ian Buruma
November 8, 2010

It must be galling for the Chinese government to
keep seeing Nobel prizes go to the wrong Chinese.

The first wrong Chinese was Gao Xingjian, a
critical playwright, artist, and novelist, who
received the Nobel prize for literature in 2000,
while living in exile in Paris. The latest is Liu
Xiaobo, a literary critic and political writer,
who was awarded this year's Nobel prize for peace
while serving a prison sentence for "subversion"
of the Communist regime. Since the Dalai Lama is
not a Chinese citizen, I will leave out his Nobel
peace prize, though to China's rulers it was
perhaps the most irritating of all.

Yet the Chinese government's response to Liu's
Nobel prize has been extraordinary. Instead of a
show of lofty disdain, or official silence, it
made a colossal fuss, protesting fiercely about
plots to undermine China, and putting dozens of
prominent Chinese intellectuals, including Liu's
wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest. As a result,
the utterly powerless and hitherto quite obscure
Liu Xiaobo has become not only world famous, but
much better known inside China, too.

Combine this with China's bullying of Japan -- by
blocking the export of rare-earth metals vital
for Japanese industry over a few uninhabited
islands between Taiwan and Okinawa, and its
refusal to let the yuan appreciate ­ and one must
wonder why China is being so heavy handed in its
foreign relations. These strong-arm tactics stand
out even more against the deftness of Chinese
diplomacy over the last few decades. Japan, the
old wartime enemy, has been outmanoeuvred
repeatedly, and a soft touch made South Koreans
and south-east Asians feel relatively comfortable
with China's increasing power.

But China's recent thuggish behaviour is changing
Asian opinions. As the warm welcome given to
Hillary Clinton on her recent swing through Asia
­ even in communist Vietnam ­ appears to show,
south-east Asians are more than happy to hang on
to Pax Americana for a bit longer, out of fear of
China. Other Asian countries might even be drawn
closer to Japan, the only alternative to the US
as a counterbalance to the Middle Kingdom. This cannot be what China wants.

So why is China being so severe? One possible
explanation is that China is a little drunk on
its new great-power status. For the first time in
almost 200 years, China can really throw its
weight around, and it will do what it wants,
regardless of what other countries may think. A
few decades ago, it was Japan that thought it was
going to be No1, and its businessmen,
politicians, and bureaucrats were not shy about
letting the rest of the world know. Call China's
recent actions revenge for a century of humiliation by stronger powers.

But this may not be the best explanation for
China's behaviour. In fact, the reason may be
just the opposite: a sense among China's rulers
of weakness at home. At least since 1989, the
legitimacy of the Chinese Communist party's
monopoly on power has been fragile. Communist
ideology is a spent force. Using the People's
Liberation Army to murder civilian protesters,
not only in Beijing but all over China in June
1989, further undermined the one-party system's legitimacy.

The way to regain the support of the burgeoning
Chinese middle class was to promise a quick leap
to greater prosperity through high-speed economic
growth. The ideological vacuum left by the death
of Marxist orthodoxy was filled with nationalism.
And nationalism in China, promoted through
schools, mass media, and "patriotic" monuments
and museums, means one thing: only the firm rule
of the CCP will prevent foreigners, especially
westerners and the Japanese, from humiliating Chinese ever again.

This is why anyone, even a relatively unknown
intellectual like Liu Xiaobo, who challenges the
legitimacy of Communist party rule by demanding
multi-party elections, must be crushed. It is why
the government does not dare to let the yuan
appreciate too fast, lest economic growth slow,
causing the party to lose face and legitimacy.
And it is why bullying Japan is always a good
option: China's rulers do not necessarily hate
Japan, but they are afraid to look weak in the
eyes of their citizens, who are taught from
kindergarten that foreign powers want to humiliate China.

This suggests that if Liu Xiaobo and like-minded
dissidents ever got their wish, and democracy
came to China, the problem of Chinese nationalism
would not go away. After all, if the people feel
persecuted by Japan or the US, then the people
will demand chauvinistic policies. Democracy has
not tempered South Korean chauvinism much,
either, since the demise of the military dictatorship in the 1980s.

But nationalism may not be a political constant.
Nationalism is often fed by a sense of impotence.
When citizens feel disempowered by an
authoritarian government, the next best thing is
to feel empowered by national prowess.

In a multi-party democracy, on the other hand,
citizens are concerned with other interests,
material, social, even cultural ones, and thus
less likely to be drawn into aggressive
chauvinism. Or so we must hope. The state of many
democracies today is not the best advertisement
for political freedom. But the Chinese should
have the right to decide about that themselves.
And Liu Xiaobo should be honoured for saying so.
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