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David or Goliath? China's battle to win the war of perception

May 23, 2009

May 21, 2009

To the outside world China is a rich, monolithic
superpower -- but inside troubles mount and confidence remains fragile

Engineer Xu Shunjian is part of a new generation
of young Chinese people exploring the world Link to this video

Xu Shunjian is a diplomat. Not the official,
suave and suited, our-man-in-Kampala kind. But
for three years he has been doing his bit to change perceptions of China.

He had never left Fujian province before he flew
6,000 miles to Uganda, where his team is turning
a remote, dusty, rutted track into a smooth road
winding 76 miles (122km) across the country.

"Before we came here, the locals had only seen
Chinese people in movies. So they believed every
Chinese man could do kung fu and was tough," the
slim, bespectacled graduate said with a chuckle.

"I thought African people were wild. Now that
I've come here, I see they are much more friendly."

Three decades ago, Xu and his compatriots had
little opportunity to leave their country nor
meet the few foreigners who visited. Now China is
wide open to the world. But while its growing
reach has forged new alliances and better
understanding, it is also creating new tensions.

 From its recent naval confrontation with the US
in the South China Sea, to its anger at western
pressure over Tibet, Beijing appears ever more
confident as its reach extends around the globe –
and its rivals appear more watchful.

For years, foreign policy was guided by Deng
Xiaoping's cautious injunction, Tao guang yang
hui ("hide brightness, cherish obscurity") – or,
in the official translation, "nourish capabilities and bide our time".

But there is nothing obscure about China these
days; it seems that its time has arrived. Just
scan the recent headlines: Chinese workers strike
in Romania; Chinese property hunters seek
bargains in New York; Chinese peacekeepers patrol
Darfur and Kosovo; the Chinese navy battle
Somalian pirates. The premier, Wen Jiabao,
publicly frets about the safety of its vast US
treasury holdings, and President Hu Jintao took
centre stage at the G20 meeting in London.
Analysts begin to talk of the "G2"; Americans of
"our most important bilateral relationship".

Vice-president and heir apparent, Xi Jinping,
struck a very different note to Deng on an overseas trip this spring.

"There are some well-fed foreigners who have
nothing better to do than point fingers at our
affairs," he complained, in brusque remarks
unreported by the state media but quickly noted
on Chinese blogs and by foreign diplomats.

"China does not, first, export revolution;
second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause
troubles for you. What else is there to say?"

Western media bias

Xi's aggrieved tone might confuse the west, but
it resonates with his public. This year's
publishing sensation is China is Unhappy, a
collection of angry essays railing at foreign
bullies and domestic fascination with western
ways. Grievances range from protests during the
Olympic torch relay to high-consuming nations'
calls for China to cut pollution; one author
suggests China might have to break with the west one day.

Despite sniffy, sometimes despairing reviews from
liberals, it topped the bestseller lists. Its
lengthy list of gripes includes western media
bias, but its ­publicity-savvy authors are happy
to take their chances; they chose to meet the
Guardian in a Starbucks in central Beijing.

Between sips of his cappuccino, co-author Wang
Xiaodong explained why China should engage in the
arms race; he deems this year's 14.9% rise in
military spending insufficient. A slight man in
his fifties, he has the air of a schoolmaster but
a shock-jock's sense of mischief and flair for incendiary statements.

"China must have the power to wipe America from
the earth. It's the only way to deter them," he said cheerfully.

"China is really willing to co-operate with the
west, but is still refused by western nations.

"We have felt very comfortable over the years of
free trade, because we have kept winning. But
also, the west keeps losing. So we worry that at
some point the west will use military or
political power to fight China. The other thing
is that, for a long time, China has needed more
resources … That must create conflicts."

Though many Chinese dispute his conclusions, few
disagree with his basic premise.

"People outside see China as much more powerful
than China perceives itself to be. Our challenges
and troubles have expanded as well as our
interests," explained Professor Shi Yinhong, a
highly respected foreign policy expert at Renmin
university. He dismisses the idea of a bipolar
world; China's current status is perhaps "a regional power, plus".

Historic humiliations

To outsiders, China is a giant: a huge, populous,
monolithic state, with rapidly rising military
spending, vast coffers for foreign investment and
an increasing keenness to impose its views.

But where they see Goliath, China sees David: an
over-populated, under-resourced developing
country still recovering from historic
humiliations at the hands of foreign powers –
including the British – and still pushed around by the west.

"There's concern [among leaders] that if China's
growing power becomes too conspicuous, other
countries will view it as a threat, gang up on it
and try to contain it," said Professor Susan
Shirk, author of China: Fragile Superpower and a
former US deputy assistant secretary of state.

"They have worked very hard to show they want to
be more co-operative and that as they become more
powerful they're not a threat. They're willing to
compromise, negotiate; they're dealmakers."

China is willing to show its strength; last
winter it postponed an entire EU summit because
Nicolas Sarkozy had met the Dalai Lama. But it
also wants the world to like it. Relations with
Taiwan are at their best for decades, as Beijing
engages with a more mainland-friendly president.
It's pouring billions into "soft power" projects,
setting up Confucius Institutes and expanding its foreign-language media.

Yet a recent poll for the BBC World Service found
that while 92% of the Chinese surveyed believed
China's global influence was mainly positive,
only 39% of respondents in other nations agreed –
a 6 point drop on the previous year. It was the
largest perception gap in any of the 21 countries.

"The public hold a strong hatred against the Chinese," declared Wang.

"Sometimes people in government are actually more
friendly -- they are more practical. But American
people have a stronger hatred against Chinese
people aroused by the media. It's the same in
Germany, France and Britain," he insisted.

Mutual suspicions erupted with last spring's
fatal riots in Lhasa and the subsequent explosion
of wrath from nationalists. They accused the
western media, and wider public, of indifference
to Chinese deaths, an exaggeration of Tibetan
sufferings and deliberate distortions of the
truth. China's fenqing ("angry youth") roared
into action, bombarding journalists with death
threats. When a Tibetan activist tried to wrench
the Olympic torch from a Paralympian during the
Paris leg of the relay, passions went into
overdrive. Thousands of flag-waving activists
besieged Carrefour's Chinese stores; in Hunan, an
American shopper fled as a crowd yelled "Kill the Frenchman".

Simmering rage

Years of "patriotic education" and media
manipulation have helped to create this simmering
rage. But nationalism is a longstanding force
which China's leaders fear as well as foster. It
bolsters support for an unelected government. It
can also push them towards foreign policy
positions they suspect are unwise and it has a
history of toppling regimes which fail to meet
patriotic expectations. The Carrefour protests
were squashed before they could spread.

Wang is well-versed in western thinking, from
classical philosophers to Jared Diamond and
Francis Fukuyama. He has travelled abroad and
reads and watches western media. But he says
there is no paradox in the fact that increasing
western influence is accompanied, in many cases,
by increasing hostility. He sees it as a natural
reaction to the idealisation of the west.

"When Chinese people go outside they realise the
outside world is not as good as it was described
and China is not as bad. That's why the more
Chinese people travel, the more nationalistic they become.

"Our book is focused on these points because many
Chinese think westerners are angels. [But] to be
honest, I don't think there should be such huge
resentment. We're business partners," he said.

Cheap Chinese labour has undercut western
manufacturers, but also kept inflation down.
Meanwhile, western shoppers have kept Chinese
citizens in work. China has taken vast amounts of
mineral wealth from Africa; but it has also provided infrastructure.

China and other nations will continue to clash on
many fronts -- from human rights to resources.
But China's citizens are looking to a multipolar
world, not to global supremacy.

When a recent internet survey asked whether China
had the power to lead the world, 54.4% agreed it
"should seize the best opportunity created by the
financial crisis". Another 41.3% reached very
different conclusions, judging that "this radical
nationalism must be brought under control".

Thousands of miles away from home, Xu Shunjian is
digging into rice and stir-fried vegetables with
his chopsticks, as Chinese state television
blares in the background. He came to Africa only
to make money, and he misses his motherland.

But after supper he shows off photographs of
dinner at a Ugandan colleague's home: "I learned
to use fingers to take food like that … you see!" he exclaimed happily.

"I want to learn things from different countries
and learn about their differences," he said. "Of
course, when you go to another country, your
patriotic feelings will rise. But I've also become more open-minded."
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