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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Is China Afraid of Its Own People?

October 3, 2010

The diplomatic tussle over the East China Sea has
calmed down, but a bigger foreign-policy problem
awaits: China's newly empowered masses won't take
'no' for an answer, and Beijing is right to be scared.
Foreign Policy
October 1, 2010

China and Japan's recent showdown over the Diaoyu
(or Senkaku, to the Japanese) archipelago seems
to have cooled down with the release of the
captain of a Chinese fishing vessel who was
detained by the Japanese coast guard earlier this
month. Quite a few official Chinese media outlets
ran big headlines proclaiming that the Japanese
had capitulated. Yet it's by no means clear that China was the victor.

Indeed, the extraordinary lengths to which
Beijing has gone to rein in public protests over
the alleged Japanese occupation of the Diaoyu, as
the islands are called in China, has exposed a
critical shortcoming of the so-called China
model: the Chinese Communist Party leadership's
inability to make effective use of public opinion
to advance domestic as well as diplomatic goals.
Instead of leading public opinion, these days
Chinese leaders are sometimes pushed into
uncomfortable stances that reduce their options.

The row with Japan is a case in point. At the
height of the dispute, Chinese authorities pulled
out all the stops to prevent patriotic Chinese
from airing their views. Protest organizers of
protests, such as the editors of,
a website well-known for its advocacy of
Diaoyu-related issues, were given warnings by the
police "not to break the law" by holding
demonstrations and other radical actions.

The few hundred activists who joined rallies on
Sept. 18 -- which marked the 79th anniversary of
the Japanese invasion of China's northeastern
provinces -- in cities including Beijing,
Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, were subjected
to tight surveillance by police, who outnumbered
the demonstrators by at least four to one. The
protesters were dispersed by law-enforcement agents within an hour or so.

On Sept. 12, Chinese police prevented a group of
nationalist activists from renting a boat to sail
from Fujian province to the Diaoyu islets to
proclaim Chinese sovereignty. A similar action 10
days later by a patriotic NGO in Hong Kong was
foiled by the local administration, which stopped
the fishing vessel on the grounds that it was not licensed to carry passengers.

One reason Beijing is so nervous about
demonstrations is that based on past experience,
"troublemakers" often take advantage of such rare
occasions to air grievances regarding
nondiplomatic issues, especially corruption
within party and government departments. That
explains why at least nine activists, according
to the watchdog Chinese Human Rights Defenders,
were detained or warned not to participate in the
rallies in Beijing and Guangzhou. Among them were
Xu Zhiyong, a lecturer at Beijing University of
Posts and Telecommunications, and Teng Biao, a
lawyer. Xu and Teng are well-known NGO activists
who have stood up for victims of official corruption.

Yet the most important reason why party
authorities are paranoid about public protests is
that aside from casting aspersions Tokyo's way,
demonstrators might also zero in on Beijing's
failure to do anything substantial to recover the
lost territory. Sino-Japanese wrangling over the
Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dates back to the early
1970s, when Washington returned the archipelago
to Japan, but Beijing's actions have never gone
beyond rhetorical assertions of its "sovereignty since time immemorial."

Nor are they likely to. Despite the
leaps-and-bounds development of the Chinese Navy,
a military solution seems out of the question.
The islets fall within the Japanese-American
mutual defense treaty, a fact that was reiterated
by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when
she met visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara in New York last week.

A more realistic solution is the one advocated by
late patriarch Deng Xiaoping when he visited
Japan in 1978: seeking joint development of the
islands, which are rich in natural resources,
while shelving sovereignty concerns. Deng said on
the occasion that it might be better to let
"future generations, which may be wiser" to
tackle the sovereignty imbroglio. Deng's
statement, which could be interpreted as
legitimizing the status quo of the Diaoyu being
run by Japan on a de facto basis, has never been
given much publicity in China. It is also not
mentioned in high-school history textbooks.

Why? Why does China fear its own people so much?

Apart from the party leadership's well-known
tradition of undemocratic governance, the main
reason behind "black-box diplomacy" is to avoid
taking responsibility for failing to stand up to
foreign powers such as the United States or
Japan. Despite the relative efficacy of the Great
Firewall of China, fast-growing numbers of
nationalists have frequently been able to use the
Internet to express their views, including
negative ones about Beijing's foreign and
security policies. These increasingly vocal
nationalists generally believe that rising China
has become a mature power and deserves a place in
world affairs to match its burgeoning economic clout.

It is out of fear of a nationalist backlash that
China's negotiations with the United States and
other countries regarding its accession to the
World Trade Organization for instance, were
wrapped in secrecy. Beijing apparently worried
that should ordinary Chinese learn about the
considerable concessions that it had made in
areas including tariff reductions, senior cadres
including former Premier Zhu Rongji would be
labeled "traitors" by WTO opponents.

The same fears shrouded negotiations with Russia
regarding a treaty that ended decades of disputes
over the two countries' shared 2,700-mile border.
The pact, which was officially signed in 2008,
was mainly negotiated between former Presidents
Jiang Zemin and Boris Yeltsin. It legitimized
Russian ownership of huge chunks of Chinese
territories -- estimated to be 40 times the size
of Taiwan -- that had been taken away from China in the days of the czars.

Yet in other cases, party leaders' refusal to
engage the public -- including China's
increasingly well-educated and sophisticated
middle class -- in the formulation of foreign
policy has considerably reduced the room to
maneuver of officials and diplomats.

For example, President Hu Jintao and then
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda reached a
theoretical accord in mid-2008 to settle
sovereignty disputes over the East China Sea. The
agreement was largely based on the principle of
"seeking joint development while shelving sovereignty."

Again, Beijing made no efforts to explain to its
citizens the rationale behind the potentially
win-win solution. When the East China Sea accord
was announced a couple of weeks after Hu left
Tokyo, Chinese netizens expressed massive
disapproval, even on official websites. Since
then, Chinese diplomats have dragged their feet
in negotiations on transforming the Hu-Fukuda
theoretical agreement into a formal treaty.

But never has Beijing tried to persuade the
Chinese public of the wisdom of compromise. And
in the past year, hard-liners including military
hawks have openly expressed disapproval of the
formula of "seeking joint development while shelving sovereignty disputes."

Yet another drawback of Beijing's nontransparent
foreign policy making is that China tends to
resort to dubious if not irrational measures to
appease nationalists. During this recent dispute,
Beijing brandished economic cards that included
discouraging Chinese from visiting Japan as
tourists and, reportedly, threatening to cut off
the export of rare-earth metals to Japanese companies.

These tactics were in essence no different from
the familiar rallying cry to "boycott Japanese
products," which has been frequently raised by
Chinese nationalists. Yet as Ambassador Wu
Jianmin, former president of China Foreign
Affairs University, pointed out last week, "In
this day of globalization, 95 percent of Sony's
products are made in China. Isn't it stupid to
call for 'boycotting Japanese products'?"

More broadly, the Communist Party leadership's
recent assertiveness has stoked the flames of the
"China threat" theory -- and prompted countries
including Japan, South Korea, India -- and
several Southeast Asian countries to join the
"anti-China containment policy" supposedly
spearheaded by Washington. Beijing's apparent
effort to pre-empt criticism from nationalist
Internet users has resulted in a radicalization
of Chinese diplomacy that might undercut China's global clout.

What now? Before Beijing can effectively navigate
a host of sensitive sovereignty issues with its
neighbors, President Hu and his Politburo
colleagues must first seek an understanding with
the Chinese public on the parameters of China's
national interests -- and how to achieve them
through well-recognized international norms. In
the long run, continuing to treat the Chinese
people like yet another threat to be neutralized
will only create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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