Letter from China: A grinding of gears in Beijing diplomacy

Howard W. French International Herald Tribune
THURSDAY, MAY 5, 2005
SHANGHAI When China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, met with the press in India last month, the event was supposed to be a crowning moment for this country’s well-oiled diplomatic machine, which has lately been racking up almost as many plaudits as its booming economy.
Here was the world’s largest country moving to embrace the runner-up, its fast-growing neighbor to the west, and the message that was drummed home over and over was that China’s bold push to deepen long-neglected ties with India, an erstwhile rival, indeed enemy during their brief but fierce war in the early 1960s, would remake the world.
This was the new face that China increasingly seeks to present to the world, of a country uninhibited by past conflicts that nowadays strides confidently into parts of the world where Chinese diplomacy was once paralyzed or dormant, and the country’s flag all but invisible.
The only thing wrong with this picture is that while Wen was wowing his Indian hosts, the streets of this country were given over to unusual unrest: riotous demonstrations against Japan that were at the very least officially tolerated. International coverage of these events smothered the prime minister’s upbeat message in India, forcing him to talk about Japan, and the protests, which sometimes turned violent. The protests have colored news about China’s relations with the world, and indeed the way this country is ruled, in the weeks since.
If India is the new frontier of an emerging Chinese superpower, one with truly global ambitions, and the diplomatic resources to pursue them, the events of recent weeks show that Japan remains at the heart of a stubbornly lingering old Chinese world, an East Asian region about which Beijing still obsesses in self-injuring ways that could still threaten this country’s smooth ascension.
Since their arrival in power in 2003, the Chinese leadership tandem of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao has worked assiduously to spread a new gospel of China’s “peaceful rise” – a canny strategy aimed at building soft power while lowering anxiety about China and thereby lowering resistance to its push to assume a place alongside the United States at the first table of world affairs.
On the matter of its wartime record in East Asia, there are few countries in this region that would side with Japan, which still insists on retelling highly sanitized versions of a past riddled with atrocities. In its recent handling of this issue, however, China somehow managed to raise more disturbing questions about itself than it did about its eternal antagonist to the east.
In China one hears two broad accounts of the anti-Japanese demonstrations that swept Chinese cities in late April, and neither of them is comforting. In one telling, through winks and nods, the government, alarmed by Japan’s bid to join the United Nations Security Council encouraged an Internet-driven citizen’s movement to put Tokyo on the defensive by demonstrating the depths of Chinese anger at their neighbors.
This story line paints a picture of the failure of conventional diplomatic means, and a government’s resort to highly unconventional measures instead to secure its geopolitical aspirations. It raises the specter, however seemingly remote in everyday life in the sleekly modern steel- and glass-bound cities like Shanghai and Beijing, of lingering Maoist reflexes for old tactics like mass mobilization when leaders feel they have run out of other answers.
“China has placed patriotism at the top of its ideological order,” said Liu Xiabo, a dissident literary critic. “Love of country is higher even than loving socialism, and the government has used it to foster deformed ideas against America, against Japan, and on Taiwanese independence.” Liu added that the government “wants to use nationalist emotions as a sort of patriotic card to stop the Japanese from entering the Security Council.”
The other prominent story, favored by many Chinese, postulates that the Beijing leadership was all but powerless to stop the protests, even though they gathered steam gradually over a period of weeks, beginning with the petition opposing Japan’s Security Council candidacy and ending with an afternoon-long attack on Japan’s consulate in Shanghai.
Chinese emotions toward their neighbor simply run so deep, according to this account, that for the government to stand in the way of anti-Japanese feelings would be to expose its own nationalistic credentials to question.
“I think the reality is indeed that the Chinese leadership, in dealing with foreign policy issues, is being increasingly constrained by domestic considerations,” said Xue Lan, an expert in public policy at Qinghua University in Beijing.
One could also hear echoes of this reasoning in the rebuke China’s foreign minister, Li Zhaoxing, gave his Japanese counterpart during a meeting the day after the Shanghai consulate was sacked.
“The Chinese government has never done anything for which it has to apologize to the Japanese people,” Li said. “The main problem now is that the Japanese government has done a series of things that have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people on the Taiwan issue, some international issues including human rights and especially in its treatment of history.”
Watching Li on camera as he leaned forward and sternly lectured the Japanese foreign minister, whose consulate in Shanghai was still strewn with debris, it was hard not to think that he was playing to his domestic audience, more mindful of the government’s nationalist credentials than of any other consideration.
Indeed, the next days’ headlines in the Chinese media drove this point home, depicting the visiting Japanese delegation as full of contrition after having been forced to accept a lesson from China. This was the old-fashioned China flattering itself about being at the very center of a its traditional East Asian domain, surrounded by lesser, partially Sinicized states that must constantly bow and pay their respects. Never mind that in reality the Japanese had held their ground.
All in all, the story line of a Communist Party leadership that is forced to play along with populist nationalism may be more worrisome than its alternative, for it is a picture not of a serenely confident new contender for superpower status, but of a highly insecure leadership, so worried about its own hold on legitimacy that it sided – at least initially – with a street mob attacking a foreign diplomatic installation rather than with near universally accepted notions of law and order.
What unites the two views, though are their common threads of emotionalism and nationalism, which few of China’s neighbors and perhaps even countries beyond are likely to judge a reassuring concoction for a 21st century superpower.

2 thoughts on “Letter from China: A grinding of gears in Beijing diplomacy”

  1. Cat got your tongue, Howard? No updates to your website in two months? Nothing for the NYT in a month … except some ready-mix handed-to-you-on-a-platter news reporting (ie, anti-Japanese protests?)? And now this: a Herald Tribune article that didn’t cut it for the NYT?
    Something going on, Howard? Perhaps the karma has swung around and you are finally paying for your lack of graciousness? After all, daily you post “snippets” and links to interesting articles on Asia from a range of different sources … but never, not once, from another New York Times reporter in China. What? You think that their work isn’t as capable of yours? Or perhaps you’d just like to avoid highlighting the fact that the other NYT reporters appear in the paper – on average – about five times for every time you appear in the paper? It’s not like you’ve avoided posting coverage from NYT people outside of China (Africa and editorial page, for example). And then, of course, is your unwillingness to post anything that you’ve written with a shared by-line.
    Well, I’m sure your career is going great. Nice Herald Tribune article.

  2. Floating in the acid bath of “editorial_wr”‘s post are a couple of reasonable questions, and for those, some answers follow.
    First, some general principles. Comments are welcome here and discussion is prized. Posters, however, must at a minimum leave an email address as a means of identification and reply, and ideally, they would leave their names. Malicious commentary is not welcome.
    The remarks of people unwilling to comply with these very basic guidelines will be removed.
    Now the answers. I’ve cut back on my output this year in large part because I am pursuing some special projects. There are three of them, all multi-part series, two of them with other reporters, hence dual bylines. And for those who are interested, you’ll just have to watch the paper, and this space.
    I created this website initially hoping to help sell my book. It’s become a hobby, of sorts, helping me stay in touch with friends and family, show my own work and gather stuff that I find interesting, especially in the Snippets section, which is what I update most frequently. This is for my own benefit as much as anything else.
    I welcome suggestions from visitors of material deserving of posting, but haven’t received many.
    My China-based NYT colleagues do fantastic work, each and every one of them. I’m proud to be part of the same operation. Not having their work on my site is anything but a comment on their journalism. Every one of their articles is seen by over a million people. I get about 1200 visits a day.
    There will be some shared byline stuff very soon.

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