Tom Plate – UCLA Media Center

>By Tom Plate
>LOS ANGELES — These days, Chinese officials on the mainland seem to be developing a keen sense of humor. Just the other day, in response to a series of violent protests by farmers in rural China, a mainland official sought to explain the public embarrassments by tying them to China’s growing movement toward democracy!
What a kidder this official must be. Either he was joking, or the
joke was on him. Growing unrest in China is not a symptom of democracy but a symptom of the relative lack thereof. Beijing’s only alternative to allowing the protests to occur would have been to crack down, a foolish decision that would have set China’s international image back ten years.
So the official line about a harvest of democracy in the countryside
was at least good for a laugh, however unintentional.
But ­ whatever — the more laughs, the merrier. A truly healthy sense
of humor is going to become increasingly vital for Beijing as China’s
honeymoon period with the United States may be coming to an end.
The Chinese will probably be baffled by it. I got this sense from a
recent chat with a well-connected official from the mainland. He said
he was puzzled by the initial negative reaction to the Chinese bid to buy up Unocal (the California-based oil company), by all the fuss over Chinese imports and by all the alarmist attention in Washington to the (undervalued) Chinese currency.
After all, from the Chinese perspective, they have tried to do almost
everything right in relations with the United States. They have been
participating like responsible adults in the relevant international
organizations, have listened respectfully to United States’ arguments
about allowing their currency to become more valuable against other
currencies, and did their part on the Korean Peninsula nuclear crisis
by creating a serious venue in Beijing for negotiations.
But suddenly they feel an ominous undertow: The dynamics of the
U.S.-China relationship appear to be changing. My own explanation is
that America is beginning to experience what might be termed “China
Let me explain. What do most Americans know about China? Most have
never visited it, and our public schools don’t teach students much about it. So, what do they really know? They know China has a lot of people, used to be led by Mao Zedong (he is dead, right?), is still a Communist country (sort of), hasn’t invaded anyone lately, doesn’t much like dissidents or dissenting opinion, and seems to be improving its economy.
And that’s about it.
A perfect illustration of the general state of American lack of
awareness about China was reflected in the recent special issue of TIME Magazine devoted mainly to that country. Every informed business leader, academic expert, and leaders of various think-tanks I have run into told me they had a hard time basically finding anything in the special issue that they didn’t already know.
But the vast majority of Americans know very little about China
because they haven’t been there and the U.S. news media hasn’t told them much. Indeed, the TIME editorial effort itself, however meritorious, is more like a national media catch-up effort than nuanced and breakthrough reporting.
Only lately have the American people awoken to the fact that China is
no longer asleep. The best example is the current national wrestling
match over the attempt of China’s third-largest oil company to buy up
To the average American citizen, this is absolutely mind-blowing!
Where did the China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) find the kind of cash to offer more for Unocal than Chevron, the second largest U.S.-based integrated energy company after Exxon Mobil?
The whole thing has become a huge national eye-opener. The average
citizen had no idea something like this could happen. That’s why
America, in my view, is entering ‘China Shock,” a period of national
examination of China that could prove bumpy to Sino-U.S. relations. There are legitimate questions that can be raised about the CNOOC deal, sure, just as there are about any large business deal across national borders in this age of globalization. But what’s now called for is serious thought and analysis, not politically inspired panic and red-baiting.
What can China do to ride out the coming China Shock? For starters,
it needs to work harder to explain itself properly to the American
public. Not every U.S. politician is a model of intellectual honesty and cosmopolitanism; if China doesn’t want to become a political football, it needs to be more careful about what it says in public, more open about its failures and more forthcoming about its intentions.
It also has to be smarter about the fights it picks. From an Asian
perspective, beating up on Japan for its wartime record, prime
ministerial war-shrine visits and other issues of contention between
the two may seem like fair game. But Beijing needs to remember that Tokyo is Washington’s number-one ally in Asia. Pick on Tokyo too much, and you’re picking on Washington too. If that’s the new grand strategy of President Hu Jintao, it’s a joke ­ and a very bad one.
UCLA Professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on
International Policy, is a veteran U.S. journalist who has held senior positions at TIME, CBS, The Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He
established the Asia Pacific Media Network in 1998 and is now founder and director of UCLA’s Media Center. © Tom Plate, 2005. Distributed by the UCLA Media Center. July 5, 2005.

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