China needs admirers to match its ambitions

Geoff Dyer – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
January 3 2010
If 2009 was China’s year and the ‘noughties’ were a decade when its rise seemed on permanent fast-forward, the last two weeks have been a setback for Beijing’s global ambitions. The Copenhagen conference, a dissident sent to prison and an execution have raised again the question of whether China’s political system is compatible with the international respect it craves.
For most of the last decade, China conducted a quiet effort to revamp its global image. While the US was fighting two unpopular wars, China expanded foreign aid, settled sensitive border conflicts in Asia and presented itself as unthreatening.
Now Beijing wants to go to the next level.
Over the summer, President Hu Jintao gave a speech in which he outlined “four strengths” China needed to increase its power. As well as economic competitiveness and political influence, they included image projection and moral appeal. The message was clear: if China is to achieve great power status, it needs the soft power that comes not from money or might, but from being admired.
China’s rebound last year from the financial crisis has rightly won great praise and has led more people to sympathise with China’s model of market economy and political authoritarianism.
But Liu Xiaobo’s 11-year jail sentence, announced on Christmas Day, is a stark reminder of what authoritarian regimes actually do. His crimes were to help organise a pro-democracy petition and to write six articles which criticised the Communist party.
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