Why is China lashing out?

Editorial, Normal

The National – Friday, December 10, 2010

IT must be galling for the Chinese government to keep seeing Nobel Prizes go to the wrong Chinese.
The first wrong Chinese was Gao Xingjian, a critical playwright, artist and novelist, who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000 while living in exile in Paris.
The latest is Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic and political writer, who was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace while serving a prison sentence for “subversion” of the communist regime.
Since the Dalai Lama is not a Chinese citizen, I will leave out his Nobel Peace Prize, though, to China’s rulers, it was perhaps the most irritating of all.
Yet, the Chinese government’s response to Liu’s Nobel prize has been extraordinary. Instead of a show of lofty disdain, or official silence, it made a colossal fuss, protesting fiercely about plots to undermine China and putting dozens of prominent Chinese intellectuals, including Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest.
As a result, the utterly powerless, hitherto quite obscure Liu, has become not only world famous but much better known inside China, too.
Combine this with China’s bullying of Japan, by blocking the export of rare earth metals vital for Japanese industry, over a few uninhabited islands between Taiwan and Okinawa, and its refusal to let the renminbi appreciate, and one must wonder why China is being so heavy-handed in its foreign relations.
These strong-arm tactics stand out even more against the deftness of Chinese diplomacy over the last few decades.
Japan, the old wartime enemy, has been outmanoeuvred repeatedly, and a soft touch made South Koreans and Southeast Asians feel relatively comfortable with China’s increasing power.
But, China’s recent thuggish behaviour is changing Asian opinions.
As the warm welcome given to Hillary Clinton on her recent swing through Asia – even in communist Vietnam – appears to show, Southeast Asians are more than happy to hang onto Pax Americana for a bit longer, out of fear of China.
Other Asian countries might even be drawn closer to Japan, the only alternative to the US as a counterbalance to the Middle Kingdom.
This cannot be what China wants.
So, why is China being so severe?
One possible explanation is that China is a little drunk on its new great power status.
For the first time in almost 200 years, China can really throw its weight around, and it will do what it wants, regardless of what other countries may think.
A few decades ago, it was Japan that thought it was going to be number one, and its businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats were not shy about letting the rest of the world know.
Call China’s recent actions revenge for a century of humiliation by stronger powers. But, this may not be the best explanation for China’s behaviour.
In fact, the reason may be just the opposite  a sense among China’s rulers of weakness at home.
At least since 1989, the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party’s monopoly on power has been fragile. Communist ideology is a spent force.
Using the People’s Liberation Army to murder civilian protesters, not only in Beijing, but all over China in June 1989, further undermined the one-party system’s legitimacy.
The way to regain the support of the burgeoning Chinese middle class was to promise a quick leap to greater prosperity through high-speed economic growth. – Project Syndicate


*Ian Buruma is professor of democracy and human rights at Bard College. His latest book is Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.