Mixed views in rising China

by Frank Ching

While voices in China continue to be raised against American naval exercises near the China coast and asserting Beijing’s increased influence in global affairs, other voices are now being heard questioning the wisdom of China’s increasing assertiveness.

Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan, in a commentary in the Liberation Army Daily, the official newspaper of the People’s Liberation Army, accused the United States of practicing “gunboat diplomacy” by sending “its gunboats to every corner of the world, tyrannizing the weak and extending its security boundaries to others’ doorsteps.”

Chinese military men continue to rail against the activities of the USS George Washington, which sailed from waters off the Korean Peninsula to Vietnam to take part in joint military exercises there.

An article in the People’s Daily online prominently reported, citing foreign news media, that Beijing was developing a “carrier-destroying missile,” thus giving additional credibility to those reports while indirectly threatening the U.S.

Ironically, while calling for a strong Chinese reaction to the American military exercises, the Liberation Army Daily published a commentary declaring, “Outsiders have no ground to make irresponsible remarks on Chinese military exercises.”

Those exercises, which have involved all arms of the Chinese military in the South China Sea, simply show “the capability of the Chinese military,” the article asserted. The massive publicity given to them, it said, was simply to ensure transparency.

In another sign of Chinese assertiveness, if not belligerence, Song Xiaojun, a Chinese military commentator with CCTV, declared that China was ready to take over as the “world’s policeman” if the U.S. should no longer be able to discharge this role.

Despite this outpouring of nationalistic sentiment, more moderate voices are also being heard arguing that China should continue to keep a low profile and not become arrogant.

For one thing, the official China Daily published an analytical piece warning that “the suggestion that global power is now shifting from the West to the East is at best a half-truth and therefore misleading.”

It pointed out that whereas China and India have made tremendous strides, they also have huge populations and the per capita GDP is still very low.

Other articles have argued that while China is now the world’s second largest economy, it is still a developing country, with 150 million people living below the poverty line. Thus, these articles say, China should not be asked to shoulder greater global responsibilities.

Ye Hailin, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, warned against arrogance in an article published online in the People’s Daily headlined “Narcissism poisons the people.”

“The Chinese people are no longer modest,” he lamented. “They talk about Seoul and Tokyo with contempt, and even boast Beijing and Shanghai, the two biggest Chinese cities, could soon match New York and Paris.”

The problem, as Ye saw it, was that some Chinese cannot stand criticism. Such people, he said, think that “the whole world is misunderstanding China.”

Ye and other scholars are now raising a question: Is the world misunderstanding China or is China itself to blame?

One of the other scholars, Yang Rui, a presenter on CCTV’s English channel, argued that “the outside world would doubt our system even more if we harped on about the unique situation in China in defense of our values, which are not universally applicable.”

Interestingly, even the military has joined in this debate. Lt. Gen. Liu Yafei, political commissar of the National Defense University, has predicted a political transformation from authoritarianism to democracy in 10 years, saying that unless China changes it would face a Soviet-style collapse.

In an article in the Hong Kong-based Phoenix Weekly, he said the secret of America’s success was attributable neither to Wall Street nor to Silicon Valley but to democracy and the rule of law. “Without democracy, there can be no sustainable rise,” he said. “The spread of democratic ideas is not constrained by national boundaries or by history.”

The emergence of these different voices in China underlines the complexity of the country today. Clearly, there are divisions not only within the government but within the people as well.

China would do well to reassess the situation and decide if it wants to continue on its current course of moving toward confrontation with the U.S. on multiple fronts while alienating countries whose support it badly wants in Asia and Europe.

Most of all, Beijing should consider what kind of country it wants to be a few decades hence when it will be a developed country by anyone’s definition.

Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.