China shows signs of recognizing its limits

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — After behaving in an assertive, sometimes arrogant, fashion through most of 2010, when it at various times took on the United States, Europe and Japan, both Beijing and the people of China appear to recognize the need for greater caution and restraint in the coming year. For one thing, President Hu Jintao is scheduled to visit the U.S. in a few weeks, so China will not want to pick a fight with Washington.

China genuinely realizes that despite its rapid growth in the last three decades, it is still far weaker than the U.S., economically as well as militarily.

A Chinese official, Le Yucheng, director general of the Policy Planning Department of the Foreign Ministry, acknowledged that “China is far behind many developed countries, let alone the United States.”

“China might rank second by GDP, but it still ranks behind 100th place in terms of per capita GDP, and there is a population of 150 million living in poverty based on U.N. standards,” he was quoted as saying in an interview. “In addition, China does not have aircraft carriers. So we must have a clear understanding of our position.”

While China is developing fast, Le said, growth is unbalanced. Moreover, China must “coordinate its domestic and international situations” as well as “handle the relationships between safeguarding rights and keeping stability.”

A more restrained attitude on the part of the general populace was also reflected in a yearend survey conducted by the Global Poll Center, run by the Global Times newspaper. According to the survey results, released Dec. 31, fewer Chinese now characterize their country as a superpower, compared with the previous four annual polls.

Of 1,488 individuals who responded to random telephone interviews in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Chongqing, 12.4 percent rated China as a superpower, the lowest figure since 2006.

China’s determination to become a world power is clear. While Le warned that the country has no aircraft carriers, Beijing has already announced its intention to rectify this shortcoming. And China has had success developing an anti-ship missile, which has been dubbed the “aircraft carrier killer,” aimed at redressing the imbalance. The country’s growing international role is reflected in the annual addresses delivered by President Hu at the end of each year.

Unlike the U.S. president, whose State of the Union address is directed at Americans only, the Chinese leader has from the beginning included non-Chinese in his annual addresses. In his first speech in 2003, he addressed “Chinese people of all ethnic groups, including those in Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan and overseas Chinese” as well as “friends from all other countries.”

In 2005, his message was directed not just at China’s friends overseas but at “people all over the world.”

By 2009, President Hu had widened the scope of his address by calling upon other countries and peoples to join China in creating “a beautiful future of world peace and development.” “China,” he said, “would work with people of all countries to jointly promote the construction of a harmonious world of lasting peace and common prosperity.”

Last week, in delivering the 2010 address, Hu promised to help to improve the welfare of people of all countries. “I believe, as long as the people from all countries make efforts hand in hand, the world will have a better future and the welfare of the people from all countries will be improved,” he said.

Over the past eight years, President Hu has gradually shifted from speaking only as the leader of his country to speaking as a world leader calling on other countries and peoples to respond to China’s entreaties to build a harmonious world of peace and prosperity. The year 2010 was especially marked by China’s challenge of the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo, who had called for democracy and human rights in China.

The imprisonment of Liu was part of China’s policy of putting political stability ahead of everything else, including the basic rights of its citizens, which are ostensibly guaranteed by the constitution. The eyes of the world will be on China in 2011 to see whether it will continue its hardline policies both toward the outside world and toward its own people.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator (Frank.ching@gmail.com).