Where is the political savvy hiding in China?

by Tom Plate

China allegedly has at least 1.3 billion people residing within its current ample borders. (Has anyone ever counted?!)

China also has very many problems, as befits such a gigantic country trying to maintain the extraordinary economic success against the downside of a very troubled recent past.

Therefore, it could be regarded as axiomatic that China does not need any more problems, particularly self-created ones. And this is why I — who like many Americans sincerely wish China good fortune — am worried: Some of the new problems seem largely self-created.

Here are a few problems that China doesn’t need and which it could ease by unilateral action:

The first is its territorial banging problems. These top my list. It’s having too many quarrels with its neighbors lately.

Here’s an absurd but telling conspiracy theory: That someone very high up in the Chinese governing or party elite is secretly working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Pentagon.

How else to explain the pointless and ugly frictions with the Philippines, Vietnam … with Malaysia, which is a relatively placid country that generally doesn’t rankle anyone (excepting of course the special case of neighboring Singapore)?

Something funny is going on. Until relatively recently, all we heard out of the Beijing international-relations publicity machine was “peaceful rising.” The Chinese were saying, in effect, we are not a 21st-century version of the former Soviet Union, wishing to subjugate countries around it. We will continue our surge up the global economic ladder peacefully. We like everyone — trust us.

That was indeed calming to hear. And I had lots of friends who applauded appreciatively, as I did. But then came all the elbowing and macho-upsizing over territorial rights in the South China Sea.

Defined, vaguely, the SCS is a sort of semi-imaginary chunk of the Pacific Ocean that might be said to take in everything oceanic from the seas of Singapore and Malaysia way to the west of Beijing all the way eastward to the seas around Taiwan, which is always a source of intense interest to alert nationalistic mainlanders.

It is believed that under many SCS waters lay buried colossal unexplored caves of oil and gas deposits just waiting to be uplifted and transported for useful refinement.

Beijing has been acting — and sometimes appearing to be actually saying — that this vast area is: Mine, all mine!

Be careful, Beijing: China, a great historic nation getting its act together, doesn’t need to seem like some adolescent bullying Asian leviathan. It needs to be subtler in its external relations. Only the Pentagon and CIA can gain when more and more scared Asia neighbors are ready to jump into Uncle Sam’s tender embrace.

Here’s another problem China really doesn’t need: public disputes with the Catholic Church.

OK, we get it: China’s party and government do not believe in God, and they suspect that anyone who sincerely holds such a belief is either a mental case or a closet subversive.

We also understand that the Catholic Church itself, scarred with a plethora of child molestation cases globally (and a recent Vatican scandal), is itself no pure paragon of virtue.

But on the off-chance that there is a God, and that the church does have some kind of special relationship with the Almighty (as many people devoutly believe), Beijing should end its unseemly quarrel over who rightly should appoint Chinese bishops on the mainland and work quietly with the Vatican to resolve disputes over the candidates. (China will find that the Vatican could really use some quiet these days.)

A third problem that’s unnecessary: Hong Kong. Just 15 years ago, that special place of high finance and 24/7 retail shopping (and a special ear glued to mainland political maneuverings) seemed to have made the transition from British colony to Special Administration Region of the People’s Republic of China with astonishing grace.

Cynical Western reporters who had been predicting chaos and crackdown after July 1, 1997, were caught off balance. But that was then and this is now: Increasingly Hong Kong looks to have become a political basket case.

Certainly, growing integrity concerns over the new chief executive haven’t helped. Leung Chun-ying — Beijing’s man, in effect — looks to have had some suspicious “home improvement” done that leaves a sour taste in the mouth of the average man and woman.

Maybe it would be best if the millionaire- politician stepped down. But the VIP visit earlier this month of China President Hu Jintao left an even worse aftertaste. Hu (who is leaving the China throne shortly for a successor) arrived like Field Marshal Montgomery — with more PRC troops and even rocket launchers in attendance than in a May Day parade.

You have to wonder: Has Beijing simply lost it? For years it seemed to have been steadily fine-tuning its international-relations frequencies to a level close to pitch-perfect. Lately so much seems worrisomely off key.

What is happening inside China?

American journalist Tom Plate, author of the “Giants of Asia” book series, is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University. Archives of past columns appear in ASIAMEDA (lmu.edu/asiamedia)