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Beijing’s schizophrenic self-image

News that China has overtaken Japan to become the world’s second largest economy certainly raised eyebrows in Washington and around the world. But in Beijing? Xinhua, the state-owned wire service, did not gloat but instead played the aw-shucks card today with an article entitled "China Still Behind Japan Economically," reminding international readers just how poor ...

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News that China has overtaken Japan to become the world's second largest economy certainly raised eyebrows in Washington and around the world. But in Beijing?

Xinhua, the state-owned wire service, did not gloat but instead played the aw-shucks card today with an article entitled "China Still Behind Japan Economically," reminding international readers just how poor much of China remains ("China only ranked 99th worldwide in terms of per capita GDP"). This is true, and worth pointing out: Most of China does not shop at Shanghai's new shopping malls.

Yet, the editorial decision to run such an article now is also evidence of what one might call the Two Chinas phenomenon. On the one hand, Beijing loves luxuriating in its growing global clout: wagging fingers at Western economists when the United States turned out to be more mired in the Great Recession than the Middle Kingdom; becoming increasingly assertive with regards to claims made in the South China Sea; etc. On the other hand, for purposes of receiving support from international organizations like the Global Fund, or pledging commitments on international treaties like Copenhagen, Beijing happily reminds us that China really is a poor country after all -- so please keep that assistance flowing, and don't expect too much from us.

News that China has overtaken Japan to become the world’s second largest economy certainly raised eyebrows in Washington and around the world. But in Beijing?

Xinhua, the state-owned wire service, did not gloat but instead played the aw-shucks card today with an article entitled "China Still Behind Japan Economically," reminding international readers just how poor much of China remains ("China only ranked 99th worldwide in terms of per capita GDP"). This is true, and worth pointing out: Most of China does not shop at Shanghai’s new shopping malls.

Yet, the editorial decision to run such an article now is also evidence of what one might call the Two Chinas phenomenon. On the one hand, Beijing loves luxuriating in its growing global clout: wagging fingers at Western economists when the United States turned out to be more mired in the Great Recession than the Middle Kingdom; becoming increasingly assertive with regards to claims made in the South China Sea; etc. On the other hand, for purposes of receiving support from international organizations like the Global Fund, or pledging commitments on international treaties like Copenhagen, Beijing happily reminds us that China really is a poor country after all — so please keep that assistance flowing, and don’t expect too much from us.

There is truth in both these views of China — the emerging superpower and the weakling, the Dragon and the Piglet. But the alternation can be confusing. Of course, there is method in Beijing’s madness. When it’s in China’s interest to act humble, it will. Where it feels it has little left to gain from the international status quo, it won’t. 

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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