April Is the Cruelest Month … for China

Beijing's leaders are finding out the hard way that being a superpower isn't all it's cracked up to be.


For China’s cautious leadership, no news is good news — and this has been a bad month. Rising tensions with the Philippines in the South China Seas have reached a point that Beijing has deployed ships. The ceasefire in Syria seems to be fraying — again. Sudan and South Sudan are again engaged in armed conflict. And the United States, whose decline the Chinese leadership continues to trumpet, continues to pivot closer to Asia and is on the brink of dispatching an ambassador to Burma. The only good news seems to be North Korea’s failed rocket launch.

What is most threatening to Chinese leaders, however, is the scandal of deposed Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, arguably the biggest domestic political crisis in China since 1989. The year 2012 appears unlikely to play out at home or abroad the way the Chinese leadership had hoped — with a smooth political succession underscoring China’s rise to a global power. The state media directives of the past week suggest the Communist Party is scrambling to impose a return to normalcy; it’s likely that the government will be very risk-averse in the coming months as it tries to contain the fallout from Bo’s ouster.

But the rest of the world isn’t going to stop turning. The current generation of leadership will likely step down during this fall’s 18th Party Congress to make way for Xi Jinping and his colleagues. In the previous large-scale power transfer in China, in 2002, the country was at most a middle power. The next generation, stewards of what is now the world’s second-largest economy, will have to confront a treacherous foreign policy landscape where their country is enmeshed in arrangements and disputes in practically every country around the world.

Chinese workers, diplomats, and property are increasingly the targets of protest or violence across the globe, particularly in locations involving significant Chinese-backed infrastructure projects. Over the last 12 months, rebels kidnapped Chinese oil workers in Sudan, disgruntled locals protested against the Myitsone Dam in northern Burma, and environmental activists occupied the Chinese Embassy in Quito, Ecuador. It’s increasingly clear that not everyone believes the Chinese government’s line that its rise is "harmonious."

The violence against Chinese expatriates is reprehensible. But it nevertheless spotlights one of the worst dimensions of Beijing’s "going out" strategy: tone-deafness to local voices. Despite its current domestic preoccupation, the upcoming Chinese leadership needs to learn to solicit and accommodate dissenting views regarding investment and diplomatic activity in other countries. It would also benefit from a significant investment in consular services for its own citizens, who increasingly find themselves caught in such conflicts.

More diverse actors, too, are pressuring Beijing on human rights issues. Just in the past month, China has had to contend with pressure closer to home: In early April, Japanese Diet members adopted a highly unusual resolution on Tibet calling for the Chinese government to resume talks with the Dalai Lama. Beijing also found itself forced to respond to critical South Korean press reports that China had forcibly repatriated North Koreans; in response, Beijing allowed a handful of North Koreans sheltered in the South Korean consulates in China to depart for Seoul. These actions may have been inspired in part by China’s 2011 vote in support of international action in Libya, though its 2012 refusal to censure Syria has dimmed hopes that Beijing is more willing to lend its heft to international efforts to stop extraordinary brutality. Perhaps more governments have realized that they can publicly criticize China for its human rights violations. At a minimum, the developments in Japan and South Korea will make it harder for the new leadership to paint all human rights pressure as Western propaganda.

Even China’s "soft power" efforts are proving problematic. The incoming leadership would do well to re-examine these, and other governments should think more carefully about partnering in such efforts. This year’s London Book Fair — showcasing Chinese literature — is a classic example. The Chinese government chose all of the Chinese writers invited to participate, noticeably omitting more critical voices; the British Council, the fair’s host, has been harshly criticized for collaborating with China’s state censors. At least some people in Britain are now left with a visceral sense of what it’s like to be a critical literary voice in China today — precisely the opposite impression of what Beijing intended, and precisely what’s happening at book fairs and film festivals across the world.

Many of the voices in China who could suggest an alternate course have been muzzled. It remains difficult for the Chinese media to press its government to act more responsibly internationally. According to the domestic press, the Philippines is the aggressor in the South China Seas skirmishes; China remains a "firm advocate of peace" in Syria and has "made unremitting efforts" to "resolve the current crisis," while the London Book Fair "opens a new chapter in nation’s cultural exchange." There is precious little discussion of the occupation of the Quito Embassy or of the Japanese resolution on Tibet. Weibo and other online platforms provide an opportunity for some to debate these issues, suggesting healthy domestic interest in foreign policy. And even in state media, cracks are beginning to show: After an unprecedented evacuation of more than 35,000 Chinese people from Libya, critiques were published suggesting that the government had failed citizens overseas. But this remains a far cry from allowing — or soliciting — broad public input on policy.

Xi Jinping and his colleagues are well aware of the pressures that China’s global role brings, but it’s less clear whether they understand the growing alienation their policies and practices are creating around the world. If they are keen for more good news and less reputational damage, they would be wise to change approaches that are increasingly a lightning rod for criticism abroad. And other governments would be wise to keep up the pressure, rather than cater to the misplaced notion that China should be held to different standards than other global powers.

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