Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

China arrogant? Maybe, but that’s not the point [Straits Times]

This is definitely a piece worth reading. William Chong of the Straits Times lifts the veil on the most fundamental of Chinese thought, seeded since China was first unified under the Qin banner, more than two thousand years ago. The idea of China embarking on a charm offensive has been hugely debated, and this piece sheds some light on the latest ideas about Chinese nationalism.

“It’s the traditional way of thinking, given that the Chinese consider themselves to be ‘sons of heaven’. If you are in the periphery, you are essentially a rebellious barbarian who has to be neutralised or conquered…”

– – –

China arrogant? Maybe, but that’s not the point
William Choong
The Straits Times, 16 March 2010
Source – Asia News Network, Date of Access 17 March 2010

There was a time when China could do no wrong. Beijing’s charm offensive wooed the world, especially Asian and African countries.

In recent years, China has also charmed Asean with its offers of economic cooperation and aid. It was an American – Harvard don Joseph Nye – who coined the term ‘soft power’, but the Chinese have taken the concept to a whole new level.

More recently, however, China has taken a different path, with its public persona seeming to become more shrill, even arrogant.

At the climate change talks in Copenhagen late last year, Beijing sent junior officials to snub other heads of government (according to one report, one even wagged an accusatory finger at United States President Barack Obama).

In January, it sabotaged talks in New York over Iran’s nuclear programme. And closer to home, Beijing has had tussles with India, Burma and Viet Nam over long-running territorial disputes.

“It’s the traditional way of thinking, given that the Chinese consider themselves to be ‘sons of heaven’. If you are in the periphery, you are essentially a rebellious barbarian who has to be neutralised or conquered,” said political science professor Simon Chang of the National Taiwan University.

Arguably, there is some ground for China to be smug. As many Western economies tanked during the recent global financial crisis, China’s economy continued to steam ahead, underscoring the effectiveness of its unique economic model.

And arguably, being assertive – standing up for one’s principles and values – is sometimes not too different from being arrogant.

Allen Whiting, a China scholar and former US State Department official, argues that China has traditionally exhibited three types of nationalism: Affirmative nationalism fostering patriotism, which targets attitude; aggressive nationalism arousing anger, which mobilises behaviour; and, somewhere in the middle, assertive nationalism.

Based on a survey of Chinese behaviour in the 1990s, Whiting wrote that China will continue to exhibit assertive nationalism, given its emphasis on its “century of shame and humiliation” and a general wariness of foreign influences.

Granted, there is a fine line between being assertive and arrogant. But there is a problem here, though: when China displays arrogance, the arrogance, more often than not, tends to stem from weakness, not strength. Or as Professor David Shambaugh, a China scholar at George Washington University, puts it, China’s “defensive nationalism” is “assertive in form, but reactive in essence”.

“Defensive nationalism reflects basic insecurities about China’s society and place in the world. Psychologists quickly recognise such bravado as overcompensation for an insecure ego, and note that it can cause rash behaviour.”

There is some evidence of this. The Chinese, like other Asians, are sensitive about ‘face’. At times, this sensitivity is based on their own perceived weaknesses; and overcompensation for such perceived weaknesses can seem arrogant.

Making a presentation at a seminar on China-East Asia relations recently, an American professor showed a picture of Chinese President Hu Jintao and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou shaking hands. Hu, who in reality is a few centimetres shorter than Ma, was portrayed as being much bigger and taller than his Taiwanese counterpart.

“You can see how big Mr Hu is in the picture. I told the Chinese graduate student who helped me prepare these slides to change it, but he didn’t,” the professor said, to laughter.

Whether China is assertive or arrogant is besides the point. The more important issue is whether it pulls its weight on the global stage – and becomes what Washington calls a “responsible stakeholder”.

China’s behaviour at Copenhagen and in the negotiations to halt Iran’s nuclear programme show that it is not quite ready to take on such a role. A common refrain from Chinese officials – even amid the arrogant posturing – is that China is still relatively underdeveloped.

Writes Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria: “Beijing’s new-found arrogance is not joined with a broader vision. The country does not appear ready to play a global role. In international summits Beijing has been largely focused on pursuing its interests in a fairly narrow sense.”

During the April G-20 summit last year, Zakaria noted, China participated actively only to keep Hong Kong off the list of offshore tax havens being investigated.

Arrogance, when matched with strength, is not always bad. After US-led forces kicked out Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the early 1990s, US president George H.W. Bush declared triumphantly that the US had forged a “new world order”.

The statement could have been perceived to be arrogant (or even wrong), but the fact was that America’s preeminent power at the end of the Cold War made things happen.

A problem arises when arrogance is accompanied by weakness or perceived weakness, which is evidently the case with China now. Such ‘weak arrogance’ might create headlines, but do little good for global governance.

Strong arrogance is not necessarily bad; but weak arrogance is not necessarily good.

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Filed under: Asia News Network, Charm Offensive, International Relations, Nationalism, Politics, Soft Power, Straits Times, Tao Guang Yang Hui (韬光养晦)

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