Will the real China please stand up

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Brian Hennessy. An Australian in China. September, 2010

On September 23, 2010, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao addressed the United Nations General Assembly. Premier Wen said that China was a peace-loving nation and a responsible member of the international community. He pledged that China would firmly take the road of peaceful development. He also advised the international community to adhere to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, boost confidence, strengthen cooperation, and work towards the goal of common security and lasting peace (Foreign Affairs Ministry PR China, September 24, 2010).


Will the real China please stand up


Humble China

Premier Wen’s theme was that China is still a developing nation, and as such is facing many internal difficulties. He highlighted this point with data from the first half of this year showing that although China’s GDP ranks it as the world’s third largest economy, per capita GDP is only one tenth of those of advanced countries (he ignored date showing that it is now the second largest economy in the world).

For example, according to UN measures, 120 million people in China live below the poverty line. Hundreds of millions more remain desperately poor. Basic services such as health and education remain in need of reform, and the gap between rich and poor is wide and widening. These are basic facts of life for the majority of Chinese people who live in the hinterland of the Middle Kingdom – far away from the rich coastal cities of Tianjin, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and so on.

He continued:  future growth may be limited by energy, resources, and environmental problems. And although China is a leading producer of many important products, their quality is still low. He noted that although the lives of Chinese have markedly improved, the country has yet to complete a social security system. He also mentioned the need to improve democracy and legal systems and acknowledged the existence of inequality, corruption and social ills in China.

The state controlled English language Beijing Review (September 25, 2010) lauded Premier Wen’s humility in reminding the West that China is still a developing country.

Neighbourhood bully

This humble developing nation posture outlined to the UN General Assembly is however, at odds with China’s behaviour towards its neighbours.

For example: China’s handling of the fishing boat incident in the Diaoyu Islands while the Premier was addressing the UN (until now a minor territorial issue between China and Japan). China ratcheted up the propaganda in the local media using language that could best be described as undiplomatic – language intended to inflame the more aggressively nationalistic members of the population. Meanwhile, the state run English language CCTV9 (International) played its part by spreading this message around the globe.

Then China arrested four Japanese photographers on suspicion of spying. This was followed by a threat to ban exports of rare-earth to Japan which needs this product for its technology industry. Japan has given in to these threats, and has released the fishing-boat captain who it had intended to charge with a maritime offence. Now China is demanding an apology from Japan.

Another example: China’s attitude to its neighbours (e.g., The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam) over sovereignty of the South China Sea has been one of aggressive assertion of its own claim rather than of negotiation with all parties. In fact, at an ASEAN meeting this year, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi furiously told the ASEANs that they were small nations while China was a big nation, and that they should do as they were told (G. Sheridan. The Australian, September 30, 2010). China rejects multilateral negotiations outright, preferring bi-lateral negotiations with weaker individual states.


North Korea (DPRK): Although an unstable nuclear armed DPRK is a concern for China, it remains a convenient buffer-state between a USA backed South Korea and totalitarian China. The last thing China wants is a successful democracy on its doorstep. Hence its refusal to support the independent report into the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel which identified the DPRK as the most likely attacker. Hence also its diplomatic foot-dragging during the six-party talks (now suspended) aimed at disarming the DPRK and removing a major threat to the peace and security of the region. Without china’s leadership however, a successful outcome is unlikely.

Iran: China needs Iran’s oil. Thus it is not about to do anything which might put supply at risk. This is the reason for China’s watering down of UN sanctions against Iran.

Afghanistan: Afghanistan has a narrow border with China. Although the Taliban and the AlQaida terrorists provide a long-term threat to China via their influence over a restive moslem population in neighbouring Xinjiang Province, at the moment China’s state-controlled companies are happy to benefit from the leadership and security provided by the USA in this war-torn country.

Climate change in Copenhagen:  Despite rhetoric about the need for the world to take pollution and its relationship to climate change seriously, China (and India also) sought an outcome which suited their national interests. In the process they wrecked this international event. The claim that they were representing the interests of all developing nations was a smokescreen.

Realpolitic rules. Until now, China has refused to adopt a leadership role commensurate with its rising power status in both the region and the world.


On the one hand China plays the humble developing nation asking for understanding from the rest of the world for her myriad problems. On the other hand however, China acts selfishly and aggressively in pursuit of her core interests, without regard for the interests of other (smaller) developing nations within her orbit. Finally, in geopolitical terms China refuses to provide leadership commensurate with her status as a rising power. Power which could be used to make the region and the world a safer and healthier place to live.

So what is going on here?

David Sanger of The New York Times (September 25, 2010) offers a possible explanation when  he quotes a senior US administration official who often deals with the Chinese leadership: “As they begin to manage their many constituencies, their politics is beginning to look more like ours.”

Spare us the hypocrisy, China. We know the game. 


China can’t have it both ways. For some time, the rest of the world has been doing its best to understand China in the hope that as she becomes part of the global world she will behave in a way that is commensurate with her claim to being the oldest civilisation in the world. Sadly, we are not seeing much progress in this direction. For example; China’s crude warning to the Nobel Committee that relations between China and Norway would be damaged if it were to award its Peace Prize to the dissident Liu Xiaobo. Right now, China is her own worst enemy. 

The rest of the world should not lose patience, though. There are wise heads as well as hot heads in the politburo (China’s cabinet) who recognise the damage that is being done to China’s international reputation by her own nationalistic bombast – a harking back to the politics of the bad old days – and who have a much more sophisticated view of a global world and China’s place in it. For China’s sake as well as the sake of the rest of the world, let us hope that when the next generation of leaders is chosen, the politburo will include more of these savvy professionals.

In the meantime the rest of the world is watching China closely. Was Premier Wen’s speech to the UN general assembly (Sept 23, 2010) merely a continuation of the same old lip service to international standards of behaviour – i.e., more fertiliser for a captive audience back home rather than a genuine commitment to international ideals? 

Time and China’s behaviour will tell.





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