KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia
Visiting Malaysia this week, I was expecting a volley of complaints. The country was one stop on President Obama’s planned trip to Asia this month that was canceled because of Washington’s manufactured budget crisis. “We were disappointed, but we understood the situation,” Prime Minister Najib Razak told me.
Others were less diplomatic, pointing to the cancellation as evidence of America’s dysfunctional political system and general decline. But many in Malaysia — and across Southeast Asia — told me that they were puzzling mostly about what’s happening not in Washington but rather in Beijing.
This is partly the product of power. As China has grown in importance, its neighbors have become increasingly attentive to the Middle Kingdom. In the past, the only politics they followed outside their country was in Washington. Today they feel they must also understand Beijing.
And there’s much to understand. China is in the midst of great political change. Last month, the country watched on national television as President Xi Jinping sat in on a meeting in Heibei at which senior Communist Party officials publicly engaged in “criticism and self-criticism.” It is part of the party’s “mass-line” campaign, designed to address concerns that the party is out of touch, elitist and corrupt.
The campaign also includes a strong anti-corruption drive, most visibly involving the humiliation of Bo Xilai, the former party boss of Chongqing. Many in China have worried that anti-corruption is a mechanism to eliminate political opponents. “There is so much corruption in China that whom you choose to prosecute is really a political decision,” a Beijing businessman said to me, asking to remain anonymous.
More surprisingly to many, the new leadership has begun a sweeping crackdown on dissent. Chinese media and human rights groups say that hundreds of journalists, bloggers and intellectuals have been detained since August, charged with the crime of “spreading rumors.” Recently this group has included prominent businessmen, including Wang Gongquan, one of China’s best-known billionaires, who has advocated political reform and was formally arrested on Sunday.
Last month, Chinese television aired a tape of Charles Xue, a businessmen and blogger, who confessed to his crimes and welcomed China’s new restrictions on Internet freedom. This month, Peking University fired Chinese economist Xia Yeliang, who had helped draft “Charter 08,” a pro-democracy petition that helped to win its principal author, Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize.
China scholars have noted in recent years that the Communist Party is deeply concerned about its legitimacy and grass-roots appeal. That led many to believe it would address these issues by opening up its political system, with political reforms that would accompany economic reforms. Instead, it appears that the party is choosing older, Mao-era methods of crackdowns, public confessions and purification campaigns.
Over the past 30 years, the Chinese Communist Party has extraordinary accomplishments to its credit. In the past decade alone, the average person’s income has close to quintupled, and the country now has the world’s second-largest economy. But perhaps because of this success, many of the challenges China faces are ones in which economics cannot be separated from politics. Addressing concerns about pollution, for example, means slowing industrial growth. Moving toward a more sustainable development model means taking money from state-owned — and politically connected — companies.
The people I talked to in Southeast Asia were not approaching these issues from the perspective of human rights activists. They were really just trying to understand what was going on in China. Above all, they wondered what the internal changes mean for Beijing’s foreign policy. “China is being very friendly with us these days, more so than it was a few years ago, but it still pushes its own interests very strongly,” one Asian leader told me. Diplomats have worried that China has been circulating new maps of the region in which a previously dotted line demarcating Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea now appears as a solid line. Last month, China’s foreign minister denied any such change in its claims when publicly asked about it at a Brookings Institution forum by former defense secretary William Cohen. Yet the concerns highlight the nervousness felt in the region.
The United States washes its dirty linen vigorously and in public. When Washington messes up, it does so in prime time, with politicians, journalists and commentators describing every gory detail with delight. China has an opaque political system, which makes it far more mysterious. But China, too, has its share of crises, controversies and change. And because of the country’s newfound clout, the world is watching and wondering what to make of the black box that is Beijing.