Newly powerful China defies Western nations with remarks, policies

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010

BEIJING -- China's government has embraced an increasingly anti-Western tone in recent months and is adopting policies across a wide spectrum that reflect a heightened fear of foreign influence.

The shift has accelerated as China has emerged stronger from the global financial meltdown, with a world-beating economic expansion rate and a growing nationalist movement. China has long felt bullied by the West, and its stronger stance is challenging the long-held assumption shared among Western and Chinese businessmen, academics and government officials that a more powerful and prosperous China would be more positively inclined toward Western values and systems.

China's shift is occurring throughout society, and is reflected in government policy and in a new attitude toward the West. Over the past year, the government of President Hu Jintao has rolled back market-oriented reforms by encouraging China's state-owned enterprises to forcibly buy private firms. In the past weeks, China announced plans to force Western companies to turn over their most sensitive technology and patents to Chinese competitors in exchange for access to the country's markets.

Internally, it has carried out more arrests and indictments for endangering state security over the past two years than in the five-year period from 2003 to 2007, according to a report released Friday by the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based human rights organization.

China has also reined in the news media and attempted to control the Internet more vigorously than in the past. This month, it announced regulations designed to make it harder for China's fledgling community of nongovernmental organizations to get financial support from overseas. In foreign affairs, after years of playing down differences, it has reverted to a tone not heard in more than a decade, condemning recent U.S. decisions to sell weapons to Taiwan and to have President Obama meet the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama.

"This is a fundamental shift, and I've been here a long time," said James L. McGregor, a senior counselor with the public affairs firm Apco China. "It's a change in national attitude."

For their part, senior Chinese leaders bristle at the notion that China is turning away from reforms or is reluctant to cooperate with Western nations. In a news conference on Sunday, Premier Wen Jiabao said he was aware of "theories about China's arrogance, toughness and triumphalism," but rejected them. Asked about widespread criticism of China's hard-line position at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, for example, Wen replied: "It still baffles me why some people continue to try to make an issue about China."

Nonetheless, China's legislature, whose annual session ended this weekend, also showed the trend toward toughness. With a reported 700,000 security personnel posted throughout the city for the 10-day session, Beijing was in a virtual lockdown. Inside the Great Hall of the People, the proposals -- albeit spurious -- put forward by the delegates to the National People's Congress included calls for all Internet cafes to be taken over by the government and a declaration that all cellphones should be equipped with surveillance cameras.

The shift does not bode well for U.S.-China relations. The Obama administration entered office with an ambitious China agenda comprising plans to cooperate on climate change, curbing the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, and stabilizing the global financial system. In China, those plans are generally viewed by the party leadership as a trap to overextend and weaken the country, according to a Chinese official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he would lose his job if his name were published.

In his news conference, Wen also seemed disinclined to bend to another American demand -- that China allow its currency, the yuan, to appreciate against the dollar, which (theoretically) would boost U.S. exports. Wen countered that he didn't think the yuan is undervalued and that the U.S. method of seeking to enlarge exports through tweaking currency exchange rates is "protectionist."

The change comes during what a leading Chinese economist, Hu Angang, in an interview called "the longest golden era in China since the opium wars" of the 1840s, when British warships forced China to open to trade. From its position as an impoverished, developing country, it has jumped into the ranks of the powerful.

But the closer China gets to a variety of firsts -- No. 1 exporting nation and even No. 1 economy in the world -- the more its government seems to exhibit a nagging insecurity and opposition to the West.

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