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Newly powerful China defies Western nations with remarks, policies

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010; A01

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.

"The Chinese people are no longer embarrassed about being Chinese," said Wang Xiaodong, a leading nationalist writer who has co-authored a series of popular books with titles such as "China Is Unhappy," which capitalized on the growing anti-Western trend. "The time when China worshipped the West is over. We have a rightful sense of superiority."

"People are now looking down on the West, from leadership circles to academia to everyday folk," said Kang Xiaoguang, a professor at Renmin University who studies NGOs and Confucius.

The turn away from the West is evidenced within China's leadership. China's previous president, Jiang Zemin, is widely thought to have been pro-American. He was fond of reciting the Gettysburg Address and crooning American songs. During a trip to the United States in 1997, he took the politically risky move of announcing that China welcomed continued U.S. engagement in Asia -- including the stationing of American troops. On the other hand, Hu, who took power in 2002, is the first Communist leader with no experience outside the current system.

Other factors are at play. It is campaign season in Beijing. In two years, the leadership of the Communist Party will undergo a huge transition, with as many as seven of the nine seats of the Standing Committee of the Politburo -- the center of power -- up for grabs. Nothing looks better in China than being tough on the West.

Secondly, despite its apparent successes, China's leadership continues to be alarmed by international developments -- such as the "color revolutions" inside the former Soviet Union -- and domestic ones as well, such as the anti-Chinese riots in Tibet in 2008 and the northwest province of Xinjiang last year.

A recent example is how the party reacted to the threat by the Internet search company Google, which said it would leave the country if China continued to censor the Internet. Concerned about an outpouring of support in China for the American company, the Ministry of Propaganda framed the issue not as an argument over freedom but as part of a U.S. strategy to contain and isolate China.

On Friday, Li Yizhong, China's minister of industry and information technology, issued China's toughest statement on the dispute yet. "If you want to do something that disobeys Chinese law and regulations, you are unfriendly, you are irresponsible, and you will have to pay the consequences," he warned.

China's policy changes have met with opposition. Not all of its efforts to nationalize private companies have succeeded. And China's plans to compel Western businesses to share their technology have prompted a backlash from a community that does not like to criticize China openly. On that front, Wen on Sunday seemed to give in a little.

"I must say I am still not in very close touch with foreign businessmen doing work in China," he acknowledged. "In the next three years I will create more opportunities . . . to listen to your views."

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