Insecurities beneath China's prosperous exterior
The extraordinary power and wealth that China has accumulated in just 30 years are evident in its pulsating streets, giant shopping malls and ostentatious military maneuvers. But less-visible insecurities linger from its recent chaotic past and drive this country's politics. China's strengths, and its weaknesses, should be measured with care.
Facing a major generational change in their own ranks in two years, China's leaders have engaged in a year of living assertively: They have bludgeoned Japan into releasing a bellicose Chinese fishing boat captain from seemingly justified arrest, repeatedly berated the United States over economic and diplomatic differences, and threatened retaliation against European governments that dare to send representatives to the Dec. 10 ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese citizen.
When China overtook Japan recently to become the world's second-leading economic power, officials seemed to take delight in projecting an even greater eclipse to come for its old Asian rival. "China and Japan have never been strong at the same time in history," Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying said with evident satisfaction at an international discussion group I attended.
But she also fretted that "double anxiety" still exists between China, which fears "being imposed on by the developed world," while industrialized countries worry that power is rapidly shifting to China. "What is happening is a diffusion of power, not a shift," she asserted.
China today operates on two tracks: Even while flexing their new muscle, Chinese officials have been careful to maintain discreet channels to other governments and international organizations in ways they have not bothered to use in the past. Their unusual damage-control effort has been described to me by several senior Chinese officials in similar words: "We listen to what others have to say. But we now insist on being listened to as well."
It would be surprising if President Hu Jintao and his associates did not choose to throw their weight around to show their citizens how important they all have become. But the occasional shrillness and spitefulness of their public outbursts - the Nobel Prize denunciations are a prime example - betray a fragility that is usually missed in America's appreciation of this country's supposedly inexorable rise.
"The leaders have to make sure the transition to power by their understudies will come off smoothly in 2012. So they will show no outward weakness, no submission to meddling Nobel juries or currency-revaluation demands," says one well-connected entrepreneur here. "And Japan's weak government is an easy target for chest-thumping."
The strident external voice is mixed with what is a relatively lighter touch at home - if only by the violent standards of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 - especially here in this prosperous, still politically tolerant ex-British enclave reclaimed in 1997.
Economic and financial sophistication remains impressively high, and there is vigorous and positive discussion of Liu Xiaobo's Nobel among university students I met. Business professionals here vow to cultivate "a civil society" to counter the dictatorial rule of Beijing.
"The rulers have made an amazing [for them] discovery. They don't have to crack down for the place to run efficiently. Our freedoms pose no threat to them," says one intellectual. "But we know they would not hesitate to repeat Tiananmen if they felt it necessary."
The might and wealth of the new China are projected outward by its increasingly savvy media and diplomats and amplified by impressionable foreign scribes. But that one-dimensional image obscures the age-old grace and gentleness of many of China's people, as well as the positive energy and optimism among university students. It also ignores the sharp vulnerabilities their leaders still feel and address through their periodic outbursts. It can be hard to keep the two strains in focus, as President Obama recently demonstrated.
At his news conference immediately after his party's electoral "shellacking" this month, Obama held up China's high-speed-rail network as a model for the American future. His remark was consistent with a certain gee-whiz quality the president and others have voiced before about China's economic prowess and its technological "green" industries.
Yet word is emerging here that China's Ministry of Railways is rethinking its ambitious plans to expand the high-speed-rail system after experts found that it is dreadfully expensive and already deep in debt and cannot be efficiently connected to the rest of the country's transportation infrastructure.
No wonder China's leaders fear that history does not march in a straight line for the world's most populous and infinitely mysterious country.
The writer is a contributing editor to The Post. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org