Don't let China be a Middle Kingdom bully

By Richard Cohen
Monday, December 13, 2010; 8:00 PM

One of the more frightening aspects of China's persecution of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned dissident and this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, is that the government never even bothered to frame him. That's the standard method used by totalitarian regimes to justify the unjustifiable, but China feels no need to placate the West or even caricature its system of justice, so it swiftly put his wife under house arrest, vilified the Norwegian Nobel Committee and censored any criticism of its own actions - a display of ferocious petulance reminiscent of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany or, in fairy tales, the thwarted Rumpelstiltskin stomping his foot into the ground.

China's stomping was sufficient to intimidate the 16 other countries that boycotted the Nobel awards ceremony last week, some of them because persecution of dissidents is a native craft (Venezuela, Russia, Cuba) and some merely because China is a valued trading partner (Sri Lanka). Whatever the case, even such countries as Russia would have gone through the trouble of framing a dissident - as it did with the remarkably courageous Mikhail Khodorkovsky - since it pretends to be a democracy. This pathetic attempt at make-believe justice is the hallmark of an insecure regime and is often punctuated with coerced confessions and denunciations from former associates and, in Stalin's glory days, spouses.

China has no such compunctions. It is recasting itself as a latter-day Middle Kingdom, not so much an epoch as a mind-set - the ethnocentric conviction that it occupies the middle of the earth and is surrounded by barbarians. The barbarians in this case include the United States, a beggar nation with a decrepit educational system, and Japan and South Korea as well. China had taken to treating these two Asian nations with unconcealed contempt. The Post's John Pomfret recently described how China's chief diplomat, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, flew to South Korea without invitation or warning, demanded to land at an airfield normally reserved for heads of state and insisted on seeing the president immediately. To his credit, President Lee Myung-bak made Dai cool his heels for a day.

The Chinese, I suppose, are entitled to a certain amount of chest-thumping. They have come a long way. For many years, China was subservient to the West, with various countries looting it for trade or resources and even encouraging an addiction to opium there. Now China is the world's second-largest economy and, with 1.3 billion people, well on its way to No. 1. It is a major U.S. creditor, a cherished if not-altogether-fair trading partner and now a major military power. Its former pose of modesty in international affairs has been chucked. China has become a bit of a bully.

Ascendant nationalism is inherently unstable, and the United States has to proceed cautiously and firmly when dealing with China. Beijing's belligerence has produced both the beginning of an anti-China coalition in the Far East and a little counter-gunboat diplomacy on the part of the United States. With its chip-on-the-shoulder approach, China has gone too far. As for the United States, it has not gone far enough.

Of course, China is just too big and powerful to push around. Everything about it is massive. It holds nearly $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and it, not the United States, is Saudi Arabia's biggest oil customer. Nevertheless, Washington needs to contest China's insistence that what it does in its own country is its own business. Its treatment of dissidents is appalling - no more indigenously Chinese than the brutal beating of journalists is inherently Russian. The United States needs to respect China. It does not need to respect its repressive methods.

Oddly enough, the insistent Mia Farrow showed the way. Before the Beijing Olympics - the "Genocide Olympics," she called it - she campaigned against China's protective relationship with the brutal regime in Sudan. China soon leaned on Sudan to at least moderate its behavior, suggesting that even for a little while such tactics can be effective. Today's moral reproval is yesterday's gunboat.

Congress, which once kept an eagle eye on China's human rights record, has recently become so obsessed with China's economic importance that it no longer says much about the way Beijing treats political and religious dissidents. But China cannot be some Middle Kingdom redux, making its own rules on everything from unilaterally claiming a hunk of the ocean to imprisoning the most unassertive of political protesters. China's money buys many things, but not - for the sake of its own dissidents and our national pride - America's silence.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company