China, Shy Giant, Shows Signs Of Shedding Its False Modesty

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
December 9, 2006
Pg. 1

By Joseph Kahn
BEIJING, Dec. 8 — China’s Communist Party has a new agenda: it is encouraging people to discuss what it means to be a major world power and has largely stopped denying that China intends to become one soon.
In the past several weeks China Central Television has broadcast a 12-part series describing the reasons nine nations rose to become great powers. The series was based on research by a team of elite Chinese historians, who also briefed the ruling Politburo about their findings.
Until recently China’s rising power remained a delicate topic, and largely unspoken, inside China. Beijing has long followed a dictum laid down by Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader who died in 1997: “tao guang yang hui,” literally to hide its ambitions and disguise its claws.
The prescription was generally taken to mean that China needed to devote its energy to developing economically and should not seek to play a leadership role abroad.
President Hu Jintao set off an internal squabble two years ago when he began using the term “peaceful rise” to describe his foreign policy goals. He dropped the term in favor of the tamer-sounding “peaceful development.”
His use of “rise” risked stoking fears of a “China threat,” especially in Japan and the United States, people told about the high-level debate said. Rise implies that others must decline, at least in a relative sense, while development suggests that China’s advance can bring others along.
Yet this tradition of modesty has begun to fade, replaced by a growing confidence that China’s rise is not fleeting and that the country needs to do more to define its objectives.
With its $1 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, surging military spending and diplomatic initiatives in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Beijing has begun asserting its interests far beyond its borders. Chinese party leaders are acting as if they intend to start exercising more power abroad rather than just protecting their political power at home.
“Like it or not, China’s rise is becoming a reality,” says Jia Qingguo, associate dean of the Beijing University School of International Studies. “Wherever Chinese leaders go these days, people pay attention. And they can’t just say, ‘I don’t want to get involved.’ ”
Itself a major recipient of foreign aid until recently, China this year promised to provide well over $10 billion in low-interest loans and debt relief to Asian, African and Latin American countries over the next two years. It invited 48 African countries to Beijing last month to a conference aimed at promoting closer cooperation and trade.
Beijing agreed to send 1,000 peacekeepers to Lebanon, its first such action in the Middle East. It has sought to become a more substantial player in a region where the United States traditionally holds far more sway.
At the United Nations Security Council, China cast aside its longstanding policy of opposing sanctions against other nations. It voted to impose penalties on North Korea, its neighbor and onetime ally, for testing nuclear weapons.
Officials and leading scholars are becoming a bit less hesitant to discuss what this all might mean. The documentary, on China’s main national network, uses the word rise constantly, including its title, “Rise of the Great Powers.” It endorses the idea that China should study the experiences of nations and empires it once condemned as aggressors bent on exploitation.
“Our China, the Chinese people, the Chinese race has become revitalized and is again stepping onto the world stage,” Qian Chengdan, a professor at Beijing University and the intellectual father of the television series, said in an online dialogue about the documentary on, a leading Web site.
“It is extremely important for today’s China to be able to draw some lessons from the experiences of others,” he said.
The series, which took three years to make, emanated from a Politburo study session in 2003. It is not a jingoistic call to arms. It mentions China only in passing, and it never explicitly addresses the reality that China has already become a big power.
Yet its version of history, which partly tracks the work done by Paul Kennedy in his 1980s bestseller, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” differs markedly from that of the textbooks still in use in many schools.
Its stentorian narrator and epic soundtrack present the emergence of the nine countries, from Portugal in the 15th century to the United States in the 20th, and cites numerous achievements worthy of emulation: Spain had a risk-taking queen; Britain’s nimble navy secured vital commodities overseas; the United States regulated markets and fought for national unity.
The documentary also emphasizes historical themes that coincide with policies Chinese leaders promote at home. Social stability, industrial investment, peaceful foreign relations and national unity are presented as more vital than, say, military strength, political liberalization or the rule of law.
In the 90 minutes devoted to examining the rise of the United States, Lincoln is accorded a prominent part for his efforts to “preserve national unity” during the Civil War. China has made reunification with Taiwan a top national priority. Franklin D. Roosevelt wins praise for creating a bigger role for the government in managing the market economy but gets less attention for his wartime leadership.
Government officials minimize the importance of the series. He Yafei, an assistant foreign minister, said in an interview that he had watched only “one or two episodes.” He said the documentary should not signal changes in China’s thinking about projecting power, saying that colonialism and exploitation “would go nowhere in today’s world.”
But Mr. He also hinted at a shifting official line. He emphasized China’s status as a developing country. But he allowed that others may see things differently.
“Whether a country is a regional or a world power, it is not for that country to decide alone,” he said. “If you say we are a big power, then we are. But we are a responsible big country. We are a maintainer and builder of the international system.”
China has in fact emerged as a major power without disrupting the international order, at least so far. It has accepted an invitation by the Bush administration to discuss becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the American-dominated international system.
Beijing places importance on many world institutions, especially the United Nations, where it holds a veto in the Security Council. It professes a strong commitment to enforcing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Last month Margaret Chan of Hong Kong became the first Chinese to head a major United Nations agency, the World Health Organization. She vowed to build a “harmonious health world,” echoing the slogan of harmony promoted by President Hu.
Yet critics say China is prepared to emerge in a less amicable fashion, if necessary. The Central Intelligence Agency says that China’s military spending may be two or three times higher than it acknowledges and that it allocates more to its military than any other country except the United States.
Beijing has cultivated close ties to countries that provide it with commodities and raw materials, regardless of their human rights records. Sudan, Myanmar and Zimbabwe have all escaped international sanctions in large part because of Chinese protection.
China’s increasing international engagement has also stimulated a more robust academic discussion about its global role and the potential for tensions with the United States.
Yan Xuetong, a foreign affairs specialist at Qinghua University in Beijing, argued in a scholarly journal this summer that China had already surpassed Japan, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and India in measures of its economic, military and political power. That leaves it second only to the United States, he said.
While the military gap between China and the United States may remain for some time, he argued, China’s faster economic growth and increasing political strength may whittle down America’s overall advantage.
“China will enjoy the status of a semi-superpower between the United States and the other major powers,” Mr. Yan predicted in the article, which appeared in the China Journal of International Politics.
He added, “China’s fast growth in political and economic power will dramatically narrow its power gap with the United States.”