Last week, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) made a five-day visit to Europe while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The 66-year-old honcho jet-set through major cities in Western Europe, signing multi-billion dollar trade deals and posing with heads of state in front of flashing cameras. With economic growth languishing at 6.8% in the last quarter of 2008, party leaders are pressured to do whatever it takes to drum up demand for Chinese exports and to keep the economy growing at 8% annually. Ever the symbol of luck and prosperity, the magic number “8” represents the best antidote against labor unrest and social instability. Indeed, bao ba (保八; literally, maintain at eight) has been the Chinese government’s main obsession since 1998 when the term was first coined.
Wen ostensibly skipped Paris on his tour of duty. While in London, the Premier enthused that his omission of France was fully intended. Speaking with undisguised spite and defiance, Wen told reporters that Nicholas Sarkosy should know full well why he was being snubbed, referring to the French president’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in Gdansk last December. Their brief rendezvous infuriated China, which has long considered the Tibetan spiritual leader one of the biggest threats to the country’s territorial integrity. And the Chinese neither forgive nor forget. Emboldened by China’s economic success and the warm reception from world leaders, Wen takes every opportunity to throw his weight around, punishing Sarkosy for his follies and chastising Washington for criticizing the undervalued yuan. But in the end, Wen comes off as vindictive and smug. A nouveau riche in a victory lap.
Rubbing elbows with European leaders at lavish state dinners surely make Wen and his posse feel accepted. After a half-century of military humiliation and post-war poverty, China has finally picked herself up and dusted herself off. She must be respected now. But to the rest of the world, despite its double-digit growth and increasing political influence, China remains a Frankenstein of a country. It is a socialist state on paper, but thirty years of “reform and openness” have produced a burgeoning middle class that drives around town in the latest Audi, binge-shops at Gucci and gamble their life-savings away in stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen. But no matter how affluent many of these city folks have become, they still can’t buy a foreign magazine from a newsstand or do a Google search without worrying about the web police. Just last week, Tan Zuo-ren (譚作人), an activist who helped victims of the Sichuan earthquake victims investigate the province’s collapsed schools, was charged with “illegal possession of state secrets.”
Tan’s arrest is just one of many sobering reminders that Frankenstein is still long a way from blending in with the rest of society. Erratic, stubborn, intolerant and socially inept, this is how the rest of the world still views China. The country faces a public relations battle that will take much more than an Olympic Games or a trip to the moon to win. But world leaders, ever pragmatic and shrewd, happily play along, putting on their party hats and pouring the champagne to welcome the new guest. But when Frankenstein is not looking, they roll their eyes and steal a snicker.
If diplomacy is all about keeping up appearances and putting on the game face, then nobody does it better than the English. It is therefore all the more ironic that the shoe-hurling incident should happen in England of all places. While Wen was delivering a speech at Cambridge University, a German student followed in Iraqi journalist Muntader al-Zaid’s footsteps and threw a shoe at the Premier, crying, “how can this university prostitute itself with this dictator?” Finally someone has the courage to say something about the pink elephant in the room. The episode, watched by hundreds of millions around the world but unreported by the Chinese press, is a modern day version of Hans Christian Anderson’s Emperor’s New Clothes.
These days it is easy or even fashionable to criticize China and its human rights records. But is the world’s most populous country the evil empire that the liberal media have us believe, or is it the most misunderstood nation on the planet? I try to put myself in the shoes of those in charge and imagine what it must be like to be responsible for feeding a population of 1.3 billion and all the while having to rein in an economy that operates like a runaway train. It’s not exactly a walk in the park. And why is it that I am working my hardest and doing the best I can, and still the West keeps wanting me to fail? Is it fear, jealousy, racism or all of the above? An international relations scholar once observed: the tension between established powers and an emerging one is a structural inevitability. But we don’t have to be always that cynical. Looking at how quickly the world embraces Barack Obama after eight years of unprecedented anti-Americanism, we have reason to believe that the world isn’t out to get us. When the ruling establishment in Beijing is ready to loosen its clenched fist, the world will hold its arms out for China. And when that day comes, world leaders will once again put on their party hats and pop the champagne to receive a new China. This time they will actually mean it.