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 head 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, Chinese leaders are doing whatever it takes to drum up demand for Chinese exports to keep the economy growing at at least 8% annually. A symbol of luck and prosperity, the magic number “8” is China's best antidote against unemployment and social instability. Since 1998 when the term was first coined, bao ba (保八; literally, maintain eight) has been the Communist Party’s main mandate.
Wen ostensibly skipped Paris on his tour of duty. While in London, the Premier told reporters that his omission of France was not an accident. Speaking with unconcealed spite, he said that Nicholas Sarkosy should know full well why he was being snubbed, hinting at 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.
Rubbing elbows with European leaders at lavish state dinners has made Wen and his posse feel welcome and accepted. It has also emboldened them, so much so that they can now throw their diplomatic weight around to "punish" countries like France for disrespecting China. After a century of military humiliation and post-war poverty, China has finally picked herself up and dusted herself off. She must be respected now.
Despite its continued economic growth and increasing geopolitical influence, China remains a Frankenstein to the rest of the world. It is a socialist country on paper, but 30 years of “reform and openness” have transformed it into the world's biggest capitalistic state. It has the highest number of millionaires on the planet, and yet citizens are denied basic civil liberties and access to information. Social media sites, search engines and foreign magazines remain out of reach.
Last week, Tan Zuoren (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 one of many sobering reminders that Frankenstein is still a long way away from blending in with the rest of the civilized world.
Erratic, stubborn, intolerant and socially inept—these are some of the adjectives foreigners use to describe China. The country faces an uphill PR battle that will take much more than hosting the Olympic Games or a European tour to win. World leaders, ever pragmatic and shrewd, happily play along and welcome the new guest with pomp and circumstance. But when Frankenstein isn't looking, they roll their eyes and snicker.
Other people aren't so diplomatic. While Wen was delivering a speech at Cambridge University, a 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 point out the elephant in the room. The episode, watched by millions around the world but unreported by the Chinese press, is a modern day version of Hans Christian Anderson’s Emperor’s New Clothes. Frankenstein has never felt so naked before.
|The emperor's new clothes|