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Just four months ago, the People’s Republic of China was on top of the world. Beijing continued to bask in the glow of the 2008 Olympics. And China seemed almost immune from the global economic crisis, its stimulus packages hailed as the driver of economic recovery in Asia and beyond.
Last week’s announcement by Google that it would no longer allow censorship of its Chinese search engine, and that it might even pull out of China altogether, is sending shock waves through economic, social, and political circles. Google is being hailed by some for its courage in standing up to Chinese refusal to honor Western norms of freedom, online or otherwise.
Yet Google’s dramatic statement is just the tip of a public relations iceberg into which China’s seemingly unsinkable ship of state has slammed.
Beijing recently has been hammered for its Christmas Day sentencing of prominent human rights activist Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison for “subversion.” London’s condemnation of China’s December execution of a mentally impaired British citizen for smuggling reflected widespread anger in England.
Liberal condemnation of China’s single-handed scuttling of an environmental agreement at Copenhagen that same month is paralleled by conservative ire over Beijing’s refusal to support serious sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program.
American military and congressional leaders are hardening their criticism of China’s military buildup and threatening activity in the South China Sea and of continued monetary control of the yuan while America’s economy wallows.
Has world public opinion on China reached a tipping point? For well over a decade now, awe at China’s economic growth, combined with receptivity to Beijing’s economic and political blandishments of countries around the globe has led to a media and intellectual lovefest.
Questions about China’s human rights repressions, control of ethnic minorities, threatening offensive military buildup, and predatory trade practices were often soft-pedaled or at best, asked sotto voce.
Supporters of engagement with Beijing assured the world that more interaction with China ultimately would lead to liberalization of the Chinese Communist Party; in other words, that China would become a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community, befitting its status as the world’s third-largest economy.
Perhaps over time, a more liberal government will emerge, acting less threatening to its neighbors and allowing its own people more freedoms. But China has had decades to act responsibly. Now, global public opinion may be hardening against it.
What does this mean for China’s relations with America and the world? Given that Beijing and Washington have not crafted a relationship of trust and open communications over the past decades, any anti-Chinese moves by the U.S. government, critical public press, and business reluctance to submit to Chinese unfair play, may result in an angrier, more truculent Chinese leadership.
The world has seen repeated examples of offended Chinese amour propre even when America and other countries have attempted to placate Chinese feelings.
A period of sustained tension between China and the world could lead to further Chinese probing of American and Asian countries’ defenses, more deployment of advanced weaponry including aircraft carriers, continued obstruction over Darfur and Iran.
Similarly, liberal hopes for a more open China could be dashed as Beijing tightens its control over civil society in response to Western criticism. There is little reason to believe that Beijing will liberalize and become more cooperative if it feels offended and threatened by global public opinion and foreign government policy, despite having brought this upon itself.
Google revolutionized the Internet; it may have also revolutionized the world’s relations with China.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.
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