Hu Jintao

Tone it down

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2012, 12:00am


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China has many problems, as befits such a gigantic country trying to maintain the extraordinary economic success against the downside of a very troubled recent past. Therefore, it could be regarded as axiomatic that China does not need any more problems, particularly self-created ones. This is why I am worried: some of the new problems seem largely self-created.

Here are a few China doesn't need and could ease by unilateral action. The first is its territorial problems. It's having too many quarrels with its neighbours lately. Here's an absurd but telling conspiracy theory: that someone very high up in the Chinese governing or party elite is secretly working for the CIA and the Pentagon. How else to explain the pointless and ugly frictions with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia?

Something funny is going on. Until relatively recently, all we heard out of the Beijing international relations publicity machine was 'peaceful rising'. The Chinese were saying, in effect, we are not a 21st century version of the former Soviet Union, wishing to subjugate countries around it.

That was calming to hear. But then came all the elbowing and macho upsizing over territorial rights in the South China Sea.

Be careful, Beijing: China, a great historic nation getting its act together, doesn't need to appear like some adolescent, bullying Asian leviathan. It needs to be subtler in its external relations. Only the Pentagon and CIA can gain when more and more scared Asian neighbours are ready to jump into Uncle Sam's tender embrace.

Here's another problem China really doesn't need: public disputes with the Roman Catholic Church. OK, we get it: China's party and government do not believe in God. We also understand that the church itself, scarred with a plethora of child molestation cases globally, is no pure paragon of virtue. But if there is a God and if the church does have some kind of special relationship with the Almighty (as many people devoutly believe), Beijing should end its unseemly quarrel over who should appoint bishops on the mainland and work with the Vatican to resolve disputes over the candidates.

And here's a third problem that is unnecessary: Hong Kong. Just 15 years ago, it seemed to have made the transition from British colony to special administration region with astonishing grace. Cynical Western reporters who had been predicting chaos and crackdown were caught off balance. But, increasingly, Hong Kong looks to have become a political basket case.

Certainly, growing integrity concerns over the new chief executive haven't helped. Leung Chun-ying looks to have had some suspicious 'home improvement' done that leaves a sour taste in the mouth of the average man and woman. But the VIP visit by President Hu Jintao left an even worse aftertaste. Hu arrived and went on a parade with troops and even tanks and rocket launchers in attendance.

For years, Beijing seemed to be steadily fine-tuning its international relations frequencies to a level close to perfect pitch. Lately, so much seems worryingly off key. What is happening inside China?

US journalist Tom Plate, author of the Giants of Asia book series, is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific studies at Loyola Marymount University