The tiger's claws

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 February, 2010, 12:00am

China is bounding into the year of the tiger with a sense of self-confidence it has never felt before, secure in the belief that its rise is inexorable and that its voice, and soon its power, will extend into every corner of the earth. This month, statistics showed that China overtook Germany as the world's largest exporter in 2009, confirming its growing economic clout.

And, in the waning days of the year of the ox, the Chinese government seemingly thumbed its nose at the West and its preoccupation with human rights.

In November, website editor Huang Qi was sentenced to three years in prison for 'illegal possession of state secrets'. Last week, Tan Zuoren, an activist who publicly blamed shoddy buildings for the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, was sentenced to five years for 'incitement to subversion' and, last Thursday, dissident Liu Xiaobo's appeal against an 11-year sentence, also for subversion, was rejected.

It is easy to see why the Chinese government is feeling its oats. Its standing in the world has never been higher, having been propelled upwards by the same financial crisis that brought the West down lower. As China looks around the world, it sees the United States in decline with a young president unable to implement his agenda, and a Europe in disarray and unable to speak with one voice where foreign policy is concerned.

Japan, which just managed to hold onto its position in front of a surging China as the world's second-largest economy, has a new government that is already beset by a scandal involving the ruling party's secretary general.

The Chinese media has been talking about the crisis in global capitalism. China itself continues to tell all and sundry that it will never be a hegemon. But, especially in its Asian neighbourhood, such protestations are often dismissed out of hand.

President Barack Obama has said that the US will get tougher with China on trade and currency issues, but Beijing is still unrelenting in its denunciation of Washington for its latest arms package for Taiwan and for Obama's decision to meet the Dalai Lama tomorrow.

In fact, China seems to be throwing its weight around even more than usual. The Chinese government, without giving a reason, removed the University of Calgary from its list of accredited institutions, and the university suspects that this is because it hosted the Tibetan spiritual leader last September and awarded him an honorary degree. The Chinese consulate in Calgary had tried to persuade the university not to confer this honour on the Dalai Lama. The consulate has since refused to explain Beijing's move, saying only that the university 'should know' the reason.

Recently, China announced the completion of a series of lighthouses and stone tablets on tiny islands in the East China Sea to help establish its claim to the territorial waters around them, the airspace above and the undersea riches below.

While nationalist elements within the country may be driven purely by emotion, the Chinese government is clearly weighing its moves and testing the will and cohesion of the US and its allies.

Thus, despite an announcement that military exchanges with the US were being suspended as a result of the Taiwan arms package, Beijing has approved a visit to Hong Kong this week by the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier battle group. Thus, Beijing is sending a message that it is cool-headed and in control.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, on a visit to France earlier this month, gave a balanced speech in which he said: 'China cannot develop in isolation from the world and the world needs China for development.'

Too often in recent weeks, Chinese officials have sounded as though the world needs China more than China needs the world. They should realise that this point has not yet been reached and, in fact, it never will be. China needs not just the tiger's strength and courage but also its agility when dealing with the rest of the world.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator