Unloved giant

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 August, 2010, 12:00am

The Global Times, sister paper of the People's Daily, recently published an editorial headlined: 'How can we make the world like us?' It asked rhetorically: 'Has China's ascending status brought the nation the admiration and the acceptance of other countries?' And it answered its own question by saying: 'While China continues to exert a more confident image, it is also meeting some resistance from the world, even from its old friends.'

The latest BBC World Service poll, released in April, confirms the impression that China is viewed more negatively than positively in an increasing number of countries.

What should China do about its popularity problem? The key, the Global Times says, 'lies in finding and conveying ideas that resonate in people's hearts'. Good idea, but the editorial proposed no suggestions. Instead, it said that China was launching 'a national image promotional commercial' in which '50 Chinese celebrities have been selected to polish China's image'.

But polishing can only do so much. As the Global Times recognises, what is needed are Chinese policies that resonate with other people. China's image problem stems from its actions and its policies, both externally and internally.

Externally, China has made itself the champion of the world's pariahs, in particular of North Korea, which has defied international opinion openly by developing nuclear weapons. China provides a lifeline to North Korea, without which its government cannot exist. After South Korea took the case of the sinking of its naval vessel, the Cheonan, to the United Nations, China prevented the Security Council from condemning North Korea and only agreed to a statement condemning the attack, without identifying the attacker.

And when the United States and South Korea held naval exercises off the Korean Peninsula to warn North Korea not to make any further provocations, China protested vigorously, saying that its own security was being put at risk. Thus, it transformed an issue that was between North Korea and the rest of the world into an issue between China and the US, shielding North Korea in the process.

As for Iran, China has ostensibly joined in imposing economic sanctions on Tehran but there are suspicions as to what it is actually doing. A US State Department official, Robert Einhorn, urged Beijing to co-operate with the Security Council, and not take advantage 'of responsible self-restraint of other countries' to move in as Western companies leave.

In Asia, China's friends include Myanmar, formerly Burma, whose military government is best known for locking up Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the party that won the 1990 election but was not allowed to take power.

In Africa, Robert Mugabe is a great friend. The Zimbabwean, who has ruled his country for the past 30 years, recently visited the World Expo in Shanghai and thanked China for its steadfast support, calling it an 'all-weather friend'. As they say, with friends like these, who needs enemies? China needs to remember the proverb: 'If you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas.'

Economically, of course, China has made great strides in the past three decades, but this has not been translated into political reforms. Political power is still jealously held in the hands of the Communist Party and human rights abuses occur on a daily basis.

One story suffices to show how ordinary people and officials are treated differently. A few weeks ago, the China Daily reported that a 58-year-old woman in Wuhan was severely beaten by policemen who thought she was a petitioner seeking to redress grievances. It turned out that her husband was a high-ranking official. It was a misunderstanding, an officer said, the policemen did not know they were beating the wife of a senior officer.

So commonplace is the beating of ordinary petitioners that such an incident would not even be reported. It was news only because the person beaten up was the wife of an official.

Is it any wonder that China has an image problem? China needs to change its policies if it wants to be better liked.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator