Beijing wise to skip hero role in Greek drama
As the drama of the Greek tragedy unfolded at Cannes last week - where leaders of 20 major economies gathered to tackle the European debt crisis worsened by Greece's financial and political problems - thousands of kilometres away, the Chinese watched with mixed feelings of sour, sweet, bitter and hot, to borrow a traditional Chinese saying.
How sweet it is to see that China has become a leading star at the world's premier forum of international leaders, with participants and journalists seen hanging on every word from President Hu Jintao and other high-ranking Chinese officials. For his part, Hu sounded much like a world leader, authoritative and visionary, by urging countries to work together to overcome the global economic crisis.
There has been no better sign of China's international standing than seeing European leaders openly asking China for help ahead of the summit. The head of the European Financial Stability Facility, Klaus Regling, recently travelled to Beijing, cap in hand, for talks about a possible contribution from the mainland's trove of foreign exchange reserves.
Also, it did not go unnoticed in the state media that the United States, crippled by its own crisis at home and out of money, has been seen as struggling to stay in the limelight, another unmistakable sign of weakening US influence as Europe looks to China.
But the mainlanders' sense of pride is closely tinged with caution and bitterness, judging by reactions in state media and comments in internet chat rooms, for good reason.
The state media promptly dismissed suggestions China would be Europe's 'saviour', while internet users question in comments why poor people should spend billions of US dollars to help rich men.
Some mainlanders have posted comments reminding Beijing that China still has more than 200 million people living below the international poverty standard of US$1.25 a day.
It is against this context some overseas media played up the angle that China's cautioned response to the European pleas for help was largely due to concerns over potential public backlash over rescuing Europe. In fact, China's caution has stemmed largely from common sense. Mainland leaders have long made it clear Beijing was ready to help Europe, not only because it wanted to be a responsible international stakeholder, but also because it was in their own interests.
Chinese leaders deserve praise for being cool-headed as they resolved not to take a leading role in rescuing Europe. As Hu made clear, Europe will have to rely on itself to sort out the mess. Moreover, no one in their right mind would make firm commitments to bankroll the expansion of Europe's bailout fund without first seeing the details and extracting the guarantee over the safety of the funds, which are currently lacking.
According to sources familiar with Beijing's thinking, the leadership has already made up its mind to help Europe, although it has not decided in what way or how much. One thing is clear: China's contribution is likely to be smaller than that of Europe's biggest contributor, which is mostly likely to be Germany.
It is also interesting to note that the issue of whether Europe should ask China for help has also split the Europeans themselves, some of whom have urged Europe not to take any money from China. They are worried China will demand too many concessions for their investment, such as market-economy status that would make it more difficult to levy trade sanctions against China, and the promise from the West to lower criticism over the mainland's human rights record or the yuan. Europeans will have to sort this out themselves, as they cannot have it both ways.