China is committed to exposing and confronting its complex internal problems, including pollution and environmental degradation. Photo: EPA

Why China won't be rushed into resolving sovereignty disputes

Robert Lawrence Kuhn says it's easier to admit to domestic problems

In early 2012, in the run-up to the 18th Communist Party congress, I was asked to co-produce, host and write - for international audiences - a TV documentary series celebrating the achievements of China's then retiring leaders. It was not for me. Celebratory praise, I said, does not work for telling the real story of China.

Instead, I offered, how about exploring the problems that China's new leaders, led by Xi Jinping , were going to face? Fast forward two years. , our five-part TV series, co-produced by Shanghai Media Group, is being broadcast in the US on PBS stations and internationally.

Framed in terms of what needs to change to achieve Xi's Chinese dream, it explores five core issues that China's leaders face: social concerns (health care, housing, retirement); economic transformation and pollution; innovation and higher-value products; political reform; and beliefs and values.

That the series, which won first prize in the country's annual journalism award, could be made at all is due to China's commitment to expose and explicate the country's complex internal problems (though always within limits, of course).

In times past, the Chinese media never reported bad news, such as disasters, natural or otherwise. China's leaders, in a long paternalistic tradition, sought not to "trouble the people" with unhappy tidings.

The severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003 sent a wake-up call that it is now impossible to contain bad news, and leaders' attempts to suppress the unpleasant would only engender invidious rumours that are often worse than the reality they are attempting to suppress.

Today, the Chinese media reports all sorts of unpleasantries. Such public disclosures build credibility at home and abroad.

Might there be relevance to the seemingly irreconcilable claims in the South and East China seas? On sensitive matters of sovereignty, no side betrays doubt. China does not forget a century of being bullied, oppressed and humiliated. To one minister, China's sovereignty was so self-evident, so historically unambiguous, that he was genuinely baffled that world opinion did not wholly agree.

Why is it that when countries, or their leaders, admit domestic problems, they seem strong and gain credibility, but if they admit foreign policy problems, they seem weak and lose credibility?

The answer lies in diverging psycho-social behaviour triggered by domestic and foreign matters. Domestic problems exist between a country's people and its leaders - and because the people know the problems well, if the leaders hide the problems, everyone sees the cover-up.

On the other hand, foreign problems are between a country and other countries, a conflict with foreigners. Humans are tribal, which is why we root fervently for our favourite sports teams and sacrifice, even die, for our countries. Group loyalty enhances survival and patriotism is laudable, but handled unwisely they can degenerate into zealotry.

China has experienced historic advance by allowing, indeed by encouraging, its domestic problems to be discussed openly. No statements of weakness, paradoxically, these are symbols of strength that convey China's increasing self-confidence. Yet issues of sovereignty are sharply and starkly black or white.

Given these realities, all sides should value the status quo; even if it seems disrupted, it must be recovered. "Let our grandchildren deal with such matters," a retired senior leader told me, referring broadly to China's knotty issues, "long perspectives are wise."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China won't be rushed into resolving sovereignty disputes