Robert Delaney
SCMP Columnist
On Balance
by Robert Delaney
On Balance
by Robert Delaney

As the US ramps up accusations, China stops appealing to ‘the feelings’ of its people and gets to work on alliances

  • US attacks on Beijing are reaching a crescendo, so China is moving from its standard emotional appeals and towards reason-based appeals to a global audience
In December 2017, an American vandalised a 2,000-year-old Chinese terracotta warrior on loan to a Philadelphia museum. Adding insult to injury, a local court this month failed to sentence the perpetrator, citing an inability to place a value on the thumb the man broke off the statue.

One would have expected a full-throated condemnation from Beijing of everyone involved in the affair, especially the American judicial system, for taking too lightly the destruction of a precious Chinese cultural relic.

China watchers know the usual response and might have been waiting for it. The act of vandalism and the failure to issue an appropriate punishment would have certainly “ hurt the  feelings of  the Chinese people”. For decades, China’s foreign ministry has wielded the feelings of the Chinese people as a cudgel to beat back against any perceived slights or hypocritical positions taken by foreign governments – the US and Japan in particular – and to take the moral high ground.

The Philadelphia incident provoked an angry response from Wu Haiyun, director of the Shaanxi Cultural Heritage Promotion Centre, which loaned 10 of the ancient statues to the city’s Franklin Institute. Wu “strongly condemned” the museum for being “careless” with the statues, CCTV reported soon after the crime was discovered.

But the foreign ministry never pulled the feelings of the Chinese people into the matter.

Moreover, after the Philadelphia municipal government and the Franklin Institute cooperated with the Shaanxi authorities to investigate and assess the damage and the city council issued a formal apology to then-consul general Zhang Qiyue, Wu’s bureau said that bilateral cultural exchanges would not be affected, although security measures for high-value cultural relics would be improved, according to a China Daily report.

The US and China lived happily ever after … if only.

Beijing seems to have, at some point in recent years, concluded that characterising its people as being so emotionally fragile doesn’t really help the country’s image.

The government’s messaging has sharpened as China seeks to bring other countries onto its side amid increasing friction with the US over its international infrastructure investment initiative known as the “Belt and Road Initiative” as well as other fronts.

The seriousness of the escalating clash with Washington has probably convinced the foreign ministry to ditch the melodrama and get down to brass tacks.

This maturation is necessary because America’s anti-China fervour crested again this week.

“No country poses a broader, more severe intelligence collection threat than China,” the US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray warned on Friday, speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations event.

The threat posed to the US by China was part of what Wray called a “paradigm shift” in the perception of danger to national security, characterised by a “blended threat where cyber crime and espionage merge together in all kinds of new ways”. The head of America’s principal federal law enforcement agency spoke of the need for greater collaboration between governmental and private spheres to counter such threats.

It’s one thing when US senators like Dianne Feinstein or Marco Rubio call for moves against China. Grandstanding, pandering and playing loose with the facts are hallmarks of Congressional discourse. Meanwhile in the executive branch, the current occupant of the White House has taken these offences to an extent where it’s impossible to know how seriously to take him.

The FBI, however, doesn’t play politics as readily, at least not since the days of its founder J. Edgar Hoover, who used his bureau to harass many groups on the left throughout his near 40-year tenure, which ended with his death in 1972.

FBI director Christopher Wray at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Friday, where he highlighted the agency’s role in protecting the US from global threats, a category in which he included China. Photo: Bloomberg
As an arm of the US Justice Department, which has announced numerous espionage charges against Chinese individuals and entities accused of stealing US technology, FBI directors face much more scrutiny when they’re suspected of advancing a political objective.

But this is all academic. Whether politics has forced Wray’s hand, China has a bigger fight than it probably bargained for when Beijing began efforts to build national champions in key next-generation technologies.

Now that the stakes have been raised so high by the US’ top law enforcement official, no one in the government is going to care about the feelings of the Chinese people.

Robert Delaney is the Post's US bureau chief