As it makes its presence felt in every corner of the world and posits an alternative to the Western liberal-democratic order that has underpinned international relations since the end of World War II, China is beginning to experience some of the blowback that other global leaders before it have been met with. And judging from the indignant reactions in some Beijing circles, that backlash was not entirely expected.
With doubts over the future of U.S. global leadership rising and democracies worldwide arguably entering a period of fatigue, we are witnessing a new, more assertive phase in China’s foreign engagement under President Xi Jinping. China has seen an opportunity to displace an old international system that, in its view, is both unfair and which has outlived its usefulness, and it is now flexing its muscles to make this a reality.
The omnipresence of China in our lives, and its no-longer-hidden efforts to discredit the old system and the values that underpin it, has not been without controversy. Little by little, the ramifications of expanded trade and closer engagement with China for our liberal-democratic institutions are starting to be recognized. Recent high-profile scandals surrounding China’s undue influence on elected politicians in countries from the Czech Republic to New Zealand , the bribing of top UN officials by Chinese involved in political warfare operations against the West, or the growing censorship that threatens academic and journalistic freedom as we collectively embrace China, are causing a backlash, which is forcing people to rethink the price we are willing to pay in return for collaboration with the Asian giant.
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It comes as little surprise, then, that as the world learns more about China, which no longer can be ignored as a far-away and exotic land and people, apprehensions surrounding its role in our everyday lives would increase. Such cautiousness is natural whenever the actions of a foreign power threaten to affect how we conduct our affairs, let alone risk undermining the mores and institutions that define us. Much of the resistance to U.S. leadership since the end of World War II, and perhaps even more so in the brief unipolar moment that followed the end of the Cold War, stemmed from that ingrained will to resist imposition from the outside.
As it installs itself as a global power that seeks to rewrite the rules of the game, it is only natural that hegemonic China would face similar skepticism abroad. However, what makes China a special case is the fact that its political system and outlook are in many ways incompatible with the prevailing world order since the 1940s—a U.S.-led free-market liberal order based on respect (often observed in the breach, admittedly) for the rights of the individual and the values reflected in institutions like the UN. China is not just any other new major player on the international scene: it is a party state, led by the most successful, and certainly the most resilient, Marxist-Leninist party to have walked the earth. Furthermore, its ascendance within the international system coincides with deepening authoritarianism in China accompanied by unprecedented paranoia with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As China expands its influence, it is also exporting bits of that paranoia aboard, which often has come across as ham-fisted—threatening, browbeating, lecturing whomever dares criticize it or gives an audience to its sworn enemies, from Tibetans to Taiwanese, Uighurs to pro-localization Hong Kongers, Falun Gong practitioners to human-rights advocates.
Given the potential impact of China in our lives, in the news we consume and the information we can access on the Internet, it was only a matter of time before ignorance began to be replaced by curiosity, which in turn translated into public demands on our elected officials to tread carefully when they negotiate with Beijing. In the past year alone, a series of reports, including Four Corners’ “ Power and Influence ” investigation in Australia, “ Magic Weapons ” in New Zealand and the National Endowment for Democracy’s just-released “ Sharp Power ,” have helped raise awareness about the aims, means and actors involved in China’s assault on our democratic institutions. For example, Canada is one of many countries that are now taking a more cautious approach to China, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s just-concluded visit to Beijing made clear. Additionally, Australia is in the process of adopting measures to mitigate the impact of foreign (and largely Chinese) influence in government affairs. Also, states like Pakistan and Nepal have decided to renege on major infrastructure projects involving Chinese funding due to concerns over the negative impact on their sovereignty.
Beijing’s reaction to the recent blowback has been the result of both hubris and the fact that it is new to being a global power and has yet to find its footing. Just as the world needs to learn more about China, so does China need to learn more about the world, especially given the incompatibility of its system with many of the countries it seeks to interact with and influence. It is no doubt trying to learn, which is made clear by the impressive, bilingual volumes prepared for its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative detailing the legal systems of all the countries targeted by the neo-colonial exercise. But if it is to be successful as an international player, then it will have to learn to tone down the indignation and name-calling—“biased,” “China hater,” “anti-China hysteria,” “disgusting,” “sour grapes,” “gossip fiends” and “barbarians,” are just a few recent examples of language used when things don’t go China’s way. It should also learn to respect our long and cherished Western traditions of journalism rather than accuse our media of being “narcissistic,” telling our reporters to “ shut up, ” or suing journalists for exposing the united front activities of Chinese entities active in the West.