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China's leader wants a 'lovable' country. That doesn't mean he's making nice

China is engaged in a "public opinion struggle," China's top leader, Xi Jinping, told senior Communist Party officials early last week

By Steven Lee Myers and Keith Bradsher
Published: Jun 9, 2021

China's leader wants a 'lovable' country. That doesn't mean he's making niceFrom left, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken join President Joe Biden, center right, and other administration officials in a meeting at the White House on Friday, May 21, 2021. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s remarks to top Communist Party leaders that they should improve their communications with the rest of the world suggest Beijing will focus on courting allies rather than easing its rhetoric against the U.S. and Europe. Image: Stefani Reynolds/The New York Times

China’s top diplomats have castigated their American counterparts for hypocrisy and condescension. They icily reminded Europeans of the Continent’s experience with genocide. They just accused New Zealand, a country that had been careful not to cause offense, of “gross interference” in China’s affairs.

So when China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, told senior Communist Party officials early last week that they should improve their communications with the rest of the world, some analysts and news reports suggested he was acknowledging that China’s increasingly pugnacious approach to diplomacy in recent months had not been warmly received.

“We must focus on setting the tone right, be open and confident but also modest and humble, and strive to create a credible, lovable and respectable image of China,” Xi said, according to an account by Xinhua, the state-run news service, of a collective study session at the party’s compound in Beijing.

Xi’s remarks followed a series of diplomatic setbacks that diplomats and analysts said had seized the leadership’s attention. China is engaged in a “public opinion struggle,” Xi told members of the party’s governing Politburo, who studiously took notes as he spoke.

His prescription, however, may intensify, not ease, the rising tensions that have increasingly spilled into diplomatic confrontations. His use (twice) of the word “struggle” carries echoes of the Mao era. One of his instructions was to do a better job of explaining “why Marxism works.”

He also did not signal any change in the policies that have contributed to a growing backlash against China’s behavior. Instead, he outlined an ideological contest for global public opinion, with two blocs competing to win followers and many countries caught in between. China does not appear to be chastened by its recent diplomatic setbacks as much as concerned that its message has not broken through.

“He is actually facing troubles at home and abroad,” Wu Qiang, an independent political analyst in Beijing, said, citing the demographic worries that led Beijing last week to further ease its restrictions on the size of families. “So, in this case he made a strategic adjustment, and this strategic adjustment can only be done by him.”

China’s tough stance toward diplomacy has had consequences. An investment agreement with the European Union, completed in December after seven years of talks, went on ice last month after China imposed sanctions on dozens of members of the union’s elected Parliament.

The foreign minister of the Philippines recently posted an expletive-laced demand that China stop occupying the country’s territorial waters in the South China Sea.

New Zealand, a country that Chinese official media had praised for its “responsible” policies, joined Australia last week in criticizing the ongoing crackdowns in Hong Kong and in Xinjiang, the predominantly Muslim region in the country’s northwest.

Some viewed Xi’s remarks last week as a sign that China might be seeking to moderate its “wolf warrior” diplomacy, named after a pair of jingoistic action films from 2015 and 2017. The “wolf warrior” tone, however, has become an essential part of China’s effort to blunt mounting criticism.

“There is no such thing as genocide” in Xinjiang, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told his counterparts in an online event two weeks ago, after the European Union had imposed sanctions against Chinese officials for abuses in Xinjiang that some governments, including the United States, have characterized as genocidal.

“Our European friends know what genocide is,” he said.

China has increasingly focused its diplomatic strategy on expanding the coalition of countries that support Beijing in forums like the United Nations Council on Human Rights in Geneva, said Alice Ekman, a senior analyst with the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris. China has rallied countries to support statements defending its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

China’s list of red lines — the issues that the leadership considers diplomatically nonnegotiable — is growing, not shrinking, she said. The country’s diplomats are increasingly forcing countries not only to avoid those but also to help support its positions.

One new red line involves an issue that appears to have angered China’s leaders: investigations into the origins of the coronavirus, which first appeared in Wuhan at the end of 2019 and has since sickened at least 179 million people around the world, killing nearly 3.7 million.

China’s heavy-handed influence over the World Health Organization’s inquiry — which in March dismissed as unlikely the possibility of a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan — has sharpened questions about how the government handled the outbreak when it first appeared and whether it has since suppressed evidence of its origin.

The organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has since said that the possibility of a lab leak had not been given enough consideration. President Joe Biden last month ordered U.S. intelligence agencies “to redouble their efforts” to determine the cause.

“I think that they must be feeling the pressure from this whole COVID-19 change of narrative,” Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels, said of China’s leaders.

Rather than offer reassurances or pledges to cooperate with an investigation, though, China has lashed out. Two days after Xi’s study session, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded that the United States open its own biolabs for inspection.

China’s actions have also stoked tensions on other fronts. Only months after Xi scored a diplomatic victory with the tentative European investment agreement, which the incoming Biden administration had opposed, the deal collapsed.

In March, the European Union joined the United States, Canada and Britain in imposing a travel ban and asset freeze against four relatively low-ranking Chinese officials and a local security agency for their role in the crackdown in Xinjiang.

China retaliated by targeting four organizations and 10 people, including members of the European Parliament, which must vote to approve the investment agreement.

China’s response was widely viewed as disproportionate and doomed the agreement. Last month, the Parliament voted overwhelmingly to suspend consideration of the pact until China reversed its move.

The European Union is already considering measures to confront China over its export subsidies, over government-backed purchases of European companies and over its limits on foreign bids for many government procurement contracts. But China appears willing to sacrifice the hard-won investment agreement to send a warning to Europe, Fallon said.

“We see it as, ‘Oh my gosh, they just shot themselves in the foot,’” Fallon said. “But maybe, with a longer-term approach, the Chinese hope that they’ll think twice about doing this again.”

China has not taken a tough stance on every issue. Last week, top Chinese and Biden administration trade officials spoke in what Gao Feng, the Commerce Ministry spokesman, said were “professional, frank and constructive” exchanges.

Even so, Xi’s government appears to have adjusted its approach with the new U.S. administration, reflecting a realization that the United States and China have entered a new era of competition and confrontation. Xi and his top diplomats have courted their own allies into something like an answer to the “alliance of democracies” that Biden has said he will pursue.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Xi has called or sent messages to a number of world leaders since the investment agreement was frozen on May 20, including those in Pakistan, Iran and Vietnam.

Wang, the foreign minister, held his own meetings with Hungary, Poland, Serbia and Ireland. In his remarks at the study session, Xi said that the goal should be to expand China’s “circle of friends in international public opinion.”

In an analysis of Xi’s remarks, David Bandurski, the director of the China Media Project, wrote, “In such a struggle, there are friends in the form of compliant media and apologists, and there are enemies in the form of recalcitrant journalists, academics and politicians who insist on criticism — exactly what this external push is designed to neutralize.”

Wang Huiyao, the founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing research group, said that while Xi did not signal a reversal of foreign policy, his remarks nonetheless could have an impact.

“Let’s be lovable,” he said. “That’s an enormous message.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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