The Chinese Are Coming!

A ceremony in Sichuan Province, China, sending off an engineer battalion of the People’s Liberation Army on a peacekeeping mission to Lebanon, January 2011

The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West gave to Vladimir Putin’s Russia for becoming a democratic country. “Russia’s transition to democracy has cost it dearly,” the editorial said, attributing a lot of Russia’s problems, including its failure to achieve prosperity and its “brutal wars” in Chechnya, to its adoption of a “Western-style election with a multi-party system.” The lesson is clear. China shouldn’t make the same mistake of trying to curry favor with the West by becoming a multiparty democracy itself. “The West doesn’t really have an interest in promoting democracy to the world,” the editorial avers. “Its scheme is to expand its interests hidden behind that process.”1

It doesn’t take a very deep survey of the Chinese press to find the theme that the real goal of American policy toward China, and in particular its criticism of the country for such matters as the imprisonment of dissidents, is a subversive one—to undermine the legitimacy of the ruling authorities, and thereby to obstruct China’s rise to great-power status. Last June, to give another example, China Daily, another English-language newspaper reflecting what China would like foreigners to read about it, carried an editorial entitled “Subversion in a Suitcase,” which held that the United States is creating “secretive cell phone networks” to help people circumvent government control of their electronic communications, an effort framed as support of “free speech and human rights” but whose real purpose is to help opposition forces “overthrow their legitimate governments,” thereby enabling the United States to “maintain…global dominance.”

The Chinese interpretation of American behavior may seem defensive and a touch paranoid, but there’s more than a grain of truth to the main point. After all, the long history of American criticism of China for human rights violations and its implied wish for China to become democratic amount to a demand that the country’s leaders give up their monopoly on political power, which, in their view, is akin to wishing for regime change.

This has frequently produced a certain amount of tension in the Chinese–American relationship, though rarely has the level of distrust seemed quite as high as it has in the past few months, as the United States and some other countries have observed that China is in the midst of one of the harshest repressions of domestic dissent in its recent history. It has also engaged in unusually bellicose behavior in the territorial and other disputes it has with other Asian countries, including American allies like Japan and the Philippines. For example,…

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