China’s “Split Personality”

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We’re going to inaugurate a new, periodic feature on TIME’s China blog today— guest blogging. Susan Shirk was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State overseeing China policy during the Clinton administration and is now director of the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. She is also the author of a new book from Oxford University Press entitled “China, Fragile Superpower.’’
Susan has graciously agreed to do a blog posting and then after her post will answer some questions from readers. So please come ahead with any questions for her after reading the post, and she’ll respond in the next day or two.
Here’s Susan’s post:

China’s International Split Personality

By Susan L. Shirk

Having trouble getting a coherent picture of China as a rising power? No wonder. The contradictory images are difficult to reconcile.

China calls itself a responsible power — a term it appropriated from Clinton administration speeches on China. But it also has deployed more than 700 missiles aimed at Taiwan.

China has stepped forward to mediate the conflict between the U.S. and North Korea over North Korea’s nuclear weapons. But it also has encouraged a virulent form of anti-Japanese nationalism that erupted into violent demonstrations in 2005.

Judging from its international behavior, China has a split personality. And both faces of Chinese power are rooted in China’s internal fragility and the domestic insecurities of its Communist Party leaders.

China shows a remarkable sophistication about the value of a positive international reputation for a rising power. Chinese diplomats have figured out that actions speak louder than words to reassure other countries about China’s benign intentions and prevent hostile reactions to its growing power.

Instead of bullying its neighbors, China seeks to ingratiate itself with them. It has resolved almost all of its border disputes. China is an enthusiastic supporter of all the multilateral organizations cropping up in Asia. The country’s surging exports from its neighbors have turned it into an engine of growth for the entire region. Once it agreed to a code of conduct with the Southeast Asians, the contested South China Sea has been peaceful. It leads the Six Party Talks and twice joined with other United Nations Security council members to impose economic sanctions on North Korea, its former ally http://www.cfr.org/publication/11097/chinanorth_korea_relationship.html ).
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Beyond its own region, China has become a staunch supporter of the World Trade Organization and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and participates in more multilateral organizations than other countries at its level of development, according to Alastair Iain Johnston’s research (Alastair Iain Johnston, “Is China a Status Quo Power?” International Security, Vol. 27, no. 4, spring 2003 http://bcsia.ksg.harvard.edu/publication.cfm?program=CORE&ctype=article&item_id=652).
This cooperative behavior is rooted in the desire of China’s leaders for a peaceful international environment to preserve the country’s economic growth. They believe that keeping the economy growing at more than 7 percent annually is a political imperative to prevent unemployment and labor unrest.

But in a crisis — or when dealing with Japan, Taiwan, and the United States which are hot-button domestic issues in China – the country’s second, more aggressive persona emerges. Previous president Jiang Zemin began stoking popular nationalism as a way to win popular support for the Communist Party in an age when almost nobody believes in communism anymore. China’s new commercial media and the Internet attract readers with front page stories hyping the threats from Japan, Taiwan and the United States. When the public pays close attention to an issue, Chinese leaders feel they have to act tough to show how strong they are.

China’s leaders are acutely aware of history. The previous two dynasties – the Qing Dynasty (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qing_Dynasty) and the Republic of China (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic_of_China)— fell to revolutionary movements that accused the government of failing to defend the nation against foreign aggression. Today’s leaders worry that they could meet the same fate if they don’t stay ahead of popular nationalism.

This week, Premier Wen Jiabao will visit Japan thanks to an informal agreement with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that for the time being at least, Abe will not visit the Yasukuni Shrine where a number of Japanese convicted war criminals from World War II are honored along with other war dead. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao would like to dampen the anti-Japanese nationalism that Jiang Zemin stirred up because they fear that it could turn against them. But how will Beijing react if Abe later does visit Yasukuni or takes other actions related to wartime history that are popular in Japan but outrage the Chinese public?

Watch to see how China’s own domestic media report inside China on Wen Jiabao’s visit to Japan. If the stories emphasize Wen’s vocal insistence that the Japanese prime minister not visit Yasukuni or take actions related to history that “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” we’ll know that Hu and Wen remain afraid of being condemned by public opinion as soft on Japan.

China shows its responsible side in most of its foreign policies. But is this approach domestically sustainable? In view of their domestic insecurities, China’s present and future leaders will have a hard time managing the country’s emotional, nationalistic side that could get it into trouble.

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