[Viewpoint] Panther politics

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[Viewpoint] Panther politics

The saying goes, “The superior man changes like a panther. The inferior man molts his face.”

When the superior man reforms himself, he sheds all his past; the inferior man changes only his face.

“Changing like a panther” originally had a positive connotation, but today it is used negatively to describe a sudden change in method and attitude.

On Monday, during the summit meeting between Chinese President Hu Jintao and U.S. President Barack Obama, their bright smiles reminded me of panthers.

The two leaders had been snarling at each other like fierce beasts eyeing the same prey, yet suddenly there was unexpected cheerfulness.

“The talk was congenial,” explained the spokesmen.

Congenial or not, the two leaders butted heads over many issues, especially the currency exchange rate.

Hu said that Beijing would not submit to external pressure to revaluate the Chinese yuan. It was a remark that deviated sharply from the usual diplomatic rhetoric.

Ever since diplomatic relations thawed in 1979, Washington has been initiating contact with Beijing.

Considering this, the stubborn attitude of China’s leader illustrates how the power dynamic has shifted between China and the United States.

John King Fairbank (1907-1991) was a professor of Chinese history at Harvard University and one of the first scholars in the United States to conduct research on China.

During World War II, Fairbank worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, in Chongqing, China.

Fairbank is well known for using the model of “the incitement of the United States and the response of China” as a frame in which to analyze U.S.-China relations.

He defined the United States, a modernized and dynamic nation, as a subject, while China, which lacked an intrinsic driving force for development, was an object.

The authority in Chinese studies claimed that China’s development would be made possible in the course of responding to incitements by the United States.

Fairbank’s perspective later came under academic criticism for bias, but if you look at Washington’s latest approach to Beijing, his old framework still seems to be valid.

Earlier this year, the United States sold weapons to Taiwan in spite of opposition from Beijing.

In addition, Obama went on to have a meeting with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader exiled by China.

However, one thing has clearly changed from the past: China’s responses to the incitements.

When Washington meddled in issues of sovereignty and territory directly related to China’s key national interests, Beijing’s reaction was explicitly unpleasant.

We had never seen China openly express anger in the past. But now, Beijing is shouting out loud, “That is unacceptable!”

Beijing stubbornly stuck to its positions and in the end obtained U.S. concessions over Taiwan and Tibet.

The new trend became more evident as the financial crisis that originated in the United States spread around the world.

China emerged from its old position as a passive object and began to criticize the unilateralism and economic order led by the United States.

Beijing no longer hides its true intentions. China can afford to change its attitude as its economy grows larger and more stable.

If in the past China maintained a face as blank as those of the terra-cotta warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, it will now change its expression as frequently as a face-changing performer in the traditional bian lian opera.

How should the world deal with China as we meet the bare face of the ever-changing panther more often?


*The writer is the Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Chang Se-jeong
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