[Viewpoint] Who will take on the Chinese bully?

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[Viewpoint] Who will take on the Chinese bully?

Despite the massive size of their country, the Chinese are strangely introverted. They insist on their style and enjoy forcing it on their neighbors. They reveled in their high and mighty status in Asia for centuries. Backed by rich resources and military power, an overbearing posture came naturally to them. “I heard China can change the rival kingdoms, but never the other way around,” said the famous Chinese sage Mencius.

Then the Chinese discovered that its ways were not compatible with the modern world, especially as represented by the West. The first envoy from Great Britain, Lord George Macartney, refused to kowtow to the Chinese emperor in 1793, when the British were building an empire on which, eventually, “the sun never set.”

The Chinese turned down the request for establishment of a foreign embassy and later paid a heavy price in the Opium Wars. For a century, the Chinese had to swallow their pride and learn to serve rather than command. The Chinese called this period their “century of humiliation.”

Disgrace is even harder to forget for a state than an individual. It can spend a long, long time waiting for payback. China has built more power than it can manage through 30 years of reform and opening up to the world one of the most populated and resource-rich lands.

Now that it has regained power and self-esteem, its old habit is back and its disposition to “take control” has resurfaced.

At first the Chinese were self-conscious and subtle at it. They used the market to do their dirty work, while the government sat in comfortable denial in the backseat. The Japanese were their first target. They tried a boycott on Japanese products. Boycotts are usually consumer-driven campaigns to protest corporate brands’ inadequate products.

But the Chinese provoked a boycott over a political issue. Consumers raided and broke show windows of Honda, Toyota and other Japanese car makers when the Japanese prime minister defended domestic history textbooks that had controversial comments about Japan’s imperial occupation.

Happy with the firepower of that weapon, the Chinese began to experiment with stronger ammunition. The next target was France. Blunt-speaking President Nicolas Sarkozy commented that he might not attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008 if China continued its crackdown on Tibet. That remark spurred angry protests and a boycott against French consumer products, as well as against 112 Carrefour outlets in China. In the end, Sarkozy sent a letter to Beijing saying he regretted his comment and flew in to make a friendly appearance at the Olympics.

China has been enjoying a field day this year: going overboard with its newfound power, easily losing its temper, picking fights for incomprehensible reasons and bullying its way through disputes with drastic measures.

In August, a former Philippine policeman hijacked a busload of Hong Kong tourists in Manila, killing eight of the hostages. China went ballistic over the incident, blaming the Philippine government and police for mismanaging the disaster. A high-profile delegation from Manila was turned away and Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang canceled a visit to Manila without a clear reason, although the foreign ministry denied any connection with the hostage tragedy.

The immediate damage was felt by 130,000 Philippine domestic servants working in Hong Kong. They had to endure sacking, discrimination and even physical abuse.

The Chinese were particularly tough with Japan. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao unilaterally called off a planned tete-a-tete with Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan in Hanoi over the weekend about half an hour before the meeting was due to take place.

Such disrespect is rare on the international diplomatic stage. China claimed Japan had ruined the atmosphere for talks by unfair reporting on the territorial dispute over disputed islets - called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by the Japanese.

China had previously demanded an apology over Japan’s seizing of a Chinese trawler and cut off Japan’s access to its rare-earth minerals. Yet it appears even that was not enough for Beijing.

China’s blunt assertiveness is a way of restoring its ancient self-centered authority, which comes down to getting its way no matter what.

Fighting a strong bully alone is futile. A group has a better chance. A joint front is needed to guide China - incapable of controlling its newfound power - back to the right course of leadership.

Next week’s Group of 20 Summit meeting is an opportune moment. The world should choose if it wants to lead China or be led by it. That discussion seems more imperative than nuts-and-bolts disputes over exchange rates.

*The writer is business editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Yi Jung-jae
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