Why Xi treated Moon poorlyChina is huge, but needs a lot of growing-up to become a mature adult. Making a state guest dine alone and beating up members of his press corps would be unthinkable in a civilized society. South Korean President Moon Jae-in nevertheless stayed courteous to his rude host till the end. “The Chinese and Koreans are comrades who suffered and overcame the hardships of modern history together,” Moon said in an address at Peking University.
A leader can be gallant, but should not expect his people to feel the same. They can only feel apathy or worse toward a country that outright humiliated their leader and then acted as if it was doing a big favor by lifting its economic retaliations for Seoul’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system and sending tourists to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. China may think it has done its part by sending the South Korean president back to his country with business gains, but it clearly has underrated the Korean people.
Famously anti-communist U.S. President Richard Nixon visited China in February 1972 for what he later described as “a week that changed the world.” The White House press corps that accompanied Nixon on his historic trip asked a lower-level Chinese official’s thoughts on the first visit by a U.S. president while visiting a rural area. The official said the Chinese were happy that the United States has surrendered and joined their leader Mao Zedong on his mission to revolutionize the world. He was merely reciting what he had been taught. The interpreter left that part out when translating for the American reporters. Prime Minister Zhou Enlai later complimented the discreet impromptu action of the interpreter.
The U.S. president went to China for a landmark reconciliation, but Beijing could not suddenly change what had been planted in the minds of the common Chinese about Americans. So as not to confuse their citizens, they may have fed fake news to them about Washington yielding to Beijing. But the case with Korea is entirely different. South Korea has been a big trading partner of China’s over the last quarter of a century since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1992.
When asked about the cold treatment of Moon, a knowledgeable Chinese official said Beijing would have intentionally done so as a sort of propaganda to show that it taught Koreans a lesson for going against its opposition to Thaad. Since Beijing had been encouraging the Chinese to boycott Korean brands by stigmatizing Seoul as a puppet of Washington’s, it could not have suddenly turned friendly toward the South Korean leader. Telling the people that Nixon came in to surrender to China 45 years ago and leaving a state leader to dine alone have more or less been motivated by the same design, he tersely said.
Beijing has insulted Korea’s leader to save face for its leader. In his episodic novella “The True Story of Ah Q,” Lu Xun pointed out a fatal weakness in the national soul of modern China. The Chinese tend to delude themselves by thinking that they are spiritually “superior” and have triumphed even after they were defeated, he wrote. How has China changed from a century ago? Their leaders still censor what people see and hear and disregard their neighbor to indulge in a sense of superiority. They are fooling themselves if they really think they can persuade the world to recognize their leadership and status as defenders of free trade.
The Chinese self-deluding habit is deeply-rooted. The Communist propaganda apparatus only reports to the leadership what it wants to hear. No matter how bad Korean sentiment has turned towards the Chinese, Beijing officials would think Koreans were relieved by their generous gestures of lifting retaliations and normalization of ties. Beijing will go on shaming Seoul upon learning how easy it was to tame Koreans.
In a lecture at Dalian Foreign Language University, Shen Zhihua, a professor of East China Normal University, addressed North Korea as China’s potential foe and South Korea as its friend. When his comment spread on the internet, Chinese state-sponsored scholars mounted criticism against him. If not for his special relationship with President Xi Jinping, he would have been buried in the academic community.
Nevertheless, Seoul needs to have Beijing on its side as long as the North Korean nuclear threat remains. Still, it must demand an apology for China’s unreasonable ways. Korea also must reduce its economic reliance on China. It must instead strengthen ties with Southeast Asian, Latin American and African nations. If it continues to play up to China because of high economic stakes, Korea could risk losing its core allies — the United States and Japan.
Even some Chinese believe that Beijing went too far by cold-shouldering the Korean president when Seoul refrained from filing a suit against China over the Thaad-related retaliation. If Korea backs out now, China will never wake up from its self-delusion. Korea must stand up firmly to China for the sake of its viability and dignity.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 18, Page 35
*The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.