The Chinese government has virtually eliminated its citizens’ right to publicly assemble, protest or express any kind of political aspirations. Yet last weekend saw mass demonstrations in several major Chinese cities. These protests marked the climax to an anti-Japanese movement among Chinese inside China and abroad in response to the possibility that Japan might be granted a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The only reason that the Chinese masses have been allowed to “enjoy” the right to “free assembly” in this instance is that the anti-Japanese protests play into the hands of the Chinese government. Unable to prevent the United States, France, Russia and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan from supporting Japan, the Chinese government is reverting to its former trump card of mobilizing anti-Japanese sentiments among ordinary people. That’s reminiscent of the way that the Qing emperors used to handle relations with the outside world 100 years ago, on the basis that “Officials fear foreigners, foreigners fear the people, and the people fear officials.” China’s modern rulers have resurrected this logic and used it on several occasions in recent years. Examples include the protests that followed the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade on May 8, 1999, the collision of a Chinese fighter plane with a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane off Hainan Island on April 1, 2001, and the anti-Iraq war protests by Peking University students in March 2003.
This tactic does the government little credit, given that today’s China is a far cry from the China of the late Qing dynasty. As the Chinese government itself likes to say, “China’s international status is rising; China has embarked on a peaceful rise.” Since China is no longer considered weak compared with other countries, Beijing should be able to find better ways of handling international disputes than simply mobilizing its people to protest.
In recent months, Beijing has become embroiled in several complicated foreign-policy issues. These include potential trade boycotts, the possibility of the European Union lifting its arms embargo on China and closer contacts between India and Japan to coordinate their stance toward Beijing. To deal with these issues requires wisdom and strength. Instead the Chinese leadership, by its recent actions, has demonstrated its lack of diplomatic skills or a coherent strategy on the domestic front. That’s particularly evident in its decision to introduce last month, with great fanfare, an anti-secession law allowing for the use of non-peaceful means against Taiwan. Apart from the lonely voices of the government-controlled Chinese media, the world was almost unanimous in expressing its opposition to the new law. Even countries with “one-China policies” could find nothing favorable to say about it.
In response to the anti-secession law, the U.S. for the first time invited Taiwanese aviation officials and fighter planes to participate in the annual U.S. Air Force Red Flag exercise, and invited a Taiwanese military delegation to the Pentagon to discuss matters related to Taiwan’s maritime defense. The EU, for its part, is no longer expected to reach agreement on lifting the arms embargo before the end of June, as was originally planned. Analysts attribute this delay to the anti-secession law.
The inept aggressiveness of China’s introduction of the anti-secession law contrasts sharply with its passivity in the diplomatic arena as far as Japan is concerned. Tokyo has won considerable international backing in its quest for a seat on the Security Council. For instance, Mr. Annan recently observed that countries that have contributed the most to the U.N. in the economic, military and foreign-relations arena should be given more decision-making power. That was evidently a reference to Japan, which is the second largest financial contributor to the U.N. But rather than use diplomatic means to respond to Mr. Annan’s implicit support for a Japanese seat, or effectively articulate China’s concerns to the other permanent members of the Security Council, the Chinese government has been largely silent in the international arena.
Chinese people are left to feel that they are voices in the wilderness as Beijing issues military threats against those it considers its own people, which is how it classifies the residents of Taiwan, while demonstrating a weak and vacillating attitude toward Japan, a foreign nation that has never offered a formal apology for the acts it committed during its occupation of China. The Qing government of 100 years ago was poor and presided over a weak country under military threat from foreign nations, and that had no real access to diplomatic means to advance its national interests. The Chinese people, seeing that they could not depend on the government to protect the country’s interests, instead resorted to various forms of revolt.
If the best that today’s Chinese government can come up with is playing the public opinion card, the results are bound to be disappointing and counterproductive. Instead of hiding behind its powerless masses, the Chinese government should do its duty to represent the interests of its people through firm and direct diplomatic engagement and negotiation with the Japanese government and those that support’s Tokyo’s U.N. ambitions.
Ms. He, an economist and senior scholar in residence at Human Rights in China, is the author of “China’s Pitfall” (1998).