The Chinese have a long memory. They remember the unequal treaties they were forced to sign in the mid-19th century ceding valuable trade and treaty ports to European powers. To us it might seem ancient history. To them it is still very much alive and the humiliation is still very much felt. The ultimate goal of China is to bring back pre-Qing Dynasty power, to truly make the country the “Middle Kingdom” again.
Deng Xiaoping kicked off a series of pragmatic economic reforms in 1979 that produced the fastest and most dramatic increase in economic well-being in history. More than 800 million Chinese have risen from abject poverty and hundreds of millions have joined the middle class in the past 40 years. China’s economy was smaller than France’s in 2000. Now it is seven times as large.
Chairman Deng’s foreign policy approach was also pragmatic. In the economy the policy was to do what worked, sometimes socialist, sometimes capitalist – – “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” In the international arena the strategy was to not ruffle feathers, let China’s military and economic might build quietly, avoiding big power conflicts. As Deng said, “hide our light and bide our time.”
The new Chairman, Xi Jinping has a much different strategy. Since taking office in 2013 he has consolidated power ensuring most probably that he can serve for life. His “China Dream” of restoring national glory has a timeline much quicker than previous leaders. He is tired of deferring to Western leaders. China no longer apologizes for being authoritarian. Whether it is imprisonment of Muslims in Xinjiang or the new security legislation limiting human rights in Hong Kong, or building military bases in the contested South China Sea, Beijing is flexing its muscles.
And this “my way or the highway” feeling is filtering down to the people. If you want proof, rent the biggest grossing movie in Chinese history, Wolf Warrior 2 (Amazon Prime or Hulu). Cinematically the movie is of interest only to the hardest core action afficionados. The rest of us should pay attention to the plot. A Chinese special ops agent is sent to a war-torn African country to rescue Chinese doctors and nurses running a humanitarian hospital and a Chinese factory providing much needed local employment. This is standard good-versus-evil movie fare, but the twist is it is the Chinese special ops force assisted by the Chinese Navy with the full blessing of the UN that prevails over – wait – a Rebel force led by a sinister American mercenary.
In Hollywood it is Democracy, the American Dream and the Marines waving the Stars and Stripes who ride to the rescue. The tables have now turned, the world has changed and there is a new power in town. Chinese diplomats today have been dubbed “Wolf Warriors.” They are being more assertive with the West, hardening their stance through their newfound affection for Twitter (see chart). In the Czech Republic when the mayor of Prague would not remove a Taiwan representative from a reception the Chinese Ambassador attended, he warned the mayor to “change its approach as soon as possible….otherwise the city’s own interests will suffer.” A subsequent China tour by the Prague Philharmonic was cancelled.
The U.S. is used to throwing its weight around globally. Now another heavyweight has entered the ring. Game on.