Brian Wong is a Rhodes scholar from Hong Kong and founding editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review.
If there is one thing that both Chinese and American analysts could agree on, it is that Chinese diplomacy has taken a clear, aggressive and trenchant turn in recent months.
From Chinese diplomats trading vicious barbs with their foreign counterparts, unceremonious memes derogating subjects ranging from Justin Trudeau to India, and the drastic reduction in broad-based civil society exchanges, Beijing has become increasingly defiant. Add to that an increasing cognizance of China’s outward projection of a hitherto inward-facing narrative of institutional confidence — and that is about where the agreement ends.
Many in the West see China as inherently expansionist and revanchist, fueled by a mixture of historically rooted grievances and thirst for resources and territory. Some have linked Beijing’s aggressive diplomacy to a desire to export its authoritarian model of governance; others have suggested that China is seeking global hegemony at the expense of the existing international order.
Pro-China advocates argue that China is simply defending itself against interference, pointing to the bellicose rhetoric espoused by the West that has been exacerbated by the pandemic and by what Chinese netizens identify as an imperialist-colonialist, white-supremacist mindset. More moderate voices have stated that Beijing is merely reacting inelegantly to the West’s excessive consternation.
This is a chicken-and-egg problem. Both sides perceive the other to be driving an expansionist, aggressive foreign policy. Hawks on both sides view their own country’s concessionary past policies as precipitating this inevitable clash. Sinoskeptics rebuke past engagement efforts, invoking — unhelpfully — emotive yet disingenuous imagery surrounding the U.K.’s 1930s policy of appeasement toward Nazi Germany. Staunch critics of the West in China, on the other hand, believe that any concession would be akin to giving someone an inch and they’ll take a mile.
Such misalignment has not been aided by the breakdown in trust that followed Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House, which coincided with Xi Jinping tightening his grip on power in Beijing. A more austere, conservative, pro-stability ethos now steers China’s national strategy.
Western discourse has not helped either, emboldening China’s hawks and ultranationalists and supplying them with ample ammunition to demonstrate that through their protracted economic and political engagement with Beijing, Western powers really want to thwart Chinese Communist Party rule, especially via the entry ports of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.
China’s neoconservatives portray Western attitudes as the natural lashing-out of a dying power long removed from its halcyon days atop the global order — a perception reinforced by the political upheaval and social unrest that has rocked the U.S. over the past decade.
The logical corollary, they argue, is that China must dial up ultranationalistic sentiments to secure the country against the threat of ideologically predisposed criticisms from the outside. To such individuals, any and all complaints raised against China amount to demonstrative signals of Western hubris and arrogance.
Coupled with trade sanctions, restricted access to vital technology and talk of economic decoupling, much of the West’s antagonistic China rhetoric has played into the very hands of those who are adamant that only self-sufficiency — internal circulation — and self-strengthening, not internationalist engagement, offer China a way out. More liberal, internationalist voices, which have always existed inside the party, have been sidelined, and their sympathetic views toward the West dismissed as delusional naivete.
Among midlevel bureaucrats and diplomats, what had previously been seen as virtues, such as the ability to work with and engage in amicable talks with the West, are now seen as career stalling black marks.
As the West becomes more unyielding toward Beijing, characterizing China as an authoritarian and oppressive regime, the message is ever the clearer internally: conceding to value judgments or adopting Western norms is akin to bowing down before an existential enemy. In party parlance, such softening amounts to a gross “positional error.”
The surging antagonism is not unique to those inside the Chinese administration. Recent polls, done in China by the China Data Lab at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, reveal that the average favorability among Chinese youth toward the U.S. declined from 5.77 in June 2019 to 4.77 in May 2020. Respondents were asked to base their favorability on a scale from one to 10. Many cited America’s handling of the virus and the White House’s xenophobic discourse. Netizens have echoed their national leaders’ sentiments, branding U.S. criticisms of China as reeking of hypocrisy and arrogance.
A couple walk by an American flag signboard outside a supermarket selling imported groceries in Qingdao; the average favorability among Chinese youth toward the U.S. declined from 5.77 in June 2019 to 4.77 in May 2020. © Chinatopix/AP
Now what? It would be absurd to insist that the West should refrain from all reasonable, constructive criticisms of China. Many of the concerns harbored by citizens abroad regarding China’s behavior are genuine and well-founded. As are some of the political reservations regarding communications behemoth Huawei Technologies, China’s sharp power projection and the abrasive rhetoric of some of its representatives.
Yet such criticisms should not be conflated with an absolutist repudiation of the Chinese state, a speech act that does very little, on a practical level, to ameliorate the problems the West has with China while propping up insurmountable barriers to resolving discord. In turn, China must learn to see the difference between valid counsel and recommendations, and the illegitimate imposition of interests and preferences by foreign actors. It is not the case that everything involves Beijing’s baselines.
While the former certainly grates the ears of some, engaging productively with it is unlikely to impede China’s rise as a whole.