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Foreign Policy

Why China Gets a Bad Rap

Jun 24, 2021
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

While countless Chinese are proud of their country’s sustained development, they are baffled and even angry at the constant criticism of China from the West.

China, the world’s most populous country, has managed to keep the COVID-19 epidemic at bay, yet it is criticized by Western countries for authoritarianism even as hundreds of thousands of people have died in the pandemic in those very countries. China’s economy was first to emerge from the haze of the pandemic to bring hope for the global economic recovery, yet it is accused of state capitalism. China’s contribution to the global public good as it provided vaccines to other developing countries is described by some Western countries as vaccine diplomacy, even as those countries themselves are often hoarding vaccines.

Why is it that what China does well, what it does right and what it does in a timely manner seems to some in the West to be wrong, immoral or problematic?

Solving the problem of the incessant scolding of China is one of the most important concerns of the Chinese people at the moment, from elites down to the grassroots. The first step toward a solution is to analyze why it’s happening.

First of all, it is inevitable that China will be scolded, to some degree, during its rise. In a vertical comparison of history, any rising country as it emerges will be seen as alien by those that dominate at any given time. They expect emerging countries to be assimilated without compromising their position in international leadership.

In the 1980s, for example, Japan was criticized by the United States as an exception among developed countries because the Liberal Democratic Party’s one-party dominance was not a Western democracy. Japan’s industrial policy was also criticized as a heretical model of state capitalism.

In the 1990s, the emerging economies of Southeast Asia were criticized for both their authoritarian politics and their mercantilist economics, which led to years of debate over so-called Asian values. But the theory about a Japanese exception dissolved when the country’s economic bubble burst. The economic crisis in Southeast Asia seemed to confirm the failure of Asian values and the “triumph” of America’s.

By contrast, China’s rise far exceeds the scale and speed of the rise of the Japanese and Southeast Asian economies, and the intensity and frequency of scolding by the West will be sustained and severe. China needs to have a clear understanding of this. It cannot be avoided through a unilateral effort to tell the Chinese story well with good intentions.

Second, behind the problem of China being scolded lies a continuation of the flawed logic of the Cold War era, which artificially creates friend-enemy identification and perceptions of good and evil through the use of adversarial discourse. During the Cold War era, the United States called itself and its allies the “free world” and defining the Soviet Union as an authoritarian “evil empire.” It used this value system to rally domestic support and unite its allies.

Unfortunately, the Soviet Union was led by the nose during the Cold War by the above-mentioned polarized U.S. discourse. It tried to construct a countervailing discourse on ideology and social institutions that would demonstrate the absolute superiority of the Soviet Union over the United States. This became a sort of arms race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. in the field of ideas, and was one of the major causes of the Soviet Union’s final predicament.

From this point of view, China’s proposal to establish a human community with a shared future is actually a brilliant move to avoid getting caught in a whirlpool of confrontational rhetoric and get beyond the cold war of words.

Third, China still has a lot of room to explain itself and reduce misperceptions by the outside world. In so doing, it can help squeeze out the biased public opinions that stigmatize it. For example, China’s economic and trade investments in Africa are frequently presented in international media as a negative thing, suggesting that China has created a general debt crisis in African countries and that it has achieved political control by making all of Africa subordinate to Chinese debt.

However, data from the Johns Hopkins China Africa Research Initiative in the U.S. show that Chinese public sector lending in Africa has been declining since 2016, which in turn suggests that lenders are making decisions based on economic logic rather than being dominated by political logic.

Why does such compelling data often come from abroad, rather than from China’s own think tanks? To solve the problem of scolding, China needs to pay attention to data collection and publication with greater transparency and openness, and it must respond to questions from home and abroad in a timely manner. This is a task that cannot be done by the government alone. It requires effort from the whole of society.

The ultimate solution to the problem of a major country being scolded during its rise will depend on the success of its domestic governance and its ability to effectively shape the global governance system. After the 2008 Beijing Olympic Torch Relay was seriously disrupted, Fu Ying, the Chinese ambassador to the UK at the time, wrote an article lamenting that the wall between China and the world was too thick. More than a decade later, the wall still seems thick, but China’s proximity to the rest of the world and its ability to participate in international affairs has also increased like never before.

China needs to be strategically alert to the problem of scolding, but it need not have strategic anxiety. Sometimes it might need to express its discontent, or even anger, in a timely manner; but more often it must be able to gain the recognition and support of its vast circle of friends through a more positive and vivid Chinese narrative.

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