Recently, the bumps of the past few months’ Sino-American relations crises seem to be being smoothed out. Meetings are being held, and China seems poised to offer a bit of a peace offering in the form of a modest currency revaluation — not enough of one to please the US Congress, but perhaps enough of one to get them to shut up for a while. While the idea that China can’t or won’t be influenced by the West on domestic issues remains popular, there are some signs that Beijing is paying attention to all the yelling that’s happening outside China’s borders (perhaps because they’re hoping Washington will do the same).
For starters, there’s the resurfacing of human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, alive and (apparently relatively) unharmed. The US and Western protest groups had been clamoring for his release, or at least some information about his whereabouts, since his detention in February, 2009. While clearly something bizarre is going on — Gao said he was released months ago, but never called his family or friends, who all reported he sounded weird on the phone — Gao is definitely alive, and he’s definitely not in prison. That’s a step in the right direction. As ever, the Chinese government has done a good job of obfuscating the reason for Gao’s release, but many people have suggested that given the heavy sentences handed down to similar “criminals” like Liu Xiaobo, letting Gao out after barely a year is probably not something the government would have done if there hadn’t been some external pressure applied.
In political literature, too, there are signs that China is pulling away from a confrontational stance with the West. In their excellent review of the recent China Dream, the China Beat contrasts that book’s content with a similar but more incendiary title from a few years earlier (Unhappy China) and concludes:
This is quite different from the venomous anti-Americanism found in some of the authors of Unhappy China, or the influential geopolitical thinker Zhang Wenmu, a professor at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Combined with other elements of the book, this raises the possibility that China Dream reflects concerns in the military to divert the nationalist wave away from a show down with the United States.
Could there be a movement afoot in some military circles to try to tone down the nationalist rhetoric, at least until China is really ready for a military showdown with the United States? Perhaps. The Associated Press recently reported on this very trend, writing:
China is softening its recent muscular global posture, muting criticisms of the U.S. at a time of delicate negotiations with Washington and simmering economic troubles at home.
The rhetorical time-out comes as President Hu Jintao heads to Washington this week, after months of friction with the U.S., and was in full evidence this weekend at an international meeting designed to showcase China’s growing reach as an economic and diplomatic powerhouse.
While the turnaround in Beijing’s attitude may be temporary, the change points to indecision among the leadership about China’s role in the world, especially its crucial but fraught ties with the U.S., and about keeping the Chinese economy humming amid a still anemic global recovery.
“We are in a time of reassessment by Beijing about China’s foreign policy,” said Russell Leigh Moses, a Beijing-based political analyst. “There is no overarching slogan or concept guiding the decision-making process in foreign affairs these days here.”
Though Washington likely welcomes the toned-down rhetoric, China’s overall reticence befuddles the U.S. and others looking to Beijing to provide constructive leadership. The country’s economy, after all, will soon be the second largest and is increasingly entwined in the world order.
Of course, this is not the first time the decisions of the Chinese government have befuddled Western observers. In fact, I’m confident that happens almost daily. But regardless of the mixed messages, the fact that there does seem to be some toning down going on is definitely interesting. Is it, as the AP suggests, temporary posturing while China shores up its economy and further modernizes its military? Or could it be the first, faltering step toward an internationally cooperative Beijing? Has all that Western pressure had some effect after all?
Only time will tell, but time is pretty slow and no one likes waiting, so give us your thoughts in the comments.