Is China Toning it Down?

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.


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  1. Hank

    I can imagine the manic and unhinged comments this post will receive on seeing the name, Gordon Chang but, whatever.

    You asked for comments and I thought Gordon Chang’s was “different.”

    “China’s Reign Ends Tomorrow”
    by Gordon G. Chang

    “Chinese President Hu Jintao travels to Washington for Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit, Gordon G. Chang on why the visit proves the [Chinese] superpower is more bluster than bite.”

    • whichone


      As usual Gordan Chang has well researched albeit one sided facts about China, unfortunately reading his articles one comes away with the impression that the facts are selected to suit the theory – China will fail/crash/collapse/get destroyed by pissed off giraffe – instead of the other way around, worth reading to get an perspective, as long as people understand it is a somewhat skewed one.

    • lolz

      Gordan Chang does provide some good facts here. China does depend on US to balance out its own deficits because it runs a deficit against pretty much rest of the rest. He just can’t analyze.

      Using Gordan’s logic, if China is bowing to the US because China runs a huge trade surplus against the US, then countries like Korea and Japan should bow to China as well because these countries run up tens of billions of trade surplus against China as well. That’s hardly the case.

      Gordan Chang reminds me of the Iraq War NeoCons in that they have been proven wrong consistently, yet they still manage to keep (somewhat) influential positions in the media. He should be laughed out of any type of China related media jobs. If I wrote a book on the “coming collapse of China” in 2001 and nearly a decade later I am still wrong, I will quit writing the same prediction and wonder why the hell was I so dumb to come up with such a dumb prediction. But being the typical good China basher Gordan Chang just seem to march on the same beat acting as if he has always been correct.

      What’s sad is that China’s economy will eventually fail one day and Gordan Chang will be the first to claim the credit for “predicting” this.

  2. King Tubby

    Possibly simmering economic problems at home.

    After jeering at the US’s inability to manage their domestic economic affairs, Beijing started to read about the humungous debts being incurred at the provincial level, and had second thoughts. China’s domestic debt mountain in extreme detail in three different posts on this site.

    Weren’t short of slogans: just a quiet reality check instead.

    The modernisation of the PRC’s military assets continues apace, since realists at the upper levels more than sensibly realise that, in any short or near term conflict with the US, they lack the weaponary, logistics (look at the piss poor response to the Sichuan quake) and command coordination to be an effective contender in this heavy weight division.

  3. hm

    i can’t quite believe it all has to do with modernizing its military… I kind of wonder if the US did anything to help provoke these changes from the Chinese government…

  4. Hank

    The real reason for China’s “attitude adjustment” is related to “small” events that happened in the last two months.

    The current financial and economic crisis in Greece indicated to China how fragile the euro was as a back-up reserve currency.

    With the weakness of the US dollar and the threats by the US Congress to impose sanctions on Chinese exports, China realized that they were skating on shaky ice. I believe these factors “focused the mind” of many Chinese leaders.

    The following events in the last two months also revealed that the hype of China’s “superpower” rise and the terminal weakness of the US was premature.

    “U.S. slaps anti-dumping duties on Chinese steel pipe in new”
    9 Apr 2010

    “Argentine soya rift with China grows”
    April 5 2010

    “US ship repair in Vietnam confirms ties”
    2 Apr 2010

    “US companies criticize Chinese market obstacles”
    O2 Apr 2010

    “China reprimanded by G20 leaders”
    March 30 2010

    “Historic Day: Google Leaves China”
    22 Mar 2010

    “U.S. Congress slams China and Microsoft, praises Google”
    24 Mar 2010

    “French Bank: Euro Collapse ‘Inevitable'”
    15 Feb 2010

    “The Coming Euro Collapse – How a Greek defualt could cause a run on …”
    6 Feb 2010

    “World Bank Urges China to Raise Rates and Let Currency Rise”
    18 Mar 2010

    “IMF says Chinese currency substantially undervalued”
    1 Mar 2010

    “US-China Currency War Worries Korea”
    19 Mar 2010

    “China records first trade deficit in 6 years”
    Apr 12, 2010

    “China in Midst of ‘Greatest Bubble in History,'”
    17 Mar 2010

    “China risks property bubble as prices rise 20pc a month”
    28 Feb 2010

    “Contrarian Investor Predicts Economic Crash in China”
    8 Jan 2010

    “[130] Members of Congress consider slapping sanctions on China”
    15 Apr 2001

    • I think you’re totally misidentifying China’s changes in posture as being unique to itself as opposed being part of how the game of international politics is played. The Chinese government isn’t that smart, but it also isn’t that stupid.

  5. lolz

    I think people should keep in mind that the Chinese Communist Party’s main goal is to remain in power. Though the western media love to imply that the the CCP remains in power only because of censorship, the reality is that the CCP have long been insisting its legitimacy on the growth of the economy focusing on the key metric GDP. The CCP then does it needs to do to attain its goal, which is to keep the GDP growth at certain levels. Prolonging a war of words against the US is not exactly helpful to this goal.

    I am also unsure just why this time should China be especially upset at the US to begin with. Yeah the US has sold weapons to Taiwan and Obama met with Dalai Lama, but that has been going on for the last few decades. The same with US politicians bashing and threatening China. Politicians need to do what they need to do in order to stay in power. Playing on nationalist themes like blaming China for everything has worked well for US politicians, but ultimately politicians are realists.

    • King Tubby

      While I’m agnostic on this read, which has been around for sometime, it does ask some interesting questions about China’s GDP figures. Read carefully before slagging it.

      • lolz

        I agree with much of the article. Because Chinese government’s heavy reliance on GDP as the means to project legitimacy, a lot of the things which it does are aimed at rising this particular figure as opposed to helping the overall shape of the economy. GDP figure should not be an end itself but for the Chinese government that seems to be the case.

        But then it’s also easy to predict China’s eventual fall. All markets run too hot and get corrected. The question is when and what the effects the crash will have on China’s economic and political system.

        • King Tubby

          I admit to being a bit of a downfall pundit based on national accounting type stuff and the existing structure of the Chinese econonomy, *but when and if* there is a major dislocation, I suspect the outcomes will confound everybody. Generic causal factors are easy, since there is a whole academic bubble study industry, predicting consequences/outcomes is a totally different story as global and domestic economies are experiencing rapid change and greater complexity by the day.

          BTW LOLZ You have not responded in a scholarly manner to my long back post to your comments about the use of knives and forks in China….can’t recall name of story, unfortunately.

          • lolz

            I usually try to read and reply to all of my posts but sometimes I simply don’t have the time to catch up. I found your post on the chopsticks and knives and forks. It was under the “Stupid Americans” post and I was arguing for the success of the Western influences on China.

            Now that I think about it, the reason why I did not respond to you post on that thread was because at around the same time another post “War on Westernization in China” came up and I posted a similar post that thread and explained my position a little more clearly. You responded to that one too.

          • King Tubby

            LOLZ. But did you take in the serious historical points I made? Leaving aside my jokey bits. I could take the historical stuff to any serious Sino historian and would find total agreement.

          • lolz

            I think you made a good point about knives/forks, but then I also think I used a bad example to illustrate my point.

            Just so that we are clear, the whole argument was over China’s “anti-west” sentiment, and I was arguing that China is actually alot more accepting to the “west” no? I still think that is the case. Granted that adapting “western” utensils is a bad example to support my rather general argument, but then there are plenty of other areas where I think China is a lot more “pro west” than people from both sides are willing to accept.

  6. King Tubby

    It is an anti-productivity device cooked up by some US right-wing think tank to slow down the export trade. Forget the psychoanalytic explanations.