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U.S. President Barack Obama arrives at the Hangzhou Exhibition Center to attend the G20 Summit, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016 in Hangzhou, China. (Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images Pool)
U.S. President Barack Obama arrives at the Hangzhou Exhibition Center to attend the G20 Summit, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016 in Hangzhou, China. (Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images Pool)

Cracks emerge in China's image as Obama snubbed at G20 summit Add to ...

The voices are western, their tone positive. In the TV ad playing on heavy rotation in luxury hotels around the G20 summit this weekend, foreign economists and investors call China a “model for all developing nations in the world,” “a place with a lot to offer” in ideas and innovative solutions.

The tag line: “China – connecting with you.”

It’s an image China spends heavily to promote, of a place powerful enough to win respect, but magnanimous enough to use it for good. Selling it is a major reason China is hosting the G20, a massive public relations exercise for which it shut down factories, built a new expressway and emptied parts of one of its biggest cities.

Then Air Force One landed in Hangzhou on Saturday and the picture, once again for China, cracked badly.

In a series of heated disputes that nearly led to blows, Chinese officials harassed foreign reporters and embarrassed U.S. President Barack Obama from the first moments of his arrival.

Other leaders, including President Shinzo Abe of rival Japan, walked off their airplanes onto red carpet-draped steps. Mr. Obama emerged from an auxiliary exit in the bowels of his plane, as Chinese officials then tried to bar the travelling news corps from watching and blocked U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice. “This is our country. This is our airport,” one official said in withering explanation.

On Sunday, the South China Morning Post reported that the red carpet steps weren’t used at the U.S. request, citing an unnamed Chinese official and a dispute over the unilingual Chinese speaker who drove the rolling stairs. But reporters on Air Force One said White House staff were left to scramble for a way out of the plane when they found no stairs waiting for them.

It all had the look of China’s Communist Party putting the leader of a superpower in his place.

“It’s a potent message for the Party to say ‘we have made China so strong we can snub [the U.S. president] with impunity,’” Jonathan Sullivan, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, wrote on Twitter.

“Sometimes, when people finally get powerful and important, they no longer worry about concealing their bad habits,” said David Mulroney, the former Canadian ambassador to China.

In Hangzhou, Mr. Obama acknowledged “friction,” but smiled it off as normal jostling between two countries. “The seams are showing a little more than usual,” he said.

By the numbers, no one cares more about world opinion than China.

Beijing spends roughly $10-billion (U.S.) every year on “external propaganda,” political scientist David Shambaugh has estimated. It’s enough money to run Manitoba’s provincial government, far more than any other nation spends on its external image – and an obvious mark of how badly China covets global affection.

But if the idea is to show an ancient civilization retaking its peaceful place in the world, that effort has struggled against China’s own hectoring.

It’s not just a foreign minister delivering a blistering diatribe against a Canadian journalist, as Wang Yi in June did when asked in Ottawa about China’s treatment of lawyers and booksellers.

In recent months, Beijing has suspended formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan after its new president refused to say she and the mainland belong to “one China.” It ordered Lady Gaga’s music wiped from airwaves and streaming websites after she met the Dalai Lama. Its officials were “very rude” to the UK Ambassador, according to the Queen of England, who expressed shock at Chinese conduct in planning a trip by President Xi Jinping.

“China is not what it was five years ago. It has undergone a 180-degree turn in its political ethos,” wrote Christopher Hancock, an Anglican priest and China scholar wrote earlier this year.

“China per se is now as unworthy a trading partner as was South Africa under apartheid,” Mr. Hancock wrote.

In only three countries in the G8 do people look positively toward Beijing, according to Pew Research Center polling, and Canadian ill-feeling, too, has deepened in recent years.

Among 30 large nations in an international “soft power” index maintained by communications consultancy Portland, China sits two spots from the bottom – behind Russia (Canada is fourth).

This isn’t how China imagined its future a decade ago.

In the prelude to the 2008 Summer Olympics, it held the world spellbound with the sweep of its modernization, the skill of its planners and the competitiveness of its athletes.

Beijing then won further plaudits for astute financial management as it marched confidently onwards while the financial crisis turned the rest of the world upside down. But it was that moment that observers point to as the turning point, when China began to see its system and governance as superior, and act accordingly.

In 2005, political scientist Joseph Nye – the man who coined the term “soft power” – pointed out that China had begun to attract more favourable perceptions than the U.S.

But “things have changed,” said Prof. Nye, the former dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, in an e-mail. Under Mr. Xi, China’s “soft power has suffered from his crackdown on civil society and from the nationalistic response to China’s disputes with its neighbours.”

What the Chinese president wants is cultural and political dominance equal to his country’s economic achievements – superpower status in all arenas.

“They talk about the power of discourse. The very fact this is talked about means China lacks this kind of power. And they want to make up for that weakness,” said Chengxin Pan, a senior lecturer in international relations at Deakin University.

But, he said, China “overall has not actually made any headway in the big picture.”

That stems partly from the tone at the top.

“Telling a reporter that she does not have the right to ask about Chinese human rights is akin to denying visas to scholars who criticize China or buying Chinese-language media in countries outside China. They are all efforts to use coercive means to control what is said about China by the international community,” said Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “China buys friends but it doesn’t win them.”

And in some cases, it has alienated them. By flouting international norms and building artificial islands in disputed maritime areas, China has also provoked a military response.

“If the law of the sea is not respected today in the China seas, it will be threatened tomorrow in the Arctic, in the Mediterranean, or elsewhere,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said this summer.

Provoking global anxiety and suspicion “could actually constrain China’s increase of influence and ultimately even China’s expansion of investment,” Mr. Pan said. “This may actually come back to damage China’s core interests.”

Mr. Obama, too, has warned China about its conduct. “Part of what I’ve tried to communicate to President Xi is that the United States arrives at its power, in part, by restraining itself,” he said in a CNN interview.

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