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Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator Frank Ching.
Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator Frank Ching.

Frank Ching

China debates its brashness Add to ...

While Chinese voices continue to be raised against U.S. naval exercises near China's coast and asserting Beijing's increased influence in global affairs, other voices are now being heard questioning the wisdom of this assertiveness.

Major-General Luo Yuan, in a commentary in the Liberation Army Daily, the official newspaper of the People's Liberation Army, accused the U.S. of practising "gunboat diplomacy" by sending its warships "to every corner of the world." Chinese military officials continue to rail against the activities of the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington, which sailed from waters off the Korean Peninsula to Vietnam to take part in joint military exercises there. And an article in the online edition of the People's Daily, citing foreign news media, said Beijing was developing a "carrier-destroying missile," thus giving additional credibility to those reports.

Ironically, while calling for a strong Chinese reaction to the American exercises, the Liberation Army Daily published a commentary declaring, "Outsiders have no ground to make irresponsible remarks on Chinese military exercises." Those exercises, in the South China Sea, simply show "the capability of the Chinese military." The massive publicity given to them, the article said, was to ensure transparency.

In another sign of Chinese assertiveness, Song Xiaojun, a Chinese military commentator with China Central Television, said Beijing is ready to take over as the "world's policeman" if Washington is no longer able to discharge this role.

Despite this outpouring of nationalistic sentiment, there are moderate voices arguing that China should continue to keep a low profile and not become arrogant. The official China Daily, for instance, published an analytical article warning that "the suggestion that global power is now shifting from the West to the East is at best a half-truth and therefore misleading." It pointed out that, whereas China and India have made tremendous strides, they also have huge populations and their per capita GDP is still very low.

Other articles have argued that, while China is now the world's second-largest economy, it's still a developing country, with 150 million people living below the poverty line. Thus, these articles say, China shouldn't be asked to shoulder greater global responsibilities.

Ye Hailin, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, warned against arrogance in an article published online in the People's Daily headlined "Narcissism poisons the people." The Chinese, he said, "are no longer modest. They talk about Seoul and Tokyo with contempt, and even boast Beijing and Shanghai, the two biggest Chinese cities, could soon match New York and Paris."

The problem, as Mr. Ye saw it, was that some Chinese can't stand criticism. He and other scholars are now raising a question: Is the world misunderstanding China, or is China itself to blame?

Even the military has joined this debate. Lieutenant-General Liu Yafei, political commissar of the National Defence University, has predicted a political transformation from authoritarianism to democracy in 10 years, saying that, unless China changes, it will face a Soviet-style collapse. "Without democracy," he said in an article in the Hong Kong-based Phoenix Weekly, "there can be no sustainable rise. The spread of democratic ideas is not constrained by national boundaries or by history."

The emergence of these different voices underlines China's complexity. Beijing would do well to decide whether it wants to continue moving toward confrontation with the U.S. while alienating countries whose support it badly wants in Asia and Europe. Most of all, Beijing should consider the kind of country it wants to be when it becomes a developed country by anyone's definition.

Frank Ching, a Hong Kong-based writer, is author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record .

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