China’s Weakness Is What Makes It So Dangerous

China’s official press commentary this week that American “excuses” for the naval aircraft incident “betray U.S. weakness” ranks as one as the most disingenuous statements to come out of Chinese officialdom in this whole affair. In fact, much of China’s troubling approach to this accident is directly attributable to Chinese self-perceptions of weakness in a number of areas. This weakness not only thwarts a swift resolution of the current imbroglio but poses longer-term challenges to even a modicum of stability in the U.S.-China relationship.

Let’s begin with some of the top leaders. Jiang Zemin, while ostensibly the principal Chinese leader by dint of his three posts—party chief, head of the Central Military Commission and state president—is in fact forced to be a coalition-builder, ever cautious of the shifting political dynamics among increasingly fractious interest groups in the Chinese body politic: military, diplomatic, businesses, reformers, all infused to varying degrees with nationalist sentiments. That constrains Jiang and compels him toward “easy” and “lowest common denominator” solutions. Even Chinese insiders are abashedly amazed at the reactive paranoia Jiang displays in response to the Falun Gong movement.

Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping he ain’t, and he knows it. And the Chinese people know it too: While not naming him by name, contributors to Chinese chat rooms mock him as “the core” (as in the Chinese phrase, “collective leadership with Jiang Zemin at the core”) and question whether he is up to the task of leading China to greatness.

Others at the top are similarly constrained and conservative. Most of all, Li Peng, the No. 2 in the Chinese hierarchy, is widely reviled in China as a hard-liner and the opportunistic executioner who oversaw the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. Even the largely popular premier and No. 3 leader, Zhu Rongji, has to operate with a degree of caution. He is the hatchet man who is responsible for exacting painful socioeconomic reform of the Chinese economy and is taking the heat for the disgruntlement that ensues.

But more broadly, Communist Party legitimacy itself is at risk. The Chinese leadership seeks to re-engineer party legitimacy through a campaign known as the “three represents,” which, in effect, acknowledges the frail obsolescence of Marxist-Leninist notions about how the party “represents the people.” The recent release of the so-called Tiananmen Papers, exposing the feckless and nearsighted machinations of China’s aging elite during the 1989 incident, further undermines the party in the eyes of its own people. And all this unfolds as the political system nears a critical transition at the party congress next year to the “fourth generation” of leaders being groomed for power. Facing such uncertainty and fragility, no Chinese leader can “look weak,” though weakness pervades the system.

Finally, China’s national mythology of “victimhood” also illustrates how the country’s self-perceived weakness infuses its approach to the current crisis. Harkening to what is known as its “century of shame”—roughly from the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries when China suffered colonial exploitation, imperial ambitions and other mistreatment by foreigners—Beijing’s current leaders play on their role since then as the sacred defenders of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of “bullying” and “hegemony” by outsiders. Portraying itself as the aggrieved weaker victim in the current entanglement is standard operating procedure from China, and plays well from Kashgar to Kowloon (and beyond to the Chinese diaspora).

However, none of this excuses the Chinese leadership from having the resolve to find a way to get out in front and see the long-term benefits of settling this issue quickly and cleanly with the United States. At the same time, prudent and informed diplomacy by the Bush administration demands far more sensitivity to the constraints and temptations the politicians in Beijing face.

In the immediate term, the two sides appear to have established a more serious discussion to negotiate the release of the crew. The U.S. side is staying on message about wishing to have a “good, strong relationship” with China, with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell expressing “regret” about the entire incident as well as the loss of the Chinese pilot. The administration needs to tone down the rhetoric of insisting it “was not our fault” until a full investigation is complete. The back-channel discussions need to focus on a package of constructive gestures by the United States, including a joint and genuine effort to investigate the causes of the collision, and solid commitment by both sides to find ways to avoid such incidents in the future.

However, we need to be prepared that these steps will not be enough for Chinese leaders in need of a boost. Even if the current problem can be satisfactorily resolved soon, this episode should set off some alarm bells in the administration. The longer-term problem of trying to deal with the complexities of an overly sensitive rising power will require considerable deft diplomacy to ensure that relations with Beijing move in a direction consistent with U.S. interests.