China Power

China and Popularity Contests

Recent Features

China Power

China and Popularity Contests

The response to Obama’s latest Asia trip has been mixed. Some Chinese commentators are missing the point.

Now that U.S. President Barack Obama has completed his victory lap in Asia and is safely ensconced (or is that mired?) in Washington’s political mess, the Chinese are busy recalibrating their message to the region. After watching the United States once again get voted most popular, the message from China seems to be twofold:

First, the United States is not one of us. As Tsinghua University scholar Tao Wenzhao writes in the China Daily, “East Asian countries have to face another thorny issue: How to deal with the United States in their push for regional integration. Despite being a non-Asian country and despite lying on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. has been on high vigilance against East Asian integration that in its eyes could lead to its exclusion from the region’s affairs.” Or, as Premier Wen Jiabao noted at the East Asia Summit, “East Asian countries are capable of solving the [South China Sea] dispute by themselves.”

Second, we have more money, so you should be friends with us instead (or, by the way, you’ll be sorry).

The Global Times manages to evoke insecurity and arrogance all at once. In a series of opinion pieces, the newspaper both boasts of China’s strength and threatens those who don’t see things China’s way.

— “The momentum of U.S. returning to Asia seems fierce…A question must be answered: What should China do? …observe calmly and secure our position. China should decode the nature of the U.S. encirclement and the strategic threats it will bring…The U.S. does not have the strength to encircle China now…Facing a weak economic recovery, the U.S. can do nothing but make some strategic mobilization as self-consolation. China will not confront the U.S. strategically or militarily. At present, China has the upper hand in the Sino-U.S. competition and the U.S. return to Asia cannot change the situation. A growing China will possibly change the choice of some countries and China’s development will simplify many problems.”

— “As long as China is patient, there will be no room for those who choose to depend economically on China while looking to the U.S. to guarantee their security."

— “Australia surely cannot play China for a fool. It is impossible for China to remain detached no matter what Australia does to undermine its security. There is a real worry in the Chinese society concerning Australia’s acceptance of an increased U.S. military presence. Such psychology will influence the long-term development of the Australia-China relationship.”

Neither of these arguments is likely to be compelling to regional actors. Both miss the point that you don’t win friends by bad-mouthing others or paying for their friendship. The real argument Beijing should make is one espoused by Tsinghua Prof. Yan Xuetong in his recent New York Times opinion piece: the “battle for people’s hearts and minds” between the United States and China will be “won by the country that displays more humane authority.”

Unfortunately, in trying to define how to get to a more humane authority, Yan falls short, doing little more than suggesting Beijing should choose more virtuous and wise leaders, as well as open its doors to leaders from abroad. Good luck with that. Instead, he should listen to his neighbor at Peking University Zhu Feng, who calls it straight when he says that in order for China to lead, it needs to respect the rule of law and human rights as well as promote economic growth. Until all of those are Beijing’s top political priorities, Chinese leaders will never be voted most popular—they’ll just keep paying people to hang around with them for a while.

Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, 'The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China's Future.' She blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.