China has been brandishing its might and the world is taking notice. Not with military exercises, cyber attacks, or by harassing vessels in international waters. China has been doing these things, of course, but its latest show of force comes straight from its heart: displays of ultra-nationalism by its diplomats.
Recently, China’s embassy in London offered a stinging reproach to Britain, defending the right of a Chinese reporter to shout down speech Beijing finds offensive, in this case about Hong Kong. Chinese Ambassador Liu Xiaoming’s spokesperson blamed the United Kingdom for impinging on the reporter’s right to free expression. This is doubly ironic for China in that free expression cannot mean stifling the right of others to the same and because China offers only a very anemic version of this right. Indeed, China seems emboldened to extend its Orwellian system of social control wherever and whenever it likes.
Last month, China’s ambassador to Sweden demanded an investigation after Swedish police ejected Chinese tourists from a hotel. The tourists attempted to remain in the hotel over the objections of staff who explained their booking was for the next day. The tourists claimed that Swedish police abused them while escorting them out of a hostel, offering a video clip as proof. But the video made it obvious to the world — and to many in China — that these tourists were simply trespassers attempting to gain by deceit privileges to which no other customer was entitled. According to Ambassador Gui Congyou’s spokesperson, however, the police removal constituted a “serious violation of the life safety and basic human rights of Chinese citizens.” Such hyperbole is a fixture of social media the world over, but is not an accepted form of diplomacy among normal countries, much less responsible great powers.
As China’s economy and military might have grown, Chinese leaders have begun to expect obeisance from other powers, both great and especially small. In 2010, then-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi hinted at this in Hanoi when he harangued the assembled representatives of ASEAN with his admonition that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” Beijing further affirmed its paternalistic foreign policy in its 2017 white paper “China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation,” which we might see as China’s own Monroe Doctrine, fashioning China as the security partner of choice in Asia. But such hegemonic pretensions do little to explain why China is abandoning suasion as a tool of foreign relations.
More likely, it is a strong current of nationalism that is leading China’s diplomats to act rather undiplomatically. After violently and decisively suppressing protests in Tiananmen Square and across China in 1989, the Communist Party struggled to provide ideological direction to China. Although officially Communist, the fall of the Soviet Union and thriving free markets called into question Communism’s brand within China. As a substitute, the Party offered “patriotic education,” giving rise to a generation of ideological ultra-nationalists. Today, President Xi Jinping has put his own stamp on patriotic education, but the core problem remains that China’s diplomats are using chauvinistic sentiment to test the sovereignty of other nations.
For a comparison of how the United States looks after its citizens when they fall askance of foreign powers, see this discussion on the diplomacy surrounding Singapore’s caning of an American teenager in 1994. It was a complicated issue and strong opinions prevailed on both sides. But the diplomats handled their disagreements based on interests – and mostly behind the scenes – not through tribalistic rants pitched to the most extreme segments of the public.
Statements of support from China’s Foreign Ministry suggest that chauvinism is now a burgeoning feature of Chinese diplomacy. But China’s bullying can only sour relationships and exacerbate otherwise minor issues. Stronger nations further away from China might react with mild disdain, but smaller nations close to China – or otherwise dependent on Chinese funding – may find themselves in a position to “suffer what they must.” Ultimately, the world must collectively expose Beijing’s misbehaviors to give Beijing incentive to keep ultra-nationalism in check. Our international connections are too precious to sacrifice on the altar of nationalism.
Ben Lowsen is a China strategist for the U.S. Air Force Checkmate strategic studies office. He tweets at @lowsen88. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.