Willy Lam: Is China Afraid of Its Own People?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Willy Lam is professor of China studies at Japan's Akita International University and adjunct professor of history at Chinese University at Hong Kong.]

China and Japan's recent showdown over the Diaoyu (or Senkaku, to the Japanese) archipelago seems to have cooled down with the release of the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel who was detained by the Japanese coast guard earlier this month. Quite a few official Chinese media outlets ran big headlines proclaiming that the Japanese had capitulated. Yet it's by no means clear that China was the victor.

Indeed, the extraordinary lengths to which Beijing has gone to rein in public protests over the alleged Japanese occupation of the Diaoyu, as the islands are called in China, has exposed a critical shortcoming of the so-called China model: the Chinese Communist Party leadership's inability to make effective use of public opinion to advance domestic as well as diplomatic goals. Instead of leading public opinion, these days Chinese leaders are sometimes pushed into uncomfortable stances that reduce their options.

The row with Japan is a case in point. At the height of the dispute, Chinese authorities pulled out all the stops to prevent patriotic Chinese from airing their views. Protest organizers of protests, such as the editors of www.cfdd.org.cn, a website well-known for its advocacy of Diaoyu-related issues, were given warnings by the police "not to break the law" by holding demonstrations and other radical actions....

Why? Why does China fear its own people so much?

Apart from the party leadership's well-known tradition of undemocratic governance, the main reason behind "black-box diplomacy" is to avoid taking responsibility for failing to stand up to foreign powers such as the United States or Japan. Despite the relative efficacy of the Great Firewall of China, fast-growing numbers of nationalists have frequently been able to use the Internet to express their views, including negative ones about Beijing's foreign and security policies. These increasingly vocal nationalists generally believe that rising China has become a mature power and deserves a place in world affairs to match its burgeoning economic clout....
Read entire article at Foreign Policy

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More Comments:

Ray Parks - 10/3/2010

What is happening is a power struggle in China's communist party. That is the source of the radical swings in policy.

Arnold Shcherban - 9/29/2010

It seems like the author is eager to see "hot" (not subdued) confrontation between China, the Western powers and their Asian allies (perhaps a military conflict?)
Allegedly the fact that Chinese authorities execute peaceful and cooperative international policies, not rocking the boat, so speak, bother the author, as the subordination of the will of Chinese patriots to those policies.
But what China as a nation can win by exacerbating every dispute with the single world superpower (or its close allies - which is almost the same)?
Obviously, since it has no even remotely matching military and strategic clout, just trouble.
So what Chinese leadership is doing is basically buying time, with the hope that eventually their nation will
have such an indomitable position in the world (or the economic and military clout of the leading Western nations will decline) that they are able to shout (and more - like the US does nowadays), not just whisper.
Wise approach - it keeps continental Chinese, including those impatient and loud patriots, fed and alive;
the US and their other so-called allies would have been much better of
to currently try the same approach in their foreign policies, instead of conscientiously driving almost any dispute to its worst forms of resolution - sanctions and wars.