China: Not As Strong As Many People Think

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 19, 2010

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I have written before that I don’t think that Chinese power is all that it has been cracked up to be. As the Economist points out, the Chinese seem to be well aware of their power limitations–an awareness that would help explain a lot of their behavior:

Some Chinese economists worry out loud that China’s massive stimulus-spending might have bought the country only a temporary reprieve. Bubbles, they fret, are forming in property markets, inflationary pressure is building up and reforms needed to promote sustained growth (including measures to promote urbanisation) are not being carried out fast enough. Occasionally, even the government’s worst nightmare is mooted as a possibility: stagflation. A combination of fast-rising prices and low growth might indeed be enough to send protesters on to the streets.

Abroad, Chinese leaders are struggling to cope with what they feel to be an accelerated shift in the global balance of power, in China’s favour. This has resulted in what Mr [Russell Leigh] Moses [a political analyst in Beijing--ed.] describes as behaviour ranging from “strutting to outright stumbling”. They reacted with oratorical fury in January, when America announced a $6.4 billion arms deal with Taiwan. But while pandering to popular nationalism at home, they remain aware of China’s limitations. This week China allowed an American aircraft-carrier to pay a port call to Hong Kong, just a day before President Obama was due to defy grim warnings and meet the Dalai Lama in Washington.

Chinese leaders can be confident that the plight of dissidents and the ever-louder grumbles of foreign businessmen over the barriers they face in China will not keep the world away. From May China will be visited by a series of foreign leaders going to the World Expo in Shanghai. Among the first will be France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, much reviled by Chinese nationalists for his stance on Tibet. China sees the Expo, like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as a chance to flaunt its strength. But, as [President] Clinton noted of China in 1999, “a tight grip is actually a sign of a weak hand”.

This reads to me like an accurate appraisal of Chinese weaknesses. All of which causes one to wonder anew why President Obama feels he needs to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid offending the Chinese.

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