There's been a lot of media buzz about China's awkward efforts to promote itself as a soft, friendly power. Still growing at an almost rude 8 percent a year, China may deliver like no other nation on the economic front, but when it comes to winning hearts and minds, Beijing seems not to get it. After the inconclusive Copenhagen summit to save the world, China simply refused to address questions about how and why it played hardball against an agreement to cut carbon emissions. Then, on Christmas Day, China celebrated the spirit of the season by handing down an 11-year jail term to Liu Xiaobo, a pro-democracy advocate whose main crime seems to be criticizing the Communist Party in print. Days later, Beijing pushed ahead with the execution of British citizen Akmail Shaikh on heroin-smuggling charges, despite desperate pleas from Britain and Shaikh's family that he was mentally ill and got tricked into being a mule.
But pundits have missed a key point: an increasingly confident China is not playing to an international crowd. Politics is always local, and never more so than in China today, where an autocratic regime must ensure political stability above all. The need to project power internally has also become a particularly important goal in the run-up to 2012, the year that China will announce new leadership. For the first time in decades, there is an internal jockeying for control within the party, in which populists led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are duking it out with a group of coastal elitists. Hu is already under fire from the rival faction for being indecisive and ineffectual on everything from dissent to economic policy, and those internal critiques ring louder in his ears than the complaints of international human-rights activists.
If the execution of a mentally disabled Brit seems particularly gratuitous to outsiders, it looks a bit different inside China, which has recently been dealing with a series of deranged murderers, at least one of whom officials claim had a history of mental illness.
Hu does need to maintain prestige internally in order to maintain influence over the choice of his own successor and six other members of the party's standing committee in 2012, says Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. ÒIf he's perceived to be weak, he can't do this,Ó says Pei, who ties many of Hu's recent tough-guy moves to his desire to sustain influence after 2012. Pei notes that former Chinese president Jiang Zemin wielded power behind the scenes for years via acolytes whom he had appointed to the standing committee.
Indeed, the importance of not making any mistakes before the power handover may also be a key reason that the Chinese leadership continues to dodge Western pressure to raise the value of the yuan as a way of slowing Chinese exports. While outsiders fear a glut of cheap Chinese goods could produce global deflation, Beijing knows there are potential problems coming down the pike and wants to keep the export jobs machine humming. What's more, as Council on Foreign Relations Asia studies director Elizabeth Economy notes, Hu was never inclined to be a progressive on either the currency front or on human rights.
It's also worth remembering that to the extent that China cares about what the rest of the world thinks, exactly whose opinions it cares about are changing. At Copenhagen, for example, China cared less about the U.S. than about how its positions would be perceived in the developing world, Òbecause it thinks of itself as the leader of that world,Ó says Economy. Likewise, leaders in Beijing may now be more inclined to listen to African complaints about the treatment of workers producing oil for export to China than to entertaining British or American complaints about threats to human rights and Western jobs.
This is not to say that China won't make further efforts to try to build its soft power more broadly on the international stage. Indeed, in a speech this past summer, Hu cited the need to improve the country's image in order to cement China's position as a great world power. That's one reason Beijing is throwing lots of money at new Confucius institutes at key universities around the world: Americans and Europeans in particular tend to associate the great sage with warm and fuzzy wisdom, rather than scary autocracy. But don't expect China's leaders to give as much thought to what Westerners say about human rights, the environment, or even financial matters. As ever, it's the opinions inside the Middle Kingdom that really matter.