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China’s Perfect Storm

New York – A perfect storm is brewing that could threaten China’s relations with the world. Although some China bashers in the West and nationalists in China may be rejoicing, the potential deterioration of China’s international relations serves nobody’s interest and threatens to undermine global peace and security.

As the Beijing Olympics approach, what the Chinese seem to want most – that the Games herald China’s return as a leader among nations – appears close to slipping from their grasp. If things go wrong, China could move to embrace isolation.

The uprising in Tibet, and the government’s response, have highlighted ethnic tensions within China that the Chinese government is having difficulty managing. Politically unable to accept or sufficiently address the aspirations of the Tibetan protestors, China’s authorities have focused almost exclusively on the narrow law-and-order issues connected with the violence in March.

For many in the West who sympathize with Tibetans’ aspirations for more meaningful autonomy under Chinese sovereignty, China’s crackdown, vilification of the Dalai Lama, and hard-line approach have fueled disenchantment. Many Chinese, however, came to view pro-Tibetan protests in Paris, London, San Francisco, Delhi, and elsewhere as an effort to sabotage the Olympics and keep China down after almost two centuries of perceived national humiliation.

China has recently suffered other public-relations disasters as well. The Chinese ship containing arms for the reviled Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe is finally headed home after protests and global condemnation prevented it from delivering its cargo. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called for a full arms embargo of Zimbabwe, a position clearly targeted at the Chinese. Moreover, the international community continues to pillory China for its arms sales to Sudan, which is believed to have used the weapons in the Darfur genocide.

Moreover, after a seemingly unending litany of stories about tainted Chinese products, a row has now erupted between China and the United States regarding contaminated Chinese heparin, a blood thinner. Although Chinese authorities have disputed US claims that Chinese-made heparin led to at least 81 American deaths, the scientific evidence has damaged China’s credibility and has strengthened perceptions around the world that Chinese products are unregulated and unsafe. 

Finally, growing economic insecurity is creating a backlash against trade and globalization, which may significantly alter attitudes towards China. As Americans and other Westerners increasingly perceive China as a country unable to address its political problems and addicted to growth at all costs, the Chinese government appears to be reverting to a national narrative of victimization that has poisonous roots in China’s perception of historical events such as the 1899-1901 Boxer rebellion.

If the Olympics turn out to be a public relations disaster – because of potential protests by Tibetan, Uighur, or Falun Gong activists or supporters, a lockdown in China of foreign journalists, or even doping scandals – there is a real chance that the Chinese will blame the West, particularly America.

Because China’s rise is an irreversible fact, all of those who believe that it must become more of a “responsible stakeholder” in world affairs cannot wish for its return to nationalist isolation. Just as China needs access to world markets, the world needs China to become a full partner in addressing major global challenges. Both sides owe each other an open and honest dialogue to help realize this outcome.

Western critics of China have every right to protest any aspect of Chinese behavior, and vice versa. Certainly, America’s actions in Iraq, contribution to global warming, and uneven commitment to multilateral problem-solving leave a much room for criticism of US behavior both.

At the same time, those protesting Chinese behavior must remember that China’s rise has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and that China is playing a far more positive role in international relations now than at any other time in its recent history. Chinese leaders must in turn work to prevent China’s national narrative from returning to one of victimization, even if problems surrounding the Olympics emerge, as they likely will.

China’s recent willingness to reopen a dialogue with envoys of the Dalai Lama, and improvement in its relations with Taiwan demonstrate that there is room for creating a more positive environment. The storm is on the horizon, but there may still be time to prepare to weather it safely.