China’s Happy Mask

BEIJING – China’s “face” may be its Achilles’ Heel. As it basks in its new status as an economic superpower – the dragon that is outpacing Asia’s tigers as well as the donkeys of the West – China is mistakenly downplaying its own serious structural weaknesses.

The communist leadership finds it hard to mention, let alone emphasize, the country’s problems. Officials’ preoccupation with commanding respect and not losing face leads them to focus almost exclusively on China’s achievements. This is a strategy that risks backfiring, because it misunderstands the dynamics of international politics.

Emphasizing China’s meteoric rise means less understanding in the rest of the world of the need to sustain rapid economic development in order to satisfy the expectations of its 1.3 billion inhabitants. The government knows that it has a political tiger by the tail, but refuses to acknowledge it, either inside China or outside.

Trade tensions continue to mount. The United States is deeply concerned, following the minimal results of its “strategic economic dialogue” with China in May, and Congress is threatening tough protectionist measures. The European Union may not be far behind; much will depend on how China presents its case over the coming 18 months as the two sides negotiate a wide-ranging Partnership Cooperation Agreement, which will determine the quality of bilateral relations for the next decade.