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Why is China Lashing Out?

NEW YORK – It must be galling for the Chinese government to keep seeing Nobel Prizes go to the wrong Chinese.

The first wrong Chinese was Gao Xingjian, a critical playwright, artist, and novelist, who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, while living in exile in Paris. The latest is Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic and political writer, who was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace while serving a prison sentence for “subversion” of the Communist regime. Since the Dalai Lama is not a Chinese citizen, I will leave out his Nobel Peace Prize, though to China’s rulers it was perhaps the most irritating of all.

Yet the Chinese government’s response to Liu’s Nobel Prize has been extraordinary. Instead of a show of lofty disdain, or official silence, it made a colossal fuss, protesting fiercely about plots to undermine China, and putting dozens of prominent Chinese intellectuals, including Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest. As a result, the utterly powerless, hitherto quite obscure Liu Xiaobo, has become not only world famous, but much better known inside China, too.

Combine this with China’s bullying of Japan, by blocking the export of rare-earth metals vital for Japanese industry, over a few uninhabited islands between Taiwan and Okinawa, and its refusal to let the renminbi appreciate, and one must wonder why China is being so heavy-handed in its foreign relations. These strong-arm tactics stand out even more against the deftness of Chinese diplomacy over the last few decades. Japan, the old wartime enemy, has been outmaneuvered repeatedly, and a soft touch made South Koreans and Southeast Asians feel relatively comfortable with China’s increasing power.