OP-ED: China the Twelve Year Old

Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像
Why you need to know

For far too long we have allowed the tyrant child to determine our actions. This must stop. We must stop fearing it.

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Here we go again, the old tired accusations of “broken promises” and damage done to China’s “core interests” after European Union parliamentarians met with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama on European soil on Sept. 15.

For a country that constantly reminds us of its glorious 5,000 years of history, its leadership behaves very much like a 12-year-old: pouting and bullying when it doesn’t get what it wants. To be perfectly honest, it’s rather embarrassing and hardly warrants the space and scare quotes it gets in the world’s media. (I see what you’re thinking: I’m also guilty of giving it space here, but bear with me for a second and I will get to the point.)

Why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has kept at it for so long is because we, the international community, have allowed it to do so. From the hallowed halls of academia to the media, government agencies to the public sphere, we have allowed fear to regulate how we interact with China, with ourselves, and with the rest of the world.

Very often, that fear exists because of our own intellectual shortcomings: we don’t know what our own “one China” policy is, or what is “permissible” when it comes to interacting with individuals, groups of people and countries which Beijing regards as its “core interests” — including Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, the Falun Gong and, increasingly, Chinese rights activists and lawyers.

That fear also guides our actions because the international community as a whole has been cowardly. Rather than act according to our own national interests or (heaven forbid) principles, we often engage in risk avoidance and stay well away from Beijing’s red lines, both the real and imaginary ones. Often the bluster doesn’t come from Beijing directly but rather from some entrepreneurial ladder-climber at an embassy or consulate who wants to demonstrate that he or she is a prouder little Chinese patriot than President Xi Jinping (習近平) himself. Entire governments — sovereign governments — allow their policy decisions to be affected by the angry phone calls and démarches of these sad diplomats in need of counseling for their anger-management issues. Were this high school they would be sent where they belong — to the corner.

Granted there have been laudable instances where countries acted accordingly and did meet with the likes of the Dalai Lama. And every time they survived to tell the tale, as it were. Chinese officials foamed at the mouth and the Global Times spilled its usual malodorous venom, but the sky didn’t fall, for in the end, China needs us just as much, if not more, than we need it. What punishment has China actually been able to slap on those who didn’t allow themselves to be bullied? The red phone stops ringing for a while, some senior Chinese diplomat will cancel a state visit, or the PLA will refuse to participate in multilateral exercises from which it probably benefits more than the rest of us. A few business deals may suffer temporary delays, and some may be nixed altogether. All of this, however, is hardly devastating, and with patience we can bet that Beijing will eventually come crawling back. Remember: it needs us more than we need it.

▶︎ See also: "Polish Journalists Denied Accreditation Due to Chinese Pressure"
"China’s Great Fear of the Looking Glass"

So we need collectively stiffer spines; the times when we let the authoritarian-child determine what’s in our best interest should come to an end, not just in the political sphere but in other areas, including the embattled field of free expression, where the 12-year-old has been making a mockery of our proud traditions in journalism and academia. It has corrupted us, cowed us into silence and blinded us. The worst part is that we were aware all along that this was going on, and we let it happen. Such an assault on free expression, our right to free expression on our own soil, must be countered: Chinese-language media in democracies like Canada and Australia are being dismembered limb for limb before our eyes, again because we’re allowing bullies and censors to operate freely. And media elsewhere are also feeling the effects, in Hong Kong and in democratic Taiwan, where Beijing is also trying to silence its fiercest critics.

We need to come together in the defense of our principles before China does irreparable damage to our liberal-democratic systems. And above all, we need not fear.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White

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