Two recent events have convinced many observers that we are entering an unprecedented era marked by rising Chinese power and influence at the expense of the West.
First it was Chinese intransigence at the UN’s climate change summit in Copenhagen and the perceived snub to Barack Obama by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who skipped several planned meetings with the US President: unthinkable several years ago.
Then it was the spectacle of US, European Union, Australian and other Western diplomats being barred from entering the courtroom to observe the three-hour trial of prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo, sentenced to 11 years’ jail.
The interpretation: further confirmation that a confident China is becoming increasingly defiant and dismissive of the West. But just as China’s power and confidence is frequently overstated, the weaknesses and insecurities of the regime are frequently understated, usually in the West.
China’s intransigence at Copenhagen and the fact Liu’s trial and sentencing took place on Christmas Day speaks volumes about Beijing’s insecurities and vulnerabilities rather than its growing confidence.
First, what is the significance of the Christmas Day trial of Liu?
Politicians in Western countries have long adopted the practice of releasing bad or embarrassing news when another event is likely to dominate political and public attention.
The most cynical example of this practice occurred in 2001 when Jo Moore, a senior adviser to the former British transport secretary, advised her boss within an hour of the second plane flying into the World Trade Center twin towers that it would be a good time to announce and bury bad news.
Similarly, the choice of Christmas Day to sentence Liu was no coincidence.
Liu was one of the main authors of Charter 2008, a human rights manifesto modelled on the Charter 77 document that inspired eastern Europe during its days under Soviet control.
Charter 2008 called for a new constitution, freedom of speech and assembly, an independent judiciary and democratic elections for all levels of government, changes top-level Chinese leaders continually tell Western counterparts that they are gradually working towards in a steady and orderly fashion.
But Beijing always countered Western delegations by arguing that the correct timing for implementing these changes was far off.
Charter 2008 is feared because it diluted this defense. It makes a link between fair and sustainable economic progress on the one hand, and civil and political reform on the other.
The document was written and endorsed by Chinese intellectuals and citizens, not pushed on to China by Western groups. Indeed, Liu’s trial came only four days after the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released its annual blue paper, which highlighted growing social unrest and the worsening problems associated with inequality and corruption.
The CASS report was inconvenient as it called into question the success of Beijing’s long-stated plan to build a “harmonious society”, thereby lending support to arguments put forward by Charter 2008. Even when the charter was released last year, Beijing watched warily as copies of the document spread to internet sites within China with translations offered for international audiences.
Fearing international support for the charter once Liu’s conviction was formalised, Beijing held the trial with Western leaders on holidays and the Western public distracted by seasonal festivities.
Second, China’s intransigence at the Copenhagen summit was seen by many as a rising superpower defying the US and the developed world on an important global issue.
The sticking point for China was a refusal to allow “transparent verification” of whether it was meeting any agreed commitments and even described such stipulations as a violation of its sovereignty.
It was Obama insisting on this issue that sparked Wen’s walkout.
Why the paranoia about transparency? Beijing has continually shown that it is reluctant to allow outsiders, let alone teams of international economists, scientists, inspectors and statisticians, to roam China gathering information on industry outputs, carbon emissions and reduction initiatives.
In promoting China, Beijing projects an image of order and competence. In parts of its successful coastal cities, it is that.
But these international teams would undoubtedly discover exactly how dysfunctional the heart of China really is.
The facade would be exposed. They would see first-hand and report back to their Western political masters how China’s 45 million local officials remain the most formidable obstacle to improving accountability and performance in China’s sprawling economic structure, protecting their turf, defending their privileges, arbitrarily enforcing the law and, when it comes to economic performance, blatantly cooking the figures.
It would also reveal to the world the true extent to which Beijing cannot oversee the running of China.
Many leaders and opinion makers in the West are getting China wrong.
Where we see apparent Chinese strength and boldness, Beijing senses its own vulnerabilities and humiliation. Where we see examples of Chinese defiance, Beijing is actually hiding evidence of flaws and limitations.
As the charter notes, authoritarianism is in general decline throughout the world before arguing for citizens to be masters of states. Beijing knows it is defying history, but is hoping those outside China do not know or no longer care