Chinese paramilitary policemen stands guard in front of a sculpture of the ancient philosopher Confucius on display near the Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
So when Hu Jintao went to Washington D.C., it evoked a visit from America’s largest Banker or Lender rather than the trip by the Chairman of the Communist Party of China.
Shortly after Jimmy Carter the human rights president opened full diplomatic ties with Beijing the world’s largest dictatorship in 1979, I vividly recall when then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping visited America; the diminutive dictator was touted in many American cities. In Atlanta after visiting Coca Cola, one newspaper gushed “Teng Twinkles, Atlantans Learn.” In Houston Deng visited the Johnson Space Center. Deng later donned a Stetson cowboy hat which just did not look right shading over a Mao-suit. Nonetheless today China has a credible space program.
Deng was no democrat but he had the common sense to allow economic freedoms to eclipse rigid communist dogma so that Mainland China’s long-suffering population could finally begin to prosper. Deng’s economic reforms, which date to 1978, were intended to revive a moribund Marxist system from imminent collapse. By allowing economic reforms and opening the possibilities for the entrepreneurial genius of the Chinese people, China began to prosper. The rest is history.
Fast forward to Hu Jintao. Looking more like the Chairman of the Board of China Ltd. than the General Secretary of the Communist Part of China, Hu oversees a rising China whose economy stood sixth in the world in 2000, just behind France. By 2007 China’s economy moved to 3rd place, just behind Japan. It has now jumped to number two in the world just behind the USA! While Beijing’s economic growth reached 10 percent last year, the PRC’s per capita income remains a paltry $4,800 next to the U.S. $48,000, or Japan’s $44,000. Japan which held the number two economic position for just over forty years, has been dislodged.
The Chinese Dragon is surging forth; Hu wishes to be recalled as the man who made it happen. Given America’s massive trade deficits with the PRC, $275 billion even in the recession year 2010, Beijing is equally able to serve as a global lender to the USA. Profligate government spending by Washington is ironically financed in part by Beijing, most ironic and politically alarming considering the source.
Commerce trumped human rights with Hu’s comment at a press conference that “a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights.” But his comment is not a major departure from usual policy, and was naturally airbrushed from China’s state-controlled media.
What I find even more ironic is that the modern PRC has embraced a slick soft power political offensive which jarringly contrasts with the China of the 1970s and 1980s. Contrary to the old propaganda magazines such as the hard-core communist “Peking Review” which morphed in the 1970s to Beijing Review with its washed-out color photos, today’s Beijing Review newsmagazine presents a smooth blend of consumerism, glitz, and prideful nationalism.
A recent Beijing Review story stated bluntly: “The United States is a typical representative of the “defending” group of fully developed international powers, while China has become a vital member of the world’s emerging powers.” Another article added that in 2010 “the two countries engaged and consulted each other more frequently over the past year than in any other year in history.”
Confucius, the Chinese sage long reviled by the Communist Party has a place in the re-branded PRC too as an ideological forerunner of PRC Ltd. An imposing statue of Confucius has been placed in Tiananmen Square, not far from the ever-watchful gauze of Mao himself. Naturally the Confucius epic has been rewritten to get the story right for the denizens of the regime, as much as to regain lost legitimacy for the PRC.
The Confucius comeback with a thirty-foot-tall statue outside the National Museum as the English language China Daily noted “is the latest sign of the philosopher's comeback amid the country’s efforts to promote him as a symbol of Chinese culture.”
President Hu Jintao, who steps down next year, looks to polish his political legacy as the man who built People’s China into a formidable global economic and military power. How the future balance tilts between Hu’s mercantile system and the empowered and increasingly nationalistic military will determine China’s fate, and that of East Asia.
John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense
issues. He writes weekly for WorldTribune.com.