21 September 2019
While other nations sent their former leaders to the Jeju Forum, China has despatched a propagandist to the event held last week. Credit:
While other nations sent their former leaders to the Jeju Forum, China has despatched a propagandist to the event held last week. Credit:

Jeju Forum: How China stood out like a sore thumb

The Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity, held annually on the South Korean island of Jeju, dedicates itself to ideas such as diversity and sustainability. This year, the forum has the theme of building a “New Asia of Trust and Harmony”.

These are nice sounding slogans – and they are indeed slogans, as former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia asserted in an opening address – but that doesn’t mean that they are unimportant or irrelevant.

Aside from Yudhoyono, this year’s forum was also attended by a slew of other former leaders, including Gerhard Schroder of Germany, Joe Clark of Canada, John Howard of Australia and Yasuo Fukuda of Japan.

They were there to share their experiences and pool their wisdom for the benefit of the four thousand other participants. No longer in office, they are free to speak without restraint.

What is striking is that there was no retired leader from China to share his wisdom. In fact, it is unthinkable for someone like former premier Wen Jiabao, or even his predecessor, Zhu Rongji, retired now for more than a dozen years, to take part like other former leaders and speak frankly about his own country and its relations with others, and what he did during his years in office.

This is because China is a one-party state. All senior officials are Communist party members, and retired officials remain subject to the control of the Communist Party. They do not have the right to travel abroad whenever they want to and take part in academic conferences where they can shed light on events that occurred while they were in power. They are forever controlled by the Communist Party.

While democracies may be messy, the primary purpose of an authoritarian state such as China is to perpetuate the party’s monopoly of power. It can never trust anyone, even a former leader, to speak in a public format overseas, which suggests how weak the country actually perceives itself to be.

Instead of sending a person of weight, China sent the president of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, Li Xiaolin, whose job is to make China look and sound good.

In other words, a propagandist!

Clark talked about the important role that middle powers, such as Canada, Korea and Australia, can play in a world dominated by the United States and China and pointed out that Canada, like Korea, lives next to a major power.

Yudhoyono proudly pointed to Timor Leste, formerly part of Indonesia but now independent, as a neighbor with which Indonesia is working hard to promote reconciliation and bilateral cooperation.

It is difficult to imagine a Chinese leader – or retired leader – taking such an attitude towards, say, Taiwan. Instead, the threat of use of force is always under the surface.

Li, the friendship official, rattled off figures about affiliations between Chinese cities and provinces and foreign cities and regions.

“China persists in building a good-neighborly relationship and partnership with its neighboring countries and adheres to the policy of creating an amicable, secure and prosperous neighborhood,” she said, in a week when CNN provided photographic evidence of China frantically building artificial islands in contested areas of the South China Sea.

Seemingly living in a world imagined by China, she vigorously pushed the ideas of China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, and his China dream.

“We all have the Asian dream to build a new Asia with trust and harmony,” she said. “The New Asia will be more beautiful and harmonious with our efforts and the Asian dream of peace and prosperity will be realized in no time.”

While China’s rhetoric is of dreams of trust and harmony, the reality of its actions is very different.

China is now enhancing its nuclear capabilities by adding MIRVs (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles) to its missiles. It is holding joint military exercises with Russia in the Mediterranean, something it has never done before. It rejects international arbitration with neighboring countries with which it has territorial disputes, and insists that its smaller, weaker neighbors must negotiate with it on a one-on-one basis.

This is no way to create a harmonious international society. Trust needs to be earned through deeds, not words, and once earned it needs to be preserved through further actions. As Ronald Reagan said, trust but verify. China needs to begin by earning trust.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.