Taking advantage of China's 'Middle Kingdom' mentality

April 20, 2018 11:15
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks at the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan province on April 10. The pomp and circumstance at the event reminded people of the imperial Chinese tributary system in ancient times. Photo: Bloomberg

The Boao Forum for Asia event this year, which drew about 2,000 international guests, including six foreign heads of state, drew to a close in Boao in China's island province of Hainan on April 11.

The pomp and circumstance at the forum and the eager attendance of VIPs such as Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Mongolia and Pakistan prime ministers reminded some observers of the imperial Chinese tributary system in ancient times.

China has never been stingy when it comes to receiving foreign guests. For example, it has become a routine for Beijing to write off billions of dollars in debts of its African "friends" and promise to offer generous assistance at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation that is held every three years.

Though we are in the 21st century, it appears the "Middle Kingdom" mentality embraced by ancient Chinese emperors still very much prevails among our current Beijing leaders, who are just more than eager to write juicy cheques to make their "tributaries" happy as long as they are willing to kiss up to China.

The same kind of Middle Kingdom mindset also influenced Beijing leaders a lot in their foreign policy approach even when China virtually didn’t have two cents to rub together after the Communist Party took power in 1949.

Worse still, during the early 1960s, when the mainland was devastated by a nationwide famine, Beijing, which had proclaimed itself as the "big brother" of communism, remained very generous towards its impoverished "brothers" such as North Korea, Vietnam, Albania, Algeria and Tanzania by offering enormous amounts of money in foreign aid.

Ironically, as it turned out, some of Beijing's most steadfast "tributaries" would end up turning against the "Middle Kingdom" if need be.

For example, there was Burkina Faso, which voted against China’s bid for joining the United Nations in 1971, as well as Vietnam, which went to a ferocious border war with China in 1979.

During the early phase of its economic reform, China adopted a humble posture and low profile on the international scene.

However, as the country rapidly rose to global prominence in recent years, it appears our Beijing leaders have once again allowed their intense desire to play "big brother".

And two countries, namely the Philippines and North Korea, seem to be particularly good at taking advantage of the Middle Kingdom complex of Chinese leaders and milk them for economic aid over and over again by trying to be submissive.

Until Chinese leaders get rid of their Middle Kingdom mentality, Beijing will continue to be seen as "sugar daddy" by its "tributaries".

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 13

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor