China’s Sisyphean efforts to win trust

January 14, 2019 13:51
"We strengthened our friendships, we enhanced mutual trust and we enlarged our circle of friends,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said in his New Year speech. Photo: Reuters

In his New Year address, President Xi Jinping spoke proudly of China’s achievements in 2018, including the launch of the Chang’e-4 lunar probe, which successfully landed on the far side of the moon, a feat that is expected to provide scientific information that might shed light on the origin of the universe.

China is to be congratulated on this and other achievements, which should over time add to its soft power. But it also needs to change the way it behaves both toward its own people and to the outside world if it wants to be accepted as a regional or global leader.

Part of the problem is secrecy. Many Chinese remember that it was the US embassy that in 2008 started to track and release air quality data, only to be told by Beijing not to share the data with the Chinese people. China had no choice but to fight pollution itself.

In his new year speech, the Chinese leader took credit for progress in its efforts “to protect our blue skies, and to defend our rivers and soil from pollution,” without accepting responsibility for causing that pollution through its policy of rapid GDP growth for decades.

“We made our voice heard at diplomatic events,” Xi said about his country’s position in the world. “We spoke with state leaders about wide-ranging issues, we strengthened our friendships, we enhanced mutual trust and we enlarged our circle of friends.”

That last achievement was made at Taiwan’s expense, as several countries established ties with Beijing after cutting them with Taiwan. 

As for greater trust, that is a perennial issue that Xi discussed with foreign leaders, ranging from the tiny African country of Botswana to Russia.

That ingredient is, indeed, in short supply, as demonstrated in a survey made public in the first week of January.

The “State of Southeast Asia: 2019” survey, conducted by the ASEAN Studies Center at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, canvassed the views of 1,008 Southeast Asians who were regional experts and stakeholders from the policy, research, business, civil society and media communities in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. 

It must be discomfiting, to say the least, for Chinese leaders to learn that when asked for their views on China’s emergence as a major power in Southeast Asia, most respondents think “China will become a revisionist power with an intent to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence.”

This was the top response from the Philippines (66.4 percent), which is generally seen as moving toward a pro-China stance although a US ally, Vietnam (60.7 percent), which like China has a communist government, and Singapore (57 percent), a country with an ethnic Chinese majority population.

Significantly, only 8.9 percent of respondents saw China as a “benign and benevolent power.”

Despite these findings, the survey confirmed the prevalent view in Southeast Asia that as the United States disengaged from the region, there was no alternative to Chinese leadership. 

Almost three-quarters (74.1 percent) of respondents expected China “to vie for political leadership in response to the growing indifference of the US towards Southeast Asia and Asean.” 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the lack of enthusiasm for Chinese leadership shown in Southeast Asia is reflected in other parts of the world, as shown in a 25-nation Pew Research Center survey held from May 20 to Aug. 12. Even though a median of 45 percent have a favorable view of China, with 43 percent holding an unfavorable view, people in nearly every country tend to select the US as the preferred global power. 

So the lack of trust in China is a key issue for Xi, who has been calling on other countries to in effect close the “trust gap.” But trust isn’t something that you can demand, or buy. It is something that needs to be earned.

Even within China, the government needs to earn the trust of its people, as the vaccine crisis of last year, not mentioned by Xi, showed. Then, parents clamored for overseas vaccines after news leaked that defective vaccines made by Chinese drug companies were being given to their children. 

But the most noticeable omission in Xi’s narration of major events in 2018 was a small change in the Chinese constitution, which lifted term limits for the president and vice president. That single act, in all likelihood, undid much of China’s Sisyphean efforts to create trust. 

China’s problem of trust is not just with governments, but with people around the world. Even if it has no ambition to replace the US as global leader, China needs to do more to prove that it is not a threat, particularly to its neighbors. 

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