The following is a translation of this piece from Southern Weekend by Ding Guo. For the sake of time, wordiness, and my own sloth, some sections have been omitted or summarized in brackets where I felt they were unnecessarily detailed or non-essential.
As the world develops, communication improves, and the internet continues to widen its reach, the influence of popular opinion on public policy increases with each passing day, regardless of political or electoral systems. Accordingly, rulers are increasingly sensitive to public feedback. These deep changes are also being reflected in Chinese political life. For example, even though the scope and damage of the Yushu earthquake in Qinghai two months ago was not as extensive as the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, [for the sake of public opinion] Chairman Hu Jintao concluded an important summit in Japan and returned to China to direct rebuilding efforts, and Premier Wen Jiabao […] quickly went to the disaster area to observe.
This is a significant change from previous government thinking. In the past, if something similar happened, the Chinese way of thinking would dictate that the government persist in its foreign relations activities, “turning grief into strength”, they felt this was the best way to support the country. These days, putting the people first, when something happens national leaders are duty-bound to return home; taking on the duty of rescue and relief efforts is common practice in the international community, and is [therefore] the best form of diplomacy [anyway]. When leaders put the safety of the people first, that kind of politician and that kind of country is worth trusting. Taking responsibility [in a time of disaster] is the humanitarian way.
The problem is that while China’s leaders may have changed their way of thinking, in the diplomatic field, especially in the field of observing foreign countries, many leaders still cling to an outmoded “party jargon” dogmatic way of thinking. For example, when China and another country are having a dispute or when relations are tense, [they] often say that this anti-China politician is just stirring up trouble, the common people are OK, but the facts or lack of facts have led to an issue in relations. We can use Canada as an example of this:
One thing that got the attention of a lot of the Canadian media this year was [China-Canada oil deals], which needed to be approved by the Chinese and Canadian governments. The sale price [of Canadian oil fields to China] was higher than expected; good news for the Canadian economy. The problem is that while the Conservative Party and economic circles were enjoying a honeymoon in Canadian-Chinese relations, Canadian public opinion polls discovered that [Canadian people] were opposed [to the sale].
The Canadian Asia-Pacific association entrusted a respected polling company ((The Chinese is 安格斯列特, anyone know what the real name of the company is?)) to launch an internet poll, and discovered that [only] 18% of Canadians approved of Chinese enterprises investing in major local companies. The worst-off country was the United Arab Emirates, only 16% of Canadians approved of UAE investment in Canada, Singaporean investments won the approval of 20% of Canadians. But 53% of the respondents approved of investment in Canada by the UK, and 41% indicated they would support investment from the US.
This survey helps us clear up some longstanding blind spots and misunderstandings.
First of all, when China and Canadian relations hit a snag, it really isn’t because some government body or politician just doesn’t want to get along with China, and because of that misleading the people into disliking China. Actually, the dissatisfaction or “misunderstanding” of China lies deeply rooted in the Canadian people. Government policies that are unfriendly to China are just catering to the people, the Dalai Lama and other similar topics are all like this. And when carefully analyzing the source of Canadian people’s anti-China feelings, aside from historical anti-Communist and anti-China movements and the Cold War period, it mostly comes from a deep bias within the Canadian media. One Norman Bethune and one Da Shan aren’t enough to resist the massive power of the media.
Secondly, we often think Canadians are very anti-America, but this is also a misconception. When you’re just talking about Canada and the US, many Canadians are anti-US — this is a fact — but when you juxtapose the US with China or other Asian countries, Canadians still trust America. The reason is simple: Americans and Canadians have the same language and are the same race, they have the same system [of government], and they see China as another “country” ((No idea why this is in scare quotes.)).
So if we really want to change the traditional model of thinking about China in Canada, I believe we have to work on three fronts.
The first is China must continue development and reform to present itself positively to the outside world. China must actually change to change the opinions of the Canadian people. The second is that China needs to go outward, widen the opportunities for communication between peoples, and do everything possible to invite more Canadians to China to see it. The third is of course Canada’s million Chinese immigrants, they are an important asset in Sino-Canadian relations. They are a bridge, but they are also a mirror that allows those who can’t travel to China to experience the modest, polite, respectful, disciplined, diligent, and honest [nature of the Chinese people]. However, with the differences in behavior of overseas Chinese added to Canadians’ traditional perceptions of China, the picture provided is still poles apart from the real China.
This situation goes further than just Canada, these shortcomings appear in China’s relationships with Japan, America, [etc.]
In short, in a democratic society, if the public opinion changes thoroughly, if a politician tries to “stir up trouble” they’ll only be shooting themselves in the foot. A long period of peace between China and Canada comes from the people, comes from the electorate, and this is something everyone must face squarely.
Ding is correct in suggesting China do away with the worn and overwrought protestations from the Foreign Ministry that any anti-China decision made by a foreign country is the result of evil politicians, but he veers dangerously close to committing that exact same logical sin in his discussion of the people. Certainly, foreign perceptions of China are shaped in part by misconceptions, but Ding gives no attention or thought to the idea that sometimes, other nations are going to make decisions that don’t benefit China’s interests because China is wrong, or because they are other countries and they are more concerned with their interests. Ding, in his implications, has set up a false dichotomy in which people from other countries either agree with China or are being misled (perhaps by their anti-China historical traditions, or their love of racial solidarity).
Someday, China may have to come to grips with the idea that other people’s opinions, while certainly often biased, are not always based on lies. And furthermore, that other people’s countries are going to pursue their interests, regardless of how that looks to China or how it serves China’s interests. Is it really in Canada’s best interest to have one of its most valuable natural resources partially controlled by a deeply corrupt Communist ((Not that Communist countries are bad by default, but historically speaking, there’s some precedent for the idea that it may not be the stablest political system around, nor the one that’s easiest to work with commercially)) country on the opposite side of the globe? Anti-China or not, one could argue the prospect of accepting investments from the US or the UK is more appealing to Canada not so much because they don’t understand China but because they do, at least a little bit, and what they do understand doesn’t sound that attractive. Under the best of circumstances, working with China can be difficult. With inflating housing prices and other dangerous economic signs making even Chinese economists nervous, and deeply embedded issues with corruption permeating the government and State-owned enterprises like the one buying Canadian oil sands, is misunderstanding really the only explanation for why Canadians might be a little nervous about hopping in bed with China?
Similarly, it might be time to give up the big-bad-bully Western media trope, no? Biases do exist there, certainly — we’ve analyzed them with some frequency on this site, in fact — but the media in the West is down on pretty much everyone, not just China, and in the past few years the quality of China reporting has really improved. Anyway, one wonders if China might get better press out of reporters if it stopped arresting them.
That’s probably enough ranting. Anyway, I have been a little unfair. For one, Ding does say that China needs to develop itself before it can properly win the hearts of the Western masses. And what’s more, everything he says about Western misconceptions and the biased media is true — it’s just that he’s left some important other things out.