It's not every day that you get to sit and watch a senior Chinese diplomat rip Thomas Friedman "a new one" (as we say in American colloquial parlance) as all the Chinese members of the audience cheer him on. But on Friday morning in a panel discussion titled "China's Soft Power" that's what happened.
The panel was about how China's rising economic power in the world has brought it growing geopolitical influence - but is its low-key diplomatic stance incongruous and inappropriate for a country with so much influence throughout Asia, the Middle East and Africa?
Friedman accused China of being a "free loader" in the post-cold war world, while the U.S. has shouldered the role of global "guardian." He said that China needs to pull its weight by doing things like joining the U.S. in calling for sanctions to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He said China needs to do more to stop genocide in Sudan. China's U.N. Undersecretary-General Sha Zukang cleverly avoided commenting directly on the Iran situation, but on Sudan he said: "There is the impression that China is there for oil only - that is the biggest lie I’ve ever heard."
Friedman also argued that it's in China's interest to work more directly with the U.S. on geopolitical issues because if the U.S. fails, then China will have to pick up the pieces. "If there is too little American power China will be forced to respond to that," he said.
Sha rejected the whole idea of "soft power," calling it a "condescending approach" and "notion created by Western developed countries." When it comes to world leadership, he said the world's leaders should not be "self-proclaimed" - he said they should be elected. China, he said, would not self-proclaim itself a world leader, because China's policy is always to treat other countries as "equals."
It's interesting that China's diplomatic strategy is to score points with other countries who chafe at American superpowerdom by advocating geopolitical democracy. No wonder Chinese leaders see U.S. support for internal democracy in China as an effort to score points against them.
At one point Li Ruogu, Chairman of the Export-Import Bank of China, took a jab at U.S. interventionism in Iraq. "When you want to force others to accept an idea, you are doomed to fail," he said. The net effect of U.S. intervention in Iraq has been less peace, he rightly pointed out. Many in the audience - Western and Chinese - were nodding their heads. [Thanks to Ross for the correction on Li's title.]
Moderator Clay Chandler of Fortune magazine kicked off the hour on a provocative note with a critique of Premier Wen Jiabao's speech on Thursday night. He said it had sounded to him like every other speech by a Chinese leader that he had ever heard, and asked the panelists why Chinese leaders don't give more inspiring, interesting, or original speeches. He suggested that Wen had missed an opportunity to connect on a more direct and human level with the global business community, international media, and media pundits such as Mr. Friedman.
Sha retorted that Chinese leadership speeches are policy statements, and that trying to make each one original and entertaining is too risky: "If China changed the policy every day, you can imagine how people would react!" Delighted laughter arose from the Chinese half of the audience.
Another reason Chinese leaders give boring speeches because they can. Giving interesting speeches - by the standards of Western speechmaking at any rate - has little upside and much potential downside: people might quote them out of context or misinterpret them, or the leader might mis-speak in an effort at extemporaneous rhetorical flourish, with various consequences that might be used against him in internal political power struggles. Also, rousing, inspirational speeches just don't fit with the Chinese style of political leadership. In Chinese culture, if you're already powerful, you don't want to act like there is a need to win anybody over. If you act like you care what people think of your speeches, you're admitting weakness. You leave it to loyal henchmen like Sha to say provocative things on your behalf, but avoid stooping to verbal sparring yourself. It also runs directly against Chinese culture for a powerful person to admit to being powerful or talk about being powerful. It's what you do, not what you say that counts.
A couple years ago a Chinese academic who advises the Chinese government on foreign policy issues told me that the best way for China to build global power, good will, and international credibility over the long run is to mind its own business, avoid criticizing the U.S. whenever possible, sit back and let the U.S. destroy its own power and credibility by itself. This is a classic Art of War strategy. Whether or not that actually is the official strategy, it seems to be working. At any rate it's the kind of strategy that probably only works when you deny using it. If I was in the Chinese leadership, I would likely not find it in China's interest to follow Friedman's suggestions - which are quite similar to the Bush administration's.
Below is a Youtube video of the session.
although Chandler's opening gambit about boring Chinese leaders' speeches was edited out, along with some other parts of the session. The order of various exchanges has been moved around, and there is no translation of the Chinese-language speakers. The video was apparently shot and put online by a Chinese organization, runsky.com. The World Economic forum video page does not acknowledge that this video or any of the other session videos are edited. UPDATE (9/14): The WEF has now taken down the mysterioiusly cut/remixed version and posted the full uncut version.
(Photos courtesy of the World Economic Forum.)