In-Depth

The Washington Post

John Pomfret

The Washington Post

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'How China keeps stumbling on the global stage' John Pomfret
'How China keeps stumbling on the global stage' John Pomfret
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John Pomfret

March 30, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘Across the globe, Xi’s diplomatic representatives in Europe, Beijing, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, are lifting up rocks and smashing their own feet.’
‘The moves are befuddling — with a buoyant economy and a practically covid-free country, China is poised to see its influence rise if it plays it smart. But it’s not; instead, it’s alienating individuals and nations across the world.’
‘I’ve been studying China for my entire adult life and I have to admit to being bewildered by China’s performance.’
‘But I’m in good company. Thirty-one years ago, the great political scientist Lucian Pye wrote, “Just when all appears to be going well, Chinese officials create problems for seemingly unaccountable reasons.” ’

‘In October 1938, Chairman Mao Zedong, addressing the Chinese Communist Party faithful, coined an expression — “lift up a rock only to smash your own foot” — to describe British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s failure in his negotiations with German leader Adolf Hitler.’

‘Across the globe, Xi’s diplomatic representatives in Europe, Beijing, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, are lifting up rocks and smashing their own feet.’

  • ‘The moves are befuddling — with a buoyant economy and a practically covid-free country, China is poised to see its influence rise if it plays it smart.’
  • ‘But it’s not; instead, it’s alienating individuals and nations across the world.’

‘China’s most recent missteps have occurred in Europe and now risk scuttling Beijing’s biggest foreign policy win there in years.’

‘China, however, decided to double down.’

‘In picking up this rock, China has likely smashed any chance that the European Parliament will approve a major investment deal with Europe: the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).’

  • ‘The CAI was concluded despite opposition from the incoming Biden administration.’
  • ‘But now that China has sanctioned politicians from four main political parties in the European Parliament, Beijing has done more than President Biden to roll back China’s influence in Europe.’

‘China’s goof up in Europe is just the latest in a string of diplomatic misadventures that have become a hallmark of the rule of Xi Jinping.’

‘The Chinese have termed these type of interactions “wolf warrior” diplomacy, inspired by a shoot-em-up action film of the same name.’

  • ‘China’s wolf warriors might play well in Beijing, but across the globe China’s envoys are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.’

‘Take Taiwan.’

  • ‘In 2019, President Tsai Ing-wen, who is disliked by China’s government, resigned from her position as chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party after her party bombed in local elections.
  • ‘Her polling numbers were low and allies urged her to drop out of the presidential race.’
  • ‘The stage was set for a win by Taiwan’s Nationalist Party, which is far more amenable to entreaties from Beijing.’

‘Enter China.

‘China has repeated this failure in Canada.’

  • ‘In 2018, while the Trump administration was slapping tariffs on Canadian goods, Canada and China were well on their way to concluding a free-trade agreement.’
  • ‘Then Canadian authorities detained Meng Wanzhou, a Chinese business executive, on a United States extradition request. Instead of letting the courts decide, China took two Canadians in China hostage. Beijing’s relations with Ottawa went into a deep freeze and that free trade agreement is currently dead.’

‘Same holds true for Australia, where the government’s criticism of China’s human rights practices has resulted in China slapping tariffs on Australian wine, barley, beef, copper, sugar, lobsters, timber and coal.’

‘I’ve been studying China for my entire adult life and I have to admit to being bewildered by China’s performance.’

  • ‘But I’m in good company.’

‘Thirty-one years ago, the great political scientist Lucian Pye wrote, “Just when all appears to be going well, Chinese officials create problems for seemingly unaccountable reasons.” ’

  • ‘Pye argued that a key to understanding China’s “perversely self-damaging behavior” starts with the observation that much of it is a show.’
  • ‘China’s political system demands expressions of exaggerated loyalty — from wolf warrior diplomats and commoners alike — exactly because so many people don’t actually believe in what they are doing.’
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