Hubristic and expansionist China shouldn’t cry foul when its nationals don’t receive a warm reception in countries it has been bullying for years.
Contemporary China has a serious case of split personality. As she flexes her muscles and claims what is “rightfully” hers, China also continues to exhibit a deeply ingrained sense of victimization at the hands of foreign forces and never hesitates to use this trauma whenever she encounters opposition to her ambitions. But at some point China will have to choose: she cannot be both bully and victim at the same time.
The victim’s reflex is understandable, given the emphasis that Chinese school curricula have placed on the “century of humiliation.” But it also signals a national immaturity and an inability to understand what it may feel like for those who find themselves on the receiving end of China’s newfound assertiveness.
But the fact of the matter is, China is no longer a victim. It is a major power in its own right, and increasingly it has thrown its weight around in the pursuance of its interests. This attitude, which now smacks of hubris, comes across as something in the vein of “We are big and you are small, so suck it up.”
It shouldn’t exactly come as a surprise, then, that symbols of China’s might would on occasion receive a chilly welcome — not only because of the bully’s attitude, but also because of the kind of state that China has turned into under Xi Jinping: unapologetically authoritarian, intolerant, xenophobic, Orwellian, militaristic, more and more extraterritorial in its efforts to change, intimidate, browbeat and co-opt others in their own countries, and willing to flout international law. Under Xi, the repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang and abroad, of Tibetans across the Tibetan Plateau and of Hong Kongers desiring democracy in the Special Administrative Region has intensified and shows no signs of abating; rights activists and lawyers, Christians, Falun Gong practitioners, homosexuals, intellectuals and members of the press (Chinese and foreign) have all felt the long fingers of the state apparatus tighten their grip around their necks, often with catastrophic result for those targeted (just ask Nobel Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo); foreign NGOs are now strictly regulated, and VPNs, a cherished means to bypass the Great Firewall of China, could soon be outlawed altogether, further insulating China from the rest of the world and from the “dangerous” ideas (freedom, democracy, the ability to criticize one’s leaders) the outside might hold.
China’s treatment of Taiwan is a clear example of the lengths Beijing is now willing to go to force its will on a people. The list of things it has done to punish the democratic island-nation since May 20 last year, when Tsai Ing-wen assumed the presidency, is long and growing: threatening military exercises including naval transits through Taiwan’s ADIZ, intensifying United Front work, reliance on criminal triads to intimidate civil society, rampant cyber attacks and economic espionage, kidnapping of Taiwanese nationals in China and abroad, blocking Taiwan’s participation at important multilateral forums like (but not limited to) the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the World Health Assembly and Interpol, resuming the theft of diplomatic allies and growing pressure on non-official allies, retaliation against Taiwan’s artistic community, televised humiliation of teenage Taiwanese nationals, inability of Taiwanese students to enter U.N. buildings due to an injurious “one China” policy, and the occasional incident at sports events where displays of the Republic of China flag sparks angry reactions by the Chinese side. For the most part, the Taiwanese have shown extraordinary patience with their neighbor, choosing pragmatism over anger and distinguishing between ordinary Chinese citizens and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In the Taiwan-China relationship, Beijing has chosen to be a bully, the Great Big Power that lords it over its smaller neighbor. Playing victim when the other side pushes back, therefore, is absurd.
And yet, when a Chinese team doesn’t receive the warm welcome it expects when participating at a competition outside China, as was the case at the recent League of Legends Heroes Asian Tournament in Kaohsiung earlier this month, the reaction is one of indignation: immediately, China is the victim again, and the outside world the unjustified, irrational oppressor. Indeed, the audience in Kaohsiung didn’t cheer for the Chinese video game team, and in the finals it even sided with South Korea (they left the venue en masse when it became clear that China was winning), the same way they did at a recent volleyball tournament, where the Taiwanese crowd rallied behind the Japanese team facing off against China. The incident last week sparked a storm of online discussions in China, with users complaining that the Taiwanese had shown “disrespect” and “humiliated” the Chinese competitors.
Was such conduct unsportsmanlike? Perhaps. Did it target individuals who have little say in the CCP’s treatment of others? Yes. But can we blame them? Absolutely not. There’s only so much a nation can take before it starts pushing back. The Chinese government, in its inability to accept the fact that Taiwanese have no interest in being swallowed up by the People’s Republic of China, has not only been humiliating the Taiwanese by limiting their international space and visibility: on many occasions its behavior has put the very lives of Taiwanese (and others) at risk. Having set a disastrous p.r. example with its “one country, two systems” experiment in Hong Kong, and demonstrating its disregard for rule of law, democratic principles, and civil liberties, Beijing somehow expects that the Taiwanese would nevertheless show gratitude for its impatience with self-determination and shower love upon a regime that could not care less about their chosen way of life.
In the Taiwan-China relationship, Beijing has chosen to be a bully, the Great Big Power that lords it over its smaller neighbor. Playing victim when the other side pushes back, therefore, is absurd. The surprise isn’t that one could hear crickets when the Chinese team climbed the podium in Kaohsiung on July 9; the surprise is that such incidents don’t happen more often.