(World Journal)

October 2, 2009

China: Self-Perception vs. Outside Perception

by Michael J. Lostumbo

As it celebrates 60 years of CCP rule, the People's Republic of China is contemplating its changing role in the world and trying to reinforce its message of the peaceful rise of China. China's challenge in defining the security role it will play in the region and the world in the coming years is to harmonize its own view of its security intentions with that of the outside world. In addressing some of those perceptions, China may have to think differently about what it considers its internal prerogatives because as its global role grows, its internal decisions will strongly influence other countries.

Last week in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, Chinese President Hu Jintao asserted: "China has always been and will continue to be a positive force for world peace and common development." He is not alone in holding this sentiment in China. More than 80% of Chinese surveyed by the Pew Research Center agree with Hu and think China considers other countries in its foreign policy decisions. While this is China's clear self-perception, the rest of the world appears to need convincing. Only 30 percent of people surveyed in 23 other countries agree that China's foreign policy considers the interests of other countries such as their own. Similarly, some 75 percent of Chinese polled think other countries generally like China. Yet surveys show favorable ratings of China in only about one-third of other countries polled.1

This disjuncture between China's self-image and the world's view of China probably stems from many factors. However, other countries, and near neighbors in particular, must question how much they can rely upon the good intentions of a very large neighbor, under one-party rule, that for over a decade has sustained a large investment in its military. Notwithstanding China's remarkable evolution from a centrally planned communist dictatorship to a less authoritarian state with an increasingly market-driven economy, China's future political evolution remains uncertain, and that leaves other nations uncertain about its future role.

Certainly in recent years China has made constructive contributions to regional security problems, an example being its role in the six-party talks with North Korea. China's membership in the WTO also indicates a firm commitment to stable economic links. While these actions portray a constructive international role for China, there are other strains of Chinese politics that are sometimes on display. Instances of extreme nationalism that sometime permeate China, such as anti-Japanese riots in 2005 and an intolerance of minority groups, such as the Tibetans and Uyghurs. Contributing to these nationalist strains is the rather common portrayal of China as a victim, a constant theme in political discourse. All countries have nationalist political strains. But nationalism can take a variety of forms, ranging from quiet self-confidence to neuralgic insecurity. The challenge for China in the future will be to develop a narrative that harnesses national pride without threatening others.

China's investment in a more capable military—on full display during yesterday's parades in Tiananmen Square—further contributes to the gap between China's perceptions of itself and those of the outside world. China's most recent defense white paper says that China will "persist in taking the road of peaceful development, pursue the opening-up strategy of mutual benefit, and promote the building of a harmonious world with enduring peace and common prosperity." 2

While proclaiming this, China's military spending has outpaced GDP growth and dwarfs that of its neighbors. To convince others of its intentions for using the large and increasingly sophisticated military, the PLA will need to become involved more productively in solving regional and global security problems.

In essence, China's rise will put it in the international spotlight. Its economic growth makes it more influential and important in the world. With that comes an increased interest from outsiders in the policies and action of China: not just in China's foreign policy, but in the decisions the country makes domestically that may influence world markets and the interests of other states. This gap in perceptions between China and the rest of the world about the role it will play can be considered a benchmark to measure China's progress in communicating its intentions to the world and to its own people. This is a new role for China, and one that initially may feel uncomfortable. But it is the price of China's success, and a measure of its importance.

1 Pew Research Center, The 2008 Pew Global Attitudes Survey in China, July 22, 2008, p. 19.

2 China's National Defense in 2008, January 2009.

This op-ed is also available in Chinese, in the World Journal.

Michael Lostumbo is a senior defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.

This commentary appeared in World Journal on October 2, 2009