The Magazine

Barack in Beijing

How the Chinese regime hopes to make use of him.

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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Obama is not the only American president to get China wrong. Bill Clinton gave the Chinese an extraordinarily favorable World Trade Organization deal, and George W. Bush sought to enlist them in grand geopolitical projects at a time when they were not ready to help. At least Obama's predecessor told China that it had to play a constructive role in the international system, pushing Beijing to be a "responsible stakeholder." That language was dropped in late September for a less demanding formulation. "We are ready to accept a growing role for China on the international stage," said Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. The price for American acceptance would be "strategic reassurance"--in other words, "a shared commitment to building an international system based on mutual trust."

At one time, it might have been possible to think that Beijing would actually share strategic visions with the United States. Jiang Zemin, China's leader from 1993 to 2003, desired recognition for his country's growing status, but he saw himself working cooperatively with the United States and its partners in a Congress of Vienna-like atmosphere.

Hu Jintao, the current supremo, has shifted policy in a new direction. Like Jiang, he believes Beijing should assert itself. Unlike his predecessor, Hu thinks China should actively work to restructure the international system more to its liking. This change in outlook has had consequences as China, to give just a few examples, has recently increased its support for nuclear rogues Iran and North Korea, used aggressive tactics at sea to push the U.S. Navy from Asian waters, stepped up its efforts to remove America from Central Asia, and formed a loose coalition of developing nations to undermine the dollar. Unlike Jiang, Hu is ideologically anti-American.

Yet we cannot place all the blame on Hu. Washington's generous policies have encouraged China to move in wrong directions. Even before the end of the Cold War, we sought to ease the Chinese into the international system. In so doing, we made their economic "miracle" possible by opening our market to their goods and accepted the severe limitations they place on access to theirs. This economic policy has been accompanied by a generous policy of "engagement." Yet by engaging China we have inadvertently created perverse incentives. In the past, when the Chinese acted aggressively, we indulgently rewarded them. So they continued unfriendly conduct. We rewarded them still more. In these circumstances, why would they ever improve?

Since Deng Xiaoping abandoned most of Mao's economic ideology, the primary basis of the regime's legitimacy has been the continuous delivery of prosperity. Should the economy stall in this global downturn--a distinct possibility when Beijing's economic stimulus measures wear off--the only thing the Communist party can rely on is nationalism. Nationalist themes already dominate state media.

So why did Hu Jintao invite Barack Obama to his capital at a time like this? There is little likelihood that the Chinese ruler has any intention of coming to terms with him. The two men have met and talked many times, and they know each other's positions well. The purpose of this week's summit is to show the laobaixing that the leader of the world's democracies feels he must come to Beijing to ask for help on the great issues of the day. Obama's visit, unfortunately, makes America appear needy, and this convinces China's officials that they can call the tune.

Now, we are seeing the worst possible combination in Beijing--a deeply insecure regime that has become arrogant over its recent economic success. The world--not just America--is bound to suffer as a result.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China.