China would rather be feared than defied

China has an anger-management problem, at least when dealing with small and mid-size Western democracies. The fate of Lithuania, a European Union member on the shores of the Baltic Sea, is a case in point.

The country is being punished for agreeing that Taiwan, a democratic island that China claims as its own territory, may open a “Taiwanese Representative Office” in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital. China calls that an affront to its sovereignty. It has summoned its ambassador, Shen Zhifei, home for consultations, and told Lithuania to recall its envoy, Diana Mickeviciene. In a covid-era twist, China informed Ms Mickeviciene of her fate as she returned to Beijing from a summer break. She has to complete three weeks of strict quarantine at her residence and, after emerging on August 31st, catch the next flight home. State media suggest that China may soon suspend direct rail-freight services to Lithuania, then sever other economic links with that country of 2.8m people (Lithuanian farmers should forget long-held dreams of selling milk to China, it is hinted). In a detail noted with dismay by foreign envoys in Beijing, Lithuania’s embassy has received a barrage of threatening calls, many targeting local Chinese staff.

China’s problem is not simply that it has a short fuse. It is not new for leaders in Beijing to downgrade relations with governments that cross their “red lines”. China routinely freezes trade talks and official visits whenever foreign leaders meet Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama (Lithuania suffered this fate in 2013). Last year China curbed imports of coal and wine from Australia after that country’s government called for an international probe into covid-19’s origins. Often, China’s demands are arcane as well as aggressive. Lithuania may earn a partial reprieve if it permits only a “Taipei Representative Office” in Vilnius. China tolerates trade offices named after Taiwan’s capital, because those sound like local government outposts. Even the hair-trigger anger of the Chinese public—or at least its noisiest elements—is wearily familiar. Each week, it seems, online nationalists demand a new domestic boycott of a business, or the cancellation of a foreign or local celebrity accused of hurting Chinese pride. Threats directed at Chinese deemed “race traitors” are alarmingly common.

Rather, Chinese irascibility may prove more problematic than before because China’s ambitions are changing. The country no longer inhabits a world of bilateral ties dominated by trade, of the sort that allowed it to play one country off against another. It hopes to create new international networks and groupings that share similar views about what constitutes good governance, in which China plays the central role. That brings new forms of scrutiny when it loses its temper.

About a decade ago, lots of foreign countries saw China as a dazzling, potentially transformative economic partner. Lithuania was no exception. In competition with Estonia and Latvia, its Baltic neighbours, it pitched its largest airport as a hub for Chinese flights, and its main seaport, Klaipeda, as an entry-point for Chinese ships. More recently, it sought to be a European gateway for Chinese financial technologies. In 2012 Lithuania joined 15 other central and eastern European countries, nine of them eu members, in a Chinese-led grouping. This came to be known as the “16 plus one” initiative, holding annual summits with China’s prime minister and spawning countless committees to work on co-operation. At first, many in eastern Europe chafed when the group was called a threat to the eu’s unity by the continent’s rich Westerners. Easterners particularly resented being chided by Germany, given that country’s exceptional access to Chinese leaders and markets.

Disappointment followed. Chinese investments in central and eastern Europe proved paltry, and the lion’s share went to Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Serbia. Trade increased, but mostly because of imports from China. Today, China is still only Lithuania’s 12th-largest trade partner. As dreams of an economic bonanza faded, some members of the 16 plus one (which swelled to 17 after Greece joined in 2019) began comparing notes about the bloc’s political aims and lack of transparency. Like-minded embassies discovered that Chinese officials and party bodies were making direct contacts with regions, cities and institutions in their home countries, bypassing national capitals. In February six members—Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovenia—sent only ministers to a virtual summit of the 17 plus one, though President Xi Jinping was in the chair.

China’s brand of performative patriotism goes global

Further complicating China’s image, its nationalist fervour is increasingly on display far from home. In August 2019 Lithuania accused China’s embassy in Vilnius of rallying Chinese citizens to disrupt a protest in support of Hong Kong’s democrats (Chinese diplomats were photographed handing out banners). A few months later Chinese-speaking visitors proudly filmed themselves vandalising signs of support for Hong Kong planted on the Hill of Crosses, a shrine to national independence dating to Lithuania’s occupation by Nazi Germany and then by the Soviet Union. The videos went viral, appalling Lithuanians. In April this year expansion of Klaipeda’s outer harbour was put on hold for at least a decade. Senior officials had earlier called China’s attempts to invest in the port a national-security risk. In May Lithuania’s foreign minister announced his country’s withdrawal from the 17 plus one, calling it divisive and less efficient than a unified eu.

State media accuse Lithuania of foolishly provoking China in order to curry favour with America, as if smaller countries lack any will of their own. The mood of gloom and wariness among many European embassies in Beijing is obvious to all. But domestic political imperatives require outsize displays of anger, whenever China feels disrespected. That is a clumsy way to manage foreigners. To China, however, being defied is worse.

This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Why China gets so angry”

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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