It’s not easy being misunderstood, especially when people assume the worst about you. Take China this week, which is reeling after its placement of an oil rig in waters close to Vietnam triggered a Wild West-style standoff between the two Communist powers. Tensions reached a fever pitch when China gleefully squirted a Vietnamese ship with a water cannon, provoking hordes of rioters in Vietnam to vent their spleen by, logically enough, burning Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese factories to the ground. Their signage had Chinese characters, you see.
The funny thing is, China had no idea its actions would stir up such wrath. A top Chinese general tried to diffuse tensions in Washington by calling the watery provocations “just a friendly reminder of the new Peking order” while chuckling and giving his US counterpart an amiable pat on the back – but his joke actually caused an immediate doubling of the US defense budget. The problem is that China just doesn’t get the rest of the world – explaining everything from the weak showing of Chinese movies at the Cannes Film Festival, to escalating tensions with neighbors including Vietnam and Japan.
Like Rodney Dangerfield, China don’t get no respect. At best, it gets fear, as when a recent World Bank study claimed that China’s economy will overtake America’s this year. Heeding Deng Xiaoping’s maxim, “Hide your GDP and bide your time,” Beijing has been scrambling to undo the perception of China’s rising strength, which many analysts think is the real reason Xi Jinping is calling for a “new normal” pace of economic growth, along with modest reforms.
So China’s rulers want their country to be seen as weaker than it is. But at the same time, they really don’t want to be criticized. A Beijing man accused of supplying prohibited items to a US news website found that out the hard way this week. The lesson for foreigners: Tread carefully. China has a lot of water cannons.