To the outside world China is a rich, monolithic superpower – but inside troubles mount and confidence remains fragile
Xu Shunjian is a diplomat. Not the official, suave and suited, our-man-in-Kampala kind. But for three years he has been doing his bit to change perceptions of China.
He had never left Fujian province before he flew 6,000 miles to Uganda, where his team is turning a remote, dusty, rutted track into a smooth road winding 76 miles (122km) across the country.
"Before we came here, the locals had only seen Chinese people in movies. So they believed every Chinese man could do kung fu and was tough," the slim, bespectacled graduate said with a chuckle.
"I thought African people were wild. Now that I've come here, I see they are much more friendly."
Three decades ago, Xu and his compatriots had little opportunity to leave their country nor meet the few foreigners who visited. Now China is wide open to the world. But while its growing reach has forged new alliances and better understanding, it is also creating new tensions.
From its recent naval confrontation with the US in the South China Sea, to its anger at western pressure over Tibet, Beijing appears ever more confident as its reach extends around the globe – and its rivals appear more watchful.
For years, foreign policy was guided by Deng Xiaoping's cautious injunction, Tao guang yang hui ("hide brightness, cherish obscurity") – or, in the official translation, "nourish capabilities and bide our time".
But there is nothing obscure about China these days; it seems that its time has arrived. Just scan the recent headlines: Chinese workers strike in Romania; Chinese property hunters seek bargains in New York; Chinese peacekeepers patrol Darfur and Kosovo; the Chinese navy battle Somalian pirates. The premier, Wen Jiabao, publicly frets about the safety of its vast US treasury holdings, and President Hu Jintao took centre stage at the G20 meeting in London. Analysts begin to talk of the "G2"; Americans of "our most important bilateral relationship".
Vice-president and heir apparent, Xi Jinping, struck a very different note to Deng on an overseas trip this spring.
"There are some well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs," he complained, in brusque remarks unreported by the state media but quickly noted on Chinese blogs and by foreign diplomats.
"China does not, first, export revolution; second, export poverty and hunger; third, cause troubles for you. What else is there to say?"
Western media bias
Xi's aggrieved tone might confuse the west, but it resonates with his public. This year's publishing sensation is China is Unhappy, a collection of angry essays railing at foreign bullies and domestic fascination with western ways. Grievances range from protests during the Olympic torch relay to high-consuming nations' calls for China to cut pollution; one author suggests China might have to break with the west one day.
Despite sniffy, sometimes despairing reviews from liberals, it topped the bestseller lists. Its lengthy list of gripes includes western media bias, but its publicity-savvy authors are happy to take their chances; they chose to meet the Guardian in a Starbucks in central Beijing.
Between sips of his cappuccino, co-author Wang Xiaodong explained why China should engage in the arms race; he deems this year's 14.9% rise in military spending insufficient. A slight man in his fifties, he has the air of a schoolmaster but a shock-jock's sense of mischief and flair for incendiary statements.
"China must have the power to wipe America from the earth. It's the only way to deter them," he said cheerfully.
"China is really willing to co-operate with the west, but is still refused by western nations.
"We have felt very comfortable over the years of free trade, because we have kept winning. But also, the west keeps losing. So we worry that at some point the west will use military or political power to fight China. The other thing is that, for a long time, China has needed more resources … That must create conflicts."
Though many Chinese dispute his conclusions, few disagree with his basic premise.
"People outside see China as much more powerful than China perceives itself to be. Our challenges and troubles have expanded as well as our interests," explained Professor Shi Yinhong, a highly respected foreign policy expert at Renmin university. He dismisses the idea of a bipolar world; China's current status is perhaps "a regional power, plus".
To outsiders, China is a giant: a huge, populous, monolithic state, with rapidly rising military spending, vast coffers for foreign investment and an increasing keenness to impose its views.
But where they see Goliath, China sees David: an over-populated, under-resourced developing country still recovering from historic humiliations at the hands of foreign powers – including the British – and still pushed around by the west.
"There's concern [among leaders] that if China's growing power becomes too conspicuous, other countries will view it as a threat, gang up on it and try to contain it," said Professor Susan Shirk, author of China: Fragile Superpower and a former US deputy assistant secretary of state.
"They have worked very hard to show they want to be more co-operative and that as they become more powerful they're not a threat. They're willing to compromise, negotiate; they're dealmakers."
China is willing to show its strength; last winter it postponed an entire EU summit because Nicolas Sarkozy had met the Dalai Lama. But it also wants the world to like it. Relations with Taiwan are at their best for decades, as Beijing engages with a more mainland-friendly president. It's pouring billions into "soft power" projects, setting up Confucius Institutes and expanding its foreign-language media.
Yet a recent poll for the BBC World Service found that while 92% of the Chinese surveyed believed China's global influence was mainly positive, only 39% of respondents in other nations agreed – a 6 point drop on the previous year. It was the largest perception gap in any of the 21 countries.
"The public hold a strong hatred against the Chinese," declared Wang.
"Sometimes people in government are actually more friendly – they are more practical. But American people have a stronger hatred against Chinese people aroused by the media. It's the same in Germany, France and Britain," he insisted.
Mutual suspicions erupted with last spring's fatal riots in Lhasa and the subsequent explosion of wrath from nationalists. They accused the western media, and wider public, of indifference to Chinese deaths, an exaggeration of Tibetan sufferings and deliberate distortions of the truth. China's fenqing ("angry youth") roared into action, bombarding journalists with death threats. When a Tibetan activist tried to wrench the Olympic torch from a Paralympian during the Paris leg of the relay, passions went into overdrive. Thousands of flag-waving activists besieged Carrefour's Chinese stores; in Hunan, an American shopper fled as a crowd yelled "Kill the Frenchman".
Years of "patriotic education" and media manipulation have helped to create this simmering rage. But nationalism is a longstanding force which China's leaders fear as well as foster. It bolsters support for an unelected government. It can also push them towards foreign policy positions they suspect are unwise and it has a history of toppling regimes which fail to meet patriotic expectations. The Carrefour protests were squashed before they could spread.
Wang is well-versed in western thinking, from classical philosophers to Jared Diamond and Francis Fukuyama. He has travelled abroad and reads and watches western media. But he says there is no paradox in the fact that increasing western influence is accompanied, in many cases, by increasing hostility. He sees it as a natural reaction to the idealisation of the west.
"When Chinese people go outside they realise the outside world is not as good as it was described and China is not as bad. That's why the more Chinese people travel, the more nationalistic they become.
"Our book is focused on these points because many Chinese think westerners are angels. [But] to be honest, I don't think there should be such huge resentment. We're business partners," he said.
Cheap Chinese labour has undercut western manufacturers, but also kept inflation down. Meanwhile, western shoppers have kept Chinese citizens in work. China has taken vast amounts of mineral wealth from Africa; but it has also provided infrastructure.
China and other nations will continue to clash on many fronts – from human rights to resources. But China's citizens are looking to a multipolar world, not to global supremacy.
When a recent internet survey asked whether China had the power to lead the world, 54.4% agreed it "should seize the best opportunity created by the financial crisis". Another 41.3% reached very different conclusions, judging that "this radical nationalism must be brought under control".
Thousands of miles away from home, Xu Shunjian is digging into rice and stir-fried vegetables with his chopsticks, as Chinese state television blares in the background. He came to Africa only to make money, and he misses his motherland.
But after supper he shows off photographs of dinner at a Ugandan colleague's home: "I learned to use fingers to take food like that … you see!" he exclaimed happily.
"I want to learn things from different countries and learn about their differences," he said. "Of course, when you go to another country, your patriotic feelings will rise. But I've also become more open-minded."
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017