What I Wish China Understood

Here are a few stories of Chinese diplomacy:

In 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo for pretty standard Nobel Peace Prize reasons. In response, China made bellicose statements, tried to persuade other nations to boycott the award ceremony, terminated free-trade negotiations with Norway, restricted trade, downgraded relations for several years until Norway was forced to issue a de facto apology.

South Korea announced they would install a missile defence system to protect against threats from North Korea. In response, China made bellicose statements, barred K Pop in China, reduced Chinese tourism to Korea and boycotted prominent Korean corporations.

Daryl Morey, then general manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team, in his personal capacity tweeted in support of Hong Kong protesters. In response, China made bellicose statements, initially boycotted the NBA and later transitioned to boycotting the team Daryl Morey worked for (and the next team he moved to).

The Australian government called for an investigation into the origins of Covid.  In response, China made bellicose statements, imposed significant trade restrictions on Australian imports and urged Chinese students to reconsider studying abroad in Australia.

There are countless stories like these. The message is clear. If an individual, corporation or country acts in a way that China perceives to embolden domestic criticism, China may restrict your access to its market.

I’m not going to pretend to understand how the Chinese government makes foreign policy decisions, but I suspect the following are relevant. 

  1. China thinks it would be harmful for people/corporations/states to do or say things that they dislike. Since it would be very difficult to penalize every statement they dislike, they disproportionately react to a small number of statements to create enough fear to change the incentives for everyone.
  2. In a system that rewards loyalty, it is much easier to advance through the ranks if you favour decisions that show how strong and tough you are.

China is not an ordinary country. It’s market is simply too large. If Russia, Turkey or even India wanted to boycott the NBA or Australian beef, the world would not care. Their markets do not have sufficient sway to make a meaningful impact on behaviour and discourse in the West. China does. Their market is large enough that cutting it off from the rest of the world, for better or for worse, is enough to significantly change the calculus of how a country or organization functions.

I think China truly believes their economic statecraft has been highly effective. I understand why they may think that because they are right in one sense – the entire world is scared to say or do anything critical of China and in effect, every prominent individual, corporation and state engages in significant self-censorship for fear of upsetting China.

On the other hand, I believe this behaviour has caused significant backlash against China.

My observation is that people in the west really dislike self-censorship and do not appreciate being punished by China for doing things that seem innocuous to them. I believe China’s diplomatic actions, while in the short-term seem highly effective, have led to a significant increase in anti-China sentiment. Ultimately, and tragically, I believe the world will be a much worse place as a result of the growing anti-China sentiment.

This disturbs me and this should disturb China too. I hope the Chinese government appreciates how much resentment their disproportionate diplomatic responses cause and how harmful the consequences will be for everyone.