A PRC Carol: China in Philippines relief effort, and Western commentators

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At least 3,974 people dead, 1,186 missing, an estimated four million displaced.

      China, the second largest economy in the world, has contributed less than IKEA. When commentators on popular American press saddle up to trample on China’s attempt at relief aid, this is the typical line of choice. It makes for a generally great first sentence, it hoards attention from left and right, and moreover, it is very justifiable.  But when polemics comparatively criticize China on moral grounds about how disgraceful and measly its contribution was, they appear to seamlessly glide over the fact that underneath the disinterested benevolence of countries like U.S. and Japan strategic interest is at work.

     By juxtaposing China’s disgraceful contribution to the magnanimity of American aid, these polemics may succeed in glorifying the continuing history of American goodwill. But they ironically reinforce the image of international disaster relief effort as a rat race in which contributors could really tart up their international image. See who could churn out the most cash, and who could stage the most illustrious aid operation. 

Cynical as it most definitely sounds, high profile relief efforts are as much a program to channel international aid to those in dire need as a golden opportunity for great powers to bump up their soft-power rep. The CCP mouthpiece, and the often entertaining Global Times openly admits to this, “China, as a responsible power, should participate in relief operations… China’s international image is of vital importance to its interests. If it snubs Manila this time, China will suffer great losses.”

     There are of course other observers who take the more cynical outlook that openly acknowledges the more intriguing dimension of international disaster relief.

     FP’s Patrick M. Cronin credits U.S. aid to Philippines as “an opportunity to re-upthe pivot, and to pour cold water on the narrative of a dominant China,” after years of some skepticism after Clinton’s announcement of this strategic shift in 2011 as to what this pivot to Asia in hard policy terms. For Japan—the other major player seeking to balance China’s rising dominance in the region—the Haiyan typhoon has offered, on a silver plate, an opportunity to cosy up to a country already mired in a maritime territorial dispute with China. One could sense a sinister grin looming on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has already made diplomatic visits to Cambodia and Laos on November 16.

    But, anything Chinese government does invariably provokes liberal-minded attack from left and right wing observers. It comes from the classical liberal fear of a powerful Leviathan, which declares itself as Communist in name, and perhaps from deep inside such perspective, still occupies the position of “the Orient,” or “the Other,” making it all the easier to excoriate.

    For instance, on the Diplomat, James Holmes has taken this occasion to encapsulate China’s foreign policy as “sneer diplomacy,” which whether or not, a “Erratic behavior, or behavior at odds with the image a country projects, is bound to strike observers as phony.” It’s hard to imagine any other country with more derogatives for its foreign policies.  This, when he is probably aware that: i) China’s domestic disaster relief operations have a reputation for being far from effective (In 2008 Chengdu earthquake, nearly 70,000 people died, and this year, nearly 200 died when a quake rattled the country’s southwest.); ii) “The second largest economy” still has per capita income of $9,000, making it 90th in the world, with a 130 million still living on less than $1.80 a day; iii) China is locked in a maritime territorial dispute with the Philippines. China may just feel a touch reluctant to show up to Philippines all smiles.

   I don’t desist from condemning China for its appalling contribution, which, as it is so often the case, places its foreign policy in stark contrast to its rhetoric about its rise as a harmonious power poised to make the world a better place. But, morally arbitrating China in regards to issues that clearly have more facets than mere ethics just doesn’t help anyone. In an age when a nuanced portrayal of China is ever in need, American commentators, whose primary goal, I wish, is to seek to achieve just that, spectacularly fail to do so in bashing China with universalistic moral overtones. It is such criticisms from the West that garner attention from not only hawkish and insecure Chinese nationalists, but also the state-run media.

    It’s all well to see Western liberals and realists alike boil blood and get all aroused at the sight of a headline to the effect of  “another China cock up.” It makes Democracy look more attractive, and its greatest spokesman United States of America look less past its apex. It is also understandable that American commentators deep inside feel somewhat insecure about, to borrow Robert D. Kaplan’s words, America’s elegant decline in the context of their fear of a Communist China’s fate going the other way. But such adverse content on Western press tend to frame things into a zero-sum game where America’s gain means China’s loss, and vice versa, to the fear of neoliberal IR theory.  Worse yet, when such malicious content gets picked up in the PRC, it spawns bad blood between two countries that should be tilting in favour of cooperation, and not competition. Perceptions don’t readily translate to realities, but they surely play a powerful role。

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