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China Invites the West to Look Behind the Curtain

Times Staff Writer

Chinese officials have settled on a new mantra in meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries: You’ve seen Beijing and Shanghai. Now it’s time to go out to the countryside and see our tired, our poor, our huddled masses yearning to be fed.

Behind the polite invitation is a more substantive message. Namely, you may view us as a strategic threat poised to steal your jobs, drive up your gas prices and take over the world. But take a peek beyond the tall buildings and bright lights, and you’ll have more sympathy for our problems.

And then maybe, just maybe, you won’t be so hard on us.

“You should visit outside Shanghai and Beijing,” Cai Wu, director of the information office of the State Council, China’s Cabinet, told a group of newspaper editors in Beijing recently. “It’s like visiting the house of a friend. The first time you stay in the living room. But next time, after you become better friends, you go into the kitchen and the basement.”

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Tang Jiaxuan, state councilor and a member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, also waxed metaphoric.

“When you go to the countryside, you will understand why Chinese say they are firmly walking on the road to peaceful development,” Tang said in an interview at Zhongnanhai, the national seat of power. “China is not a country that hides its skeletons in the drawer.”

Even on trips abroad, officials are making the pitch for a visit to the Chinese sticks. In Los Angeles on Thursday, Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan reminded business leaders who may have been to Shanghai and Beijing that the masses of rural poor in China earn less than half the $4,557 of an urban Beijing dweller.

Encouraging influential foreigners to have a “Green Acres” moment not only helps outsiders better understand China in all its complexity, it also makes tactical sense.

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Beijing hopes to send a couple of messages. One is that its record $202-billion trade surplus with the United States last year may look huge but doesn’t amount to all that much when divided by 1.3 billion people. A second is that China has too many domestic problems and is too focused on political stability to menace its neighbors.

“The government’s old way of thinking was related to traditional culture, a concern with ‘face’ and presenting the best side to outsiders,” said Xiao Gongqin, a history professor at Shanghai Normal University. “Now we’d like Western countries to see that China is lagging far behind. It’s far, far from becoming a threat.”

The perception gap was on display in late May after the release of a Pentagon report saying that China is rapidly extending its military reach, allowing it to compete with the U.S. and pose a potential threat to other countries.

Beijing strongly rejected those conclusions, arguing that its buildup is merely defensive. It accused Washington of Cold War-era thinking.

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Beijing’s call on foreigners to get a look at Chinese farmers living in squalor is also a sign of China’s growing self-assurance. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that officials rushed to hide even the smallest of blemishes, wary of leaving the impression that Chinese socialism was anything but perfect.

“China is much more confident,” said Wang Yiwei, an America specialist at Fudan University in Shanghai. “It’s rising, but it’s eager to say it’s not rising so much. And it has a point: While Shanghai is China’s New York, the countryside is China’s Africa.”

Howard Snyder, a U.S. businessman who first came to China in 1981 to learn the language, recalls how tightly controlled the country was in those days. Foreigners were required to register before traveling even short distances, with trips to the countryside limited to Potemkin-style model villages.

In 1982, while studying at Beijing Normal University, Snyder slipped away to nearby Hebei province during the Chinese New Year break to experience a bit of rural life. The sort of visit officials now welcome was viewed at the time with great suspicion, prompting police to excoriate the university minder charged with watching over Snyder and other foreigners.

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“There was both a fear of being seen as backward and a desire to avoid any foreign contact you might be accused of,” Snyder said. “There’s a Chinese expression, ‘Once bitten by a snake, you’re afraid of a rope for the next 10 years.’ ” After the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, a reign of terror when outside influence and Chinese tradition were demonized, “there was a real lingering fear of foreign contact,” he said. Years of rapid economic growth, an increasing number of foreign leaders knocking on its door and China’s growing role as a global player have made China far more open and less reflexive about criticism.

“It’s a complete shift,” said David Ben Kay, an American lawyer working for a U.S. software company who first came to China in the late 1980s.

All politics are local, in China as elsewhere, and the recent invitations to experience China’s countryside also dovetail with a major initiative by the administration of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

The message to get beyond Shanghai subtly distinguishes the new leadership team from former President Jiang Zemin, a Shanghai booster whose policies benefited the moneyed, high-tech and glitzy. It also falls in line with Hu and Wen’s focus on rural problems, migrant workers, the rich-poor gap and those left behind.

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“It’s entirely consistent with the line from the top,” said Patrick Horgan, Beijing-based managing director with a consulting company and a longtime China resident. “And it’s for the good. If people form their view of China from the China World and St. Regis hotels and from being whisked around in motorcades, they miss the bigger story.”

China is increasingly welcoming not only potential friends but some of its harshest critics to poke around for themselves.

This spring, it invited Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for a visit after the two drafted a bill to impose a 27.5% tariff on all Chinese goods imported into the U.S. unless Beijing agreed to revalue its currency. Critics say China’s yuan is undervalued, giving its companies an unfair trade advantage.

Back in Washington the next week, the senators agreed to postpone a vote on the bill until September on the grounds that Beijing had assured them it was serious about currency reform.

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That prompted a familiar refrain.

“I think with Sens. Schumer and Graham’s visit to China, both sides have a better understanding of each other’s views,” a senior Chinese official told a group of U.S. reporters before Hu’s trip to Washington in April.

“It’s just a pity that, given the brief visit by the senators, there was no time to visit the impoverished Western areas.”

Yin Lijin in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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