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China won’t bow down

China and the United States have been referred to as global partners, strategic competitors, outright rivals and “frenemies” -- friends who secretly hate each other’s guts.

In recent months, a pretense of cordiality has given way to unusually public squabbling. China is threatening to boycott U.S. defense contractors over arms sales to Taiwan and is loudly protesting President Obama’s meeting this week with the Dalai Lama. The United States and its European allies are angry about what they regard as China’s obstructionist behavior on issues such as global warming and Iran’s nuclear program.

Foreign businesses complain of anti-competitive behavior. Google’s revelations about Chinese cyber-hacking unleashed an angry exchange over Internet freedom. China has been meting out prison sentences to those who have challenged one-party rule.

Has something fundamentally changed in China, or is this merely one of those bumpy patches? Is it just coincidence that so many irritating issues are coming up?

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The last year has produced a bumper crop of books addressing the China question. Here is what some top China hands had to say. Their remarks are taken from interviews with The Times and from recent writings.

Martin Jacques acknowledges picking the title of his new book with the goal of being provocative -- and boosting sales. It’s called “When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New World Order.”

“China is becoming a global power, while America no longer has the same authority that it used to have,” he says.

As China becomes a bigger player, Jacques says, there will be more potential for discord on issues such as global finances, climate change or Iran.

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A Marxist scholar whose book is also popular among Chinese, Jacques doesn’t blame China as much for the recent rough patch as he does scholars who predicted that China would become more like a Western democracy as it prospered.

“The expectation of China being a Western country, or being prepared to do the West’s bidding, is false,” Jacques says. “We’ve got to go back to the drawing board and make a serious effort to understand China, so we are not always surprised and upset.”

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In “The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression,” James Mann also scorns the Washington think tanks (one of which he works for).

But he hints that free trade advocates who pushed for China’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2000 misled the public.

“Across the United States, factories have closed and millions of Americans have been put out of work as the result of our decision to keep our markets open to Chinese goods. Meanwhile, the American people have been informed repeatedly that the reasons for our policy were not merely economic -- helping American companies that do business with or in China -- but political. Free trade was going to lead to political liberalization,” he writes.

A former columnist and Beijing correspondent for The Times, Mann says it’s too late to undo what was done.

“We need to stop assuming that we are going to integrate China into an American-led community,” says Mann. But that doesn’t mean that the United States has to quietly accept China’s system of government.

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“The United States ought to take a strong and forthright stand on human rights,” says Mann.

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As the title of “China: Fragile Superpower” makes clear, Susan Shirk believes that China isn’t as strong as people think.

With bemusement, Shirk cites a poll released in December by the Pew Center for People and the Press in which 44% of respondents said they thought China had the world’s largest economy, as opposed to 27% who correctly picked the United States. (The U.S. economy is roughly three times the size of China’s.)

“The failures of the American financial system and the fact that the Chinese recovered first from the global financial crisis has led to some misperceptions,” Shirk says.

With its rampant poverty, pollution and ethnic rifts, China remains far behind the United States in almost all measures. But Shirk cautions that political leaders who are overconfident externally and vulnerable internally historically are most apt to stir up nationalism (or even start wars).

To Shirk, there is no doubt that China has become more truculent toward the United States.

Shirk is most worried about China’s economic policies: keeping its currency artificially low despite the obvious damage to other nations’ economies and measures to strengthen state-owned enterprises.

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“It certainly doesn’t look like the heyday of market reform, throwing lawyers into jail, tightening controls on the media. It all reflects great anxiety about challenges to the Communist Party,” she says.

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If anything, the view from within China is even worse, according to James McGregor, longtime consultant to foreign businesses in China and author of “One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China.”

McGregor says that the expatriate business community is more discouraged than at any time in more than 20 years.

“Among the long-term foreign businesspeople I know here, it is unanimous that there is a significant shift in attitude by the Chinese,” McGregor says. “You’ve got young officials who are saying to them, ‘You are just here to exploit the Chinese. This is our market. We don’t owe you anything.’ ”

McGregor says the Chinese have moved too quickly from feeling inferior to the West, the legacy of the humiliations of the 19th century, to feeling superior.

“They have a big pile of cash. Everybody is telling them they are great,” says McGregor. “Now they have to learn to be equal, to do good, to play fair.”

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Kenneth Lieberthal, a former Clinton administration official and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also chalks up the recent rough patch to growing pains.

“The Chinese have been catapulted more rapidly than they had anticipated into a more prominent global role. At the beginning of 2010, they are in a position they did not expect to be for some years,” Lieberthal says. “It has affected their style. They are being at least rhetorically more assertive than they’ve been before, and their confidence might be affecting their calculations about whether they can change the trajectory on some big issues.”

But Lieberthal is optimistic that the Chinese leadership will not allow relations to seriously deteriorate.

“If they think they will be able to change our policy, say on Taiwan arms sales, they will get a lot of push back and I think they will adjust their policy and rhetoric accordingly.”

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Zachary Karabell, economist, historian and author of “Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World’s Prosperity Depends on It,” says it is impossible to contemplate a breakup.

China needs the United States as a market for its exports. And as the holder of more than $1 trillion in U.S. assets, mostly Treasury bills, China has a stake in helping the U.S. recover from the financial crisis. In his book, Karabell cites the well-known adage about the relationship between lenders and debtors: When you owe the bank $100,000, you’ve got a problem; when you owe $1 trillion, it’s the bank that has a problem.

“There is a restlessness in China about its dependence on the United States, but there is no choice,” says Karabell. “If it’s a marriage, it’s a 19th century marriage -- a marriage of convenience for which there is no easy way out.

“We can be miserable and we can have affairs, but at the end of the day, this is where we make our bed.”

barbara.demick @latimes.com


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