Op-Ed Columnist

Power to the (Blogging) People

Published: September 14, 2010


The New York Times

This moment was inevitable. Ever since China began to shuck
off communism and turn itself into a global economic power, its leaders have
followed the strategy of a “peaceful rise” — be modest, act prudently, don’t
frighten the neighbors and certainly don’t galvanize any coalition against us.
But in recent years, with the U.S. economic model having suffered an
embarrassing self-inflicted shock, and the “Beijing Consensus” humming along,
voices have emerged in China saying “the future belongs to us” and maybe we
should let the world, or at least the ’hood, know that a little more
affirmatively. For now, those voices come largely from retired generals and
edgy bloggers — and the Chinese leadership has remained cautious. But a
diplomatic spat this past summer has China’s neighbors, not to mention
Washington, wondering for how long China will keep up the gentle giant act. With an estimated 70 million bloggers,
China’s leaders are under constant pressure now to be more assertive by a
populist- and nationalist-leaning blogosphere
, which, in the absence of
democratic elections, is becoming the de facto voice of the people.

The diplomatic fracas was a session of the regional forum
of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, held July 23 in Hanoi.
In attendance were foreign ministers of the 10 Asean members, as well as
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and China’s foreign minister, Yang Jiechi.
According to one of the diplomats who sat in on the meeting, the Asean
ministers took turns subtly but firmly cautioning China to back off from its
decision to claim “indisputable sovereignty” over the whole resource-rich South
China Sea, which stretches from Singapore to the Strait of Taiwan over to
Vietnam and carries about half the world’s merchant cargo each year. Its seabed
is also believed to hold major reserves of oil and gas, and lately China’s Navy
has become more aggressive in seizing fishing boats alleged to have infringed
on its sovereignty there. China also has been embroiled in maritime disputes
with South Korea and Japan.

As one minister after another got up at the Asean meeting
to assert claims in the South China Sea or argue that any territorial disputes
must be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law, the
Chinese foreign minister grew increasingly agitated, according to a
participant. And after Mrs. Clinton spoke and insisted that the South China Sea
was an area where America had “a national interest” in “freedom of navigation,”
the Chinese foreign minister asked for a brief adjournment and then weighed in.

Speaking without a text, Yang went on for 25 minutes,
insisting that this was a bilateral issue, not one between China and Asean. He
looked across the room at Mrs. Clinton through much of his stem-winder, which
included the observation that “China is a big country” and most of the other
Asean members “are small countries,” The Washington Post reported. The
consensus in the room, the diplomat said, was that the Chinese minister was
trying to intimidate the group and separate the territorial claimants from the
nonclaimants so that there could be no Asean collective action and each country
would have to negotiate with China separately.

As negative feedback from the Yang lecture rippled back to
Beijing, China’s leaders seemed to play down the affair for fear that after a
decade of declining U.S. influence in the region they were about to drive all
their neighbors back into America’s embrace.

How much China’s leaders will be able to cool it, though,
will depend, in part, on a third party: the Chinese blogosphere, where a whole
generation of Chinese schooled by the government on the notion that the U.S.
and the West want to keep China down, now have their own megaphones to denounce
any Chinese official who compromises too much as “pro-American” or “a traitor.”

Interestingly, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing has begun to
reach out to that same blogosphere — even inviting bloggers to travel in the
car with the U.S. ambassador, Jon Huntsman, and interview him when he visits
their Chinese province — to get
America’s message out without filtering by China’s state-run media

“China for the first time has a public sphere to discuss
everything affecting Chinese citizens,” explained Hu Yong, a blogosphere expert
at Peking University. “Under traditional media, only elite people had a voice,
but the Internet changed that.” He added, “We now have a transnational media.
It is the whole society talking, so people from various regions of China can
discuss now when something happens in a remote village — and the news spreads
everywhere.” But this Internet world “is more populist and nationalistic,” he
continued. “Many years of education that our enemies are trying to keep us down
has produced a whole generation of young people whose thinking is like this,
and they now have a whole Internet to express it.”

Watch this space. The
days when Nixon and Mao could manage this relationship in secret are long gone.

There are a lot of unstable chemicals at
work out here today, and so many more players with the power to inflame or calm
U.S.-China relations. Or to paraphrase Princess Diana, there are three of us in
this marriage.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on September 15, 2010, on page
A35 of the New York edition.