China tests its international reach

THE PORTER REPORT - A monthly update on the business world from leading writer David Porter

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David Porter

French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent sojourn in China excited some of the journalists covering his visit. They reported that he was given a “rock star welcome” by students at the elite Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou.

The coverage reminded me of my own first visit as a green foreign correspondent to China many years ago. I accompanied a group of 60 young New Zealanders who were responding to an invitation to visit from then Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang.

As we descended from the plane on our arrival, we were greeted by a vast crowd of Chinese citizens, banging gongs, waving banners and exhibiting great enthusiasm at our visit.

We were all delighted to receive such a warm welcome. However, on later mentioning this incident to a Beijing-based Kiwi diplomat, he looked at me with some pity for my naivety and remarked drily, “Of course, they never have any problem assembling a crowd in China.”

As Macron discovered.

The French president reportedly also hailed China’s “critical thinking”, which seemed an inappropriate description of a country noted for its tight media and political controls.

Observing Macron’s peregrinations in China, one could only note that he had chosen a very good time to be out of France. His home country was roiled by massive demonstrations in burning streets amidst some of the most extreme and chaotic labour actions ever seen there over his pension change proposal.

Fortunately for Macron, the relevant French institutional committee gave the go-ahead to his pension proposals and on his return he dutifully passed them into law. His detractors already deeply resented the fact that he had pushed through his original pension changes without parliamentary discussion or approval. This latest move seems unlikely to be the end of French union unrest.

Ironically, the namesake of the university that was credited with his rock star reception, Sun Yat-Sen, is unique among 20th-century Chinese leaders for being widely revered by both the Communist Party in mainland China, and in Taiwan. The breakaway state continues to be threatened by China with imminent takeover, despite Taiwan’s evident resistance since its inception as an independent state to mainland control.

Macron managed to attract comment and in many cases derision – even within the European Community – for his call that France should follow its own path and not blindly support the US – especially with regard to the status of Taiwan.

It would seem the French President sees himself as an international peace negotiator. Unfortunately, his telephone diplomacy to try and dissuade Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin not to invade the Ukraine was a dismal failure.

Macron has subsequently purported to be trying to woo China into helping broker a peace plan with the Soviets over the Ukraine. He seems oblivious to the fact that the last thing China intends to do is dissuade Russia’s leadership from its actions.

Chinese President Xi Jingping’s recent reaffirmation of the warm China/Soviet “partnership” following his visit to Russia made it clear that China would not be attempting to soften Russian policy.

After all, Putin’s doomed war policy is China’s best chance of staking a claim to independent influence in the global order and resisting international US pressure.

It is one of the ironies of China, as I have observed before in this column, that the mainland’s greatest strength – its vast population of almost 1.5 billion people – is also its weakness. No senior leader ascends to the top of China’s political tree without understanding the country’s history and the vulnerabilities that come with the job.

As became evident in recent months when the lengthy Xi-driven lockdown of entire communities to try and control the spread of Covid-19 eventually triggered mass protests by the Chinese populace.

Even the government’s vigorous suppression of public opinion couldn’t manage to completely curb this, and ultimately Xi had to back down and ease the strict

Covid-19 control policy. All Chinese leaders understand that unsuccessful regimes risk being overthrown.

Related: Leading the party

David Porter
David Porter
THE PORTER REPORT - A monthly update on the business world from David Porter

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