Is China Too Big to Deal With?

Is China Too Big to Deal With?

MANY of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's fellow leaders at Copenhagen last weekend were convinced that he was behaving like an impressively deadpan shopper at Beijing's Silk Market.

The classic play for the experienced shopper in China is to bargain down as far as you can, then walk away, shaking your head in sorrow that you cannot afford the seller's exorbitant price.

Then if the stallkeeper remains confident of still being able to chalk up a profitable sale, they will send an acolyte to summon you back for a further round.

But Wen was never going to return once he left the room at the climate change conference, regardless of the loud appeals from Europeans and many developing countries for China to sign up to a different deal.

What Wen took going in to the conference was not an offer or a negotiating position. It was a commitment, which had taken a long time inside Beijing's complex, faction-ridden governing machinery to nut out.

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Chinese people bargain routinely over everyday items such as a bag or a pair of jeans, discretionary purchases. But they tend to assess what a big-ticket item is worth, then stick to that figure until they find a buyer willing to pay the right price.

This especially applies to property. When the overall price of property trends down, owners often simply leave their flats empty rather than losing face by selling or renting them for a price below what they believe the property is worth.

When it comes to the big picture, China never knowingly takes a backward step; or, if it does, it hates to concede doing so. Its Communist Party, after 60 years in power, still feels that its legitimacy remains threatened.

It views displaying weakness - for instance, by allowing foreigners to assess whether it is meeting its emission targets - as potentially undermining the credibility of the regime.

Beijing, whose priorities are invariably domestic, does not tolerate ceding ground to multilateral pressure. Germany has finally moved on from the effect of the Versailles peace treaty after World War I, but Beijing has never forgotten that the great powers gathered there handed over the German ports in China to the Japanese rather than returning them to Chinese control.

It's not so hard, really, to work out what Chinese leaders mean in their statements. They mean what they say.

Beijing insists that China's prospect of catching up with its Japanese and South Korean neighbours' living standards is not negotiable, even over global warming. Its Global Times editorialised: "The majority cannot sacrifice their life to build a greener world for the few."

The global financial crisis that laid the Western world low has reinforced Chinese leaders' sense that they are at the centre of international affairs and do not need to play Western negotiating games. Engineers and other technological experts have recently dominated public life in China. Wen himself is a geologist. Bridges are properly built or they collapse. You don't negotiate their feasibility.

Mao Zedong said: "The revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery."

Nor is the revolution a multilateral agreement.

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