China Is Dictating Terms to the West

By Rowan Callick

This may have been true for some time, but it is only since it surged ahead through the economic crisis - the US-European downturn, not strictly a global event - that it has realised it has this capacity. This year, it is starting to act on it.

A classic example is the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. These days, the organisers of such events find it crucial to attract prominent Chinese participants.

And increasingly they turn up - but on their own terms.

Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, the feisty new-generation leader and premier-in-waiting, whose visit three months ago helped relax some of the tensions in the Australia-China relationship, was the high-powered Beijing representative at the WEF event.

Last weekend, Deutsche Bank chief executive Josef Ackermann, a co-chairman at Davos, revealed to Bloomberg that - surprise, surprise - "China didn't want to discuss Google", which caused a furore with its threat to quit China over censorship and cyber-warfare. To oblige, the issue was promptly taken off the agenda at Davos, where business leaders explained that Li told them during a private session how they - and by implication Google too - had to follow China's rules.

"People have their commercial interests," said Ackermann.

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Typical of those who accepted Li's requirement was Eckhard Cordes, chief executive of Metro, Germany's largest retailer, with a growing presence in China. He said at Davos: "From a business perspective, China is doing well, and at this point of time here, I should refrain from making political comments."

Almost everything, from the perspective of China - one of the most intensely political societies - can be viewed as political. The answer for Cordes and his comrades is thus to let China be the guide as to the terms of discussion.

Christopher McNally, a China specialist at the East-West Centre in Hawaii, said: "China just wants people to discuss the positives - the commercial opportunities, and how China can be a force for reviving the world economy.

"Government and business leaders at Davos, by not addressing this issue where there really is a clash of values on both sides, risk popular backlashes within their own countries."

Not, however, within China. No risk of popular backlash there. And elsewhere, people are increasingly being persuaded that economic and other priorities determine that they should play by China's rules.

This week, China has told US President Barack Obama who he can sell arms to (not Taiwan), who he can meet (not the Dalai Lama) and what his Secretary of State can talk about (not Google and the internet). The response of Obama, who worked hard last year to build trust with China, will emerge in the coming weeks and months. But he has little scope for tackling China head-on. China, not the US, dictated the outcome of the Copenhagen climate change conference, and China owns more than $US800 billion ($902bn), about a quarter of the foreign component, of US public debt. In the cultural realm, too, we are seeing an extraordinary change in the way China is portrayed. ABC TV has run, at peak viewing periods, historical documentaries saluting the determination of Chinese military leaders. They were made by a joint venture involving British production house Lion but initiated by Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong-based company whose chief executive and founder is Liu Changle, a former colonel in the People's Liberation Army.

Phoenix is permitted to broadcast into mainland China, and is reputed to be favourite viewing of the leaders in their Zhongnanhai compound next to the Forbidden City.

The documentaries, Secrets of the Forbidden City and The Great Wall, contain clear propaganda messages for today. Both climax with rousing shots of PLA troops, the former also featuring the national flag fluttering proudly.

"Unbreakable", it concludes of the wall, "it sends a clear and unmistakeable message: the empire will defend itself."

It is inconceivable the ABC would have screened shows with similarly "clear" and supportive messages about US military pride.

Rown Callick is Asia-Pacific editor of The Australian.

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