But the "outsiders" are much harder to keep
out of what was once exclusively domestic terrain. The penetration of
communication technology, albeit heavily controlled, still acts as a
transnational sieve. What appears on Sina Weibo is re-posted on Twitter within
moments, multiplying readership in the outside, English-speaking world at
But it isn't just social media. The collective global
attention paid to the world's number-two economy has increased drastically in the media and
within policy circles. Call it the "post-Olympics effect." The triumphalism of the 2008 Beijing Games and the ensuing collapse of the global
economy dramatically altered the extent and scope to which the world focused on China. Just a little over three years later, a "China story" is bound
to splash across the front page of major U.S. papers week after week. The breadth
and detail of coverage have increased significantly too. Many more Americans
now likely know that there's a gargantuan Chinese city called Chongqing
and that its leader is in serious trouble. And many more will have heard of
Vice President Xi Jinping. In 2002, how many people knew who Hu Jintao was or what a
politburo standing committee was?
It is a given that this level of attention will persist.
What is not clear is how China will ultimately adapt. While it's theoretically positive for American
public knowledge about China to grow, for Beijing, such
endless attention is highly uncomfortable and unwelcome. What's more, some of
that attention carries the expectation that China should behave more like a top-two power. Even before the recent slew of political and human rights troubles,
Beijing spurned the idea that it must play a more expansive global role,
especially if that meant big distractions from the home front. In light of
recent events, China may have had a point: The image it has projected lately is
not of a country that is strutting onto the world stage confidently and
Indeed, for all the financial muscle thrown behind shaping
its global image, Beijing may have squandered more soft power in the last few
months than it has accrued in years. Money flowed to Confucius Institutes and
sleek CCTV America studios. Meanwhile, more Chinese elites are seeking exit
visas to America. The message is tough to miss: China is the place to get
rich fast, but America is the place to park your RMBs and protect the bounties.
America, it seems, is the safe haven of last resort for Chinese dissidents and Chinese personal
wealth. What good are Confucius Institutes (state-funded soft-power outposts that teach Chinese language and history at universities around the world) when many of your country's elites
are voting with their feet and hedging against domestic unpredictability?
Surely, the Chinese government understands the ramifications
of what could happen if these trends continue unabated -- another source of
embarrassment that they might term "obviously manufactured by western press out to get
China." Such propagandistic spins will increasingly fall on deaf ears,
however, both to the domestic audience and to outside observers. If Deng
Xiaoping famously captured China's development strategy in the pithy phrase
"hide and bide,"
then China in 2012 certainly can no longer hide. It has already lost a
considerable amount of control in hiding its unsavory domestic affairs,
and it now must increasingly answer in the court of global public
Yet that is also a source of potential tension, as
external perception remains at odds with the Chinese state's perception of its own
capacity, creating divergent realities that will be difficult for the leadership to navigate. How can the country possibly meet all these expectations when it still has little idea of what it wants to
world is watching now, and it is impatient.