China: Erratic State, Frustrated Society

Why does China thwart, frustrate and even embarrass those who are only trying to help? For all who befriend China, the story is the same: high hopes, then disappointment. The exhilaration of the Beijing Spring followed by the rage of the Tiananmen massacre was only the high-theater version of the countless commonplace ways China continually brings hope and then despair to its well-wishers. All governments, whether democratic or communist, have had their special problems in maintaining smooth relations with Chinese authorities. But it is of course the Chinese people themselves who are most hurt and frustrated.

China seems to evoke in others, particularly Americans, an irresistible desire to serve as China’s teachers in the ways of the modern world, and thereby presumably help China improve itself. Yet, from the time of Lord Palmerston’s efforts to get the Chinese to accept the conventions of Western diplomacy, to President Bush’s humiliating attempts to alter the behavior of Beijing’s current rulers, China seems impelled to reject the helping hand and to act in ways that seem perversely self-damaging in the eyes of those who believe they have that country’s interests at heart.

Western frustrations with the conduct of Chinese officials began with the first efforts to "open" China. Even after 1842, when the Qing court agreed in the Treaty of Nanking to establish state-to-state relations, the British were driven again to using military muscle, in part to get the Chinese to establish a foreign office and conduct "normal" diplomatic relations. Faced with force majeure the Chinese reluctantly gave up their tradition of "managing barbarian affairs" through the offices of the Board of Rites, where specialists in protocol could teach uninformed foreigners the "usages of the empire," including how to get down on all fours when kowtowing to the August One. They did indeed set up a crude facsimile of a foreign office. The British, however, were driven to exasperation, for it seemed to them that in staffing the new office, the Tsung-li Yamen, the Chinese must have diabolically scoured the imperial bureaucracy to find the most dimwitted of officials. Additionally the Chinese had placed the foreign office on a back street in a rundown building, where passers-by could press their noses to the windows to watch Western diplomats attempt to lecture Chinese mandarins on why foreign affairs should not be treated as a mere nuisance.

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