Gordon G. Chang
7 February 2012
“The Arab Spring is coming to China,” John McCain told Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun at the just-concluded Munich Security Conference, sometimes called the “Davos of Defense.”
Zhang, according to People’s Daily, shot back that the senator’s comment was “no more than fantasy.” The Chinese government has support of more than 70 percent of the people, the Beijing diplomat noted, citing a survey conducted by a Western organization he did not identify.
People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, said in its Chinese-language edition that the confrontation was “full of gunpowder smell.” Chinese leaders have traditionally used gunpowder references as code for insidious foreign attempts to undermine China’s socialist system.
Why should Beijing care so much about the Arizona senator? China’s one-party system looks increasingly fragile, as protests grow in number and become more violent. So when People’s Daily went after McCain for mirroring America’s “anxiety and lack of confidence,” the counterattack betrayed Beijing’s own fears. As Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post noted, the party newspaper rarely reports specific criticisms by foreigners in public settings.
Yet the response to McCain, most revealingly, extended far beyond issues of social stability to matters the Arizona Republican could not be held responsible for. In an English-language article about his Arab Spring comment, People’s Daily rhetorically asked why China was not “freaking out” when faced with the new American “reset” policy of the Obama administration, the so-called “pivot” of American strategic focus to East Asia. “The answer is simple: China understands the danger of confronting the current global order, it should cautiously and rationally deal with various challenges to pave the way for development,” the paper noted. “China, as the implicit target of the strategy, is responding with reserve.”
If Beijing has reacted with restraint to the White House’s renewed focus on China, it is only because it has yet to figure out what to do. It could take months more for Chinese officials to craft their response, yet in the broad-based attack on John McCain we can see that, in their mind, they are developing the notion that unrelated events are in fact linking to create a web—a global conspiracy—to entrap them and destroy their system. In fact, one of the many Chinese-language commentaries in People’s Daily said that McCain was actually hoping for turmoil in China.
McCain is not a co-conspirator plotting the next Chinese revolution. Moreover, he has nothing to do with Obama’s much-discussed “pivot.” The fact that Beijing can’t stop talking about it suggests the White House has, with its new policy, struck a nerve.
And so has Senator McCain.