Perception becomes reality, nationally and individually

This seems to be China’s problem: it has a bad image, which is bringing major problems to its door. China has begun to change those perceptions, according to a July 3, 2018, “Geopolitical Futures” article by George Friedman entitled, “Why China Needs to Manage Expectations.”

China’s problems can teach us all a lesson about the need for humility. According to Friedman, the Chinese leadership has come to the realization that China’s public image is causing them grief. The government has set out to do something about it with a series of articles placed in a Chinese newspaper, written in the English language sure to be read by the West. The first of three articles warns the Chinese public that, “(a)rrogance won’t make a country powerful.”

The article is referring to the problems in the Chinese army. It has what is called “the peace disease,” a reference to the lack of wartime readiness of the People’s Liberation Army. Most nations like to tout their military prowess to the rest of the world, but this bragging has hurt the nation. The Chinese government, which controls all the media, is now downplaying its technological and military capabilities.

According to Friedman, China has been too effective in portraying itself as a growing and soon-to-be “dominant military power-in-waiting.” One of the effects is trade protectionism initiated by the United States in the form of tariffs. Donald Trump’s understanding is that America’s defense industries need to be protected from Chinese competition and growing military might.

In Europe and elsewhere, the perception is that China will soon sweep aside all competitors. Additionally, China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative to broaden and develop road and transportation routes into Central Asia has created suspicion. The fear is that China plans to give construction loans and grants to dominate recipients, rather than to mutually benefit both parties.

Xi Jinping’s October 2017 prediction that China would become a world-class military power by the middle of the century caused many nations to perk up their ears. Creating military bases by building up coral reefs in the South China Sea and claiming islands also claimed by Japan has caused the U.S. to increase its defense spending. Japan is watching China’s buildup and it is capable of keeping up, especially as its defense alliance with the U.S. has been shaken by Trump’s flipflopping over North Korea. Japan is having concerns as to whether the U.S. will live up to its treaty obligations to protect them. The same is true for Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Vietnam is also troubled.

During that October 2017 meeting, Xi did not claim that China had accomplished any of its military goals, but the Chinese press took the information and ran with it, pushing its nationalistic message. They projected an image that China was overcoming its military problems, rising to a higher level of capability, according to Friedman.

Xi must now temper the image the media has portrayed and backpedal, especially in the light of U.S. tariffs. China can retaliate against the U.S. with tariffs of its own, but it has more to lose than the U.S. in a trade war.

The problem is that there is a gap between the image of a strong and growing military, technological and economic colossus, on one hand, and the reality of a nation with enormous inequality in wealth between the urbanized and industrialized eastern part of the country and the deeply poor western interior.

If Xi is able to recalibrate the world’s perceptions of China, it will make it difficult for the U.S. to push for more and more tariffs. There would also be less incentive to increase the military buildup of the U.S. and of China’s Asian neighbors.

China is experiencing the difficulty that all of us as individuals face. We want to come across as strong and competent but touting our strengths too much can make us appear threatening, arrogant and bullying to others. Finding humility is a trait we all have trouble attaining. China is just the most recent example on a worldwide scale of this truism. Perceptions become reality, not only for China, but also for all nations and individuals, including the United States, you and me.