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[Sung Chull Junn] China in puberty, handle with care

The entire world trembles at the so-called “China effect,” a testament to China’s unpredictability. 

The world cannot begin to fathom China’s reasons for resisting the revaluation of the yuan despite the nation’s large foreign exchange reserves and explosive growth in exports. The world cannot understand China’s tolerance, justification and even support for the apparent barbarisms of North Korea. The world cannot understand China’s antagonism toward the Japanese, unlike its passive actions in Africa.

Even after having become a global superpower, China shows a strong disdain for globally accepted standards, mocking the Nobel Peace Prize, ruthlessly cracking down on pro-democratic movements and behaving like an undeveloped country. The rest of the world cannot even begin to comprehend this.

To understand China, we need to understand its identity. Simply put, China is experiencing the growing pains of adolescence.

As of late, the world frequently describes the Chinese as being proud, confident, and insecure. As the nation with the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, largest exports, largest population, plus spectacular economic growth and military power distanced from America’s nuclear umbrella, China has every right to exude both pride and confidence.

However, China’s insecurity stems from awareness that it is still immature in multiple senses. Abject poverty from just a couple of decades ago remains a vivid shadow in the memory of citizens. With an average per capita income of less than $4,000, China has yet to become a developed nation.

In terms of social development, China has a long way to go. As a single-party country that quells opposing voices, the government exerts full media censorship with no such thing as freedom of speech. All its banks are essentially state-operated. In fact, unless a Chinese citizen relocates to another country, there is no such thing as Chinese freedom. The world is dealing with a country whose court of law thinks a fair ruling is for a judge to ask a town official or heads of the city for the verdict. China has yet to mature, and the Chinese are fully aware of this. Thus, like children in the emotional throes of puberty, they feel insecure.

Puberty is a stage in life when a child develops his sense of self. Juxtaposed with pride and instability, a high self-esteem and a sense of inferiority, it is a period of great ambivalence. Inevitably, this ambivalence lends itself to unpredictable and emotionally-driven changes. China’s whimsical nature, in effect, is a manifestation of adolescence.

Modern day China is the world’s “strongest developing-nation” and the world as we know it today moves at the whims of an adolescent on full swings of insecurities. Thus, the rest of the world feels uneasy.

Dealing with an adolescent, of course, requires finesse. A thoughtful and delicately balanced ability to empathize with his insecurities and to provide comfort is an absolutely needed quality. However, empathy and tolerance alone may provoke the adolescent to become even more volatile. In fact, an adolescent engages in self-reflection and gains perspective only when he sees himself as part of a working social order.

Modern day governments need to establish clear and consistent diplomatic principles when working with China. This is especially true for the United States, whose global leadership depends heavily on its relationship with China. Concurrently, the United States must also consider South Korean interests, because they often conflict with those of China’s in part due to North Korea. Essentially, the established principles should steer China to behave more sensibly to achieve peaceful coexistence among conflicting yet interconnected nations. To date, however, no such principle is in sight.

Facing China’s naked pursuit of selfish interests then, major countries such as the United States should propose a creative coexistence that calls for more credible moral and political behavior from China. The rest of the world, especially countries with far less economic and military force such as South Korea, could benefit from such a proposal. Ultimately, the world needs consistent principles to work with China, and it is time for us to get together to earnestly examine what those principles should be. 

By Sung Chull Junn

Sung Chull Junn is CEO of the Institute of Global Management in Seoul. ― Ed.
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