Here it comes again! The latest 'bad China syndrome'

YOU can bet they have been salivating, waiting patiently for the delicious, divisive moment: for Cultural Revolution Two or Tiananmen Square Two. They are the anti-communist neo-cons, the true believers in China's essential evil, its essential incompatibility with the "civilized world."

By Tom Plate

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Published: Sun 22 Aug 2004, 10:45 AM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:54 AM

Oh yes, they will say in Washington: You see, once a Communist, always a Communist, a tiger can never changes its stripes. Sure, the Chinese will try to play nice with neighbours and with the United States, but when push comes to shove, they will bare their teeth and take a bite out of anyone or anything standing in their way.

And so for the world's most populated country, these enemies of China wish more than its permanent split with Taiwan, Tibet and even Hong Kong - they hanker for a monumental historical demarche of a whole different order: They would like to see a Yugoslavia-like disintegration of the entire country, and thus the end of China as the new millennium's up-and-coming superpower. Sure would make it easier for the West to continue its 20th-century victory laps through the world's economic markets.

The trouble is, sometimes things happen in China, based on Western press reports, which play into the hands of its enemies in the West. Take two recent US newspaper headlines: 'CHINA JAILS HONG KONG DEMOCRAT' and 'CHINA HOLDS CANDIDATE FROM HONG KONG ON PROSTITUTION CHARGE.' These appeared in print on Wednesday (Aug. 17) in two of America's most respected dailies: The Los Angeles Times and the New York Times respectively.

The headlines referred to the arrest on the Chinese mainland of a Hong Kong pro-democracy political figure on charges of proffering money for the intimate companionship of a woman. From there on, however, the details get real fuzzy. Was the figure targeted for arrest - and charges possibly fabricated - precisely because he was a Beijing critic and activist of the Hong Kong Democratic (anti-Beijing) Party? Or was he merely scooped up like any other alleged john in a local government effort to cut down on prostitution? I don't know, and even the officials involved seem hazy on the facts. In Hong Kong, though, there seems to be less uncertainty: There, it looks to so many like a clumsy setup by a nervous Beijing getting ever-more edgy about next month's legislative-council elections.

As I say, I don't know. It may take weeks to get the true story. But one thing is for sure: The People's Republic of China has been getting bad press lately. The next day, for instance, the New York Times ran what was cast as a religious-persecution story on the travails of a Buddhist church in northern China: 'IN CRACKDOWN, CHINA SHUTS BUDDHIST SITE AND SEIZES CATHOLIC PRIESTS.'

Beijing, to be sure, offers the world a different party line on both these stories, but I am afraid a recurrent pattern is surfacing: the Bad China Syndrome. In fits and starts, the American media tend to go in mainly one direction with a given country-story. After the bad has run its media course, good returns; but now, in America, it seems for China the good cycle may be over, ushering in the bad.

The implications for China are significant no matter what: If the Chinese authorities take the view that these are internal Chinese affairs and who cares how the Western press plays them, then China will be doomed to a bad press that will eat away at public support for US-China engagement. In Beijing, they tend to underestimate the role of idealism in US foreign policy and overrate the behind-the-scenes iron hand of the mostly Republican, multinational business lobby.

But if Chinese authorities take the view that all countries need to worry about the image they project to the world (e.g., the United States and Abu Ghraib), then they have a problem. The sudden arrest of the Hong Kong democrat is so injurious to China's image, you'd think it was clandestinely orchestrated by a rogue CIA outfit. And the way the Buddhist persecution plays here revives memories of the Beijing crackdown on Falun Gong, a psychodrama that has mainly played into the Evil China scenario.

One thing is certain: These world-perception downslides are not in China's national interests, no matter how valid authorities may view these actions from a law-enforcement or national-security standpoint. China faces plenty of tough-enough mountains to climb without elevating silly little molehills to the monumental status of Mt. Everest.

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