DAVID IGNATIUS: China operates through a cloud

By David Ignatius

BEIJING – The paradox of a rising China – a country that wants to play a bigger role in global affairs but suffers from a combination of lethargy and stage fright – was on display here at a conference with Chinese officials.
“China needs to be less of an observer and more of an actor” on major issues such as North Korea and currency adjustments, declared one senior Chinese official during the meeting.
And yet, when it came to proposing solutions during a meeting last Friday with American and European visitors, the Chinese were cautious.
China’s prescription for North Korea is “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” said Jun Fu, the executive dean of the school of government at Beijing University, at a news conference after the meeting ended.
The conference was an unusual effort to explore areas of common interest and, potentially, joint action. It was hosted by the Central Party School, a leadership training center headed by Xi Jinping, who is slated to be China’s next president. The other sponsors were the Aspen Strategy Group (where I’m a member) and the Aspen Institute Italia.
“This isn’t a situation where we’re talking past each other, but we don’t seem to have the ability to act together” despite “a surprising degree of common interest,” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state who is director of the Aspen Strategy Group.
The anxieties that accompany China’s new wealth were apparent in a story that ran in the official China Daily on the morning of our meeting. It described the trend among the country’s new rich to hire private bodyguards. Sometimes, it seems, gaining wealth just makes people more nervous about losing it.
Several Chinese officials who attended the not-for-attribution meeting explained that China is wary about foreign policy in part because officials are focused instead on maintaining domestic economic growth and keeping a potentially restless public happy.
“I’m not saying that China is selfish,” said a senior official, who then conceded that Beijing does indeed think first about its internal problems. In the case of North Korea, China fears that pressuring Pyongyang would send desperate refugees across the border.
The conversation produced a few signs of movement. One professor at the party school began by dismissing U.S. pleas for adjustment of China’s currency. But after more discussion, the professor said that perhaps China could reduce its trade surplus by raising salary levels so workers could buy more imports from the U.S.
“We’re in the same boat” was a remark made here by Chinese and Americans alike. That sounds encouraging. But the boat is drifting these days, if not sinking outright, and the two need to start paddling in unison.
I came away from the meeting with the same mixed picture I saw touring China a month ago – that for all the country’s prosperity and seeming confidence, its leaders are preoccupied with problems of internal growth and political stability. They see policy debates with the West through this clouded lens.

David Ignatius’ e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com. He writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.