Why Restraint Is a Virtue and a Reflection of Strength

Chinese culture favours restraint and considers self-control a virtue and a reflection of strength. Mutual respect and dialogue is by far the most advisable and practical approach to handle and solve problems or disputes, if we all believe peace and development to be the right way forward for mankind, writes Nelson Wong, Vice Chairman of the Shanghai Centre for RimPac Strategic and International Studies.

Although there is still an on-going debate as to whether there will be a complete or gradual decoupling between China and the US in economic terms in the aftermath of the signing of an agreement on January 15 to settle the “first phase” of trade disputes between the two countries, the continued denouncement of China’s Communist Party by top officials in the US administration, along with the alleged American support behind the separatist activities in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, have fuelled the accusation that the US is resolved to bring China down on all fronts. Naturally, the recent expulsion of three American journalists by China and the Trump administration’s imposition of a restriction on the number of US visas that can be issued to Chinese nationals working at the five major media outlets in the US have once again led many to question if this will escalate the confrontations further and ultimately lead to a full-blown cold war between the two countries.

China’s announcement on February 19 that it was expelling three Wall Street Journal writers came as a warning to the American media outlet for having published an article earlier in the month entitled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” Despite repeated demands by China, the Wall Street Journal refused to issue an apology. Unsurprisingly, the article, which was filled with criticisms of China, enraged the Chinese government as well as the Chinese public, as it was published at a time when everywhere across the country people were struggling to save lives in the fight against the rapid spread of COVID-19 at the cost of the country’s economic growth and amid the interruption of normal business activity.

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The decision by the Chinese government to invalidate the work permits of the three WSJ journalists was therefore considered a justifiable demonstration of Chinese anger towards this humiliating article. The subsequent retaliation by the US administration, which put a personnel cap on “Chinese government-controlled media organisations” in the US, adding that this is to “urge Beijing to respect freedom of expression” and that the US “will continue to seek reciprocity across the bilateral relationship,” only resulted in the worsening of tensions.  

On March 13, Beijing took a step which may appear to be a further counter-attack: the Chinese government issued a report on the human rights violations in the United States titled “The Record of Human Rights Violations in the United States in 2019.” It states that “in recent years, especially since 2019, the human rights situation in the United States has been poor and deteriorating.” It seems unlikely that the confrontation between the two countries will abate anytime soon.

The Wall Street Journal has reportedly approached China through various unofficial channels to express its regret for what its article has caused but has still failed to apologise officially. This lends credence to the contention that the US administration is trying to make use of this incident and to incorporate this into its overall strategy to contain China’s development. Like many of its unilateral measures directed against China and other countries (or sanctions as the US is inclined to call them), this has proven to be counterproductive and is destined to fail.

It is true that the US supremacy and dominance over world affairs is being challenged by the growing voices of many countries that have become tired of having only “one policeman” who from time to time has failed to meet expectations. Equally true is the fact that the US effort to try to overdramatize the horror of “Communist rule” in China has ended in vain because seeking an ideological conflict is out of fashion nowadays and the ability of the Chinese government to have lifted over a billion of its people out of poverty, it may be argued, has justified its legitimacy, at least so far.

The US is apparently not happy with the way the world is heading. Despite its ancient glories, China has remained poor and underdeveloped until relatively recently and is no doubt a newcomer onto the world stage due to its remarkable economic achievements over the last forty years – it now boasts massive production capacities, a highly productive labour force, and a huge domestic consumer market of 1.4 billion. Meanwhile, European countries are coming together under the European Union to walk out of the shadow of the US and to regain their own dignity, while Russia, from the ashes of the collapse of the Soviet Union, has risen to become both a political and a military powerhouse on the world stage. Let us not ignore the United Kingdom, which, despite Brexit, still has the Commonwealth of Nations, and through it, influences more than fifty countries across the globe.

So unless the US accepts the reality that the world has already become multi-polar and is adjusting its position and policies accordingly, it will only find itself more and more dissatisfied and isolated as time goes by. As a large country with a long history, China has been struggling hard through its ups and downs over centuries and has survived to once again become an important member of the global community. The Chinese people, no matter how different we may seem, are in general hospitable to our guests and friends and have the tradition to always respect others, including the way they choose to live. Likewise, we would expect the same treatment by others, which we understand to be true reciprocity.

While all human societies have grown inexorably more civilised and sophisticated from the days when the jungle “law” was the only principle to follow, each society has forged its own path towards civilisation. America and its people have been in a position of power for half a century, flagrantly exporting their culture and ideas, which are packaged as the sole road to civilisation. Crucially, this self-aggrandizement leads American politicians and strategists to misinterpret the collective national character of the Chinese – our mild and non-confrontational manners – as a natural tendency towards submissiveness, or a willingness to swallow our pride at all times. In fact, our culture favours restraint and considers self-control a virtue and a reflection of strength. Mutual respect and dialogue is by far the most advisable and practical approach to handle and solve problems or disputes, if we all believe peace and development to be the right way forward for mankind. America would do well to learn a little more humility, and express a little less hubris for this new era of global politics, where collaboration is necessary for humanity to tackle such issues as pandemics and climate change.

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