Why China Needs to Manage Expectations

Beijing has let the gap between the myth and the reality of its power grow too wide.

The Americans behold China’s military and technological achievements and are afraid. Japan is in awe, the Europeans are regretful. That’s the message in recent Chinese media headlines – and it’s wrong, according to the People’s Daily, a Communist Party of China mouthpiece. In the first story in a three-part series, the People’s Daily warns the Chinese public that “[a]rrogance won’t make a country powerful.” In a separate story on Monday, the official newspaper of the Chinese army printed an editorial that said the People’s Liberation Army had “peace disease” that could undermine its ability to wage war. Both stories were subsequently referenced in the English-language South China Morning Post, ensuring that they would reach the English-speaking world.
China, as all countries do, has been emphasizing its achievements and celebrating its future. These two articles break the pattern and thus need to be taken seriously. They are not the random musings of individuals; they are carefully considered messages from China’s leadership.
Why is China suddenly downplaying its military and technological capabilities for all the world, including its own citizens, to see? Part of the reason is that the image China has crafted – that of a dominant-power-in-waiting – has triggered reactions it was not prepared to cope with. The obvious example is U.S. trade protectionism, which is as much an attempt to curb China's rise as it is an attempt to defend U.S. industry. In Europe and elsewhere, the vision of China sweeping aside other powers has become standard, and the response has not always been friendly. There is a perception, for example, that China’s investments frequently benefit China but infrequently benefit the recipient country.
Similarly, the portrayal of China as a world-class military power has given the U.S. a greater sense of urgency to sustain its military edge. It created unease among China’s neighbors, such as Japan, which is capable of matching China’s military. Every time the U.S. parades one of its warships through South China Sea waters claimed by Beijing without any forceful Chinese response, it exposes the gap between what China says and what it can actually do.
During the 19th National Congress in October, Chinese President Xi Jinping said that China would leapfrog the world in technological development and would become a world-class military power by the middle of the century. He did not claim that China had yet accomplished either of these goals. China’s media played it differently. Facing substantial economic and financial difficulties from declines in exports and non-market allocation of capital, the media projected an image of a nation overcoming these problems and entering an even higher echelon. Both the Chinese public and foreign powers have seen this image and believed it – and the foreign powers are reacting against it.
China must now ready the public for the reality that its military will not soon be ranging the world, or even securing the South China Sea, after all. More important, it must prepare its people for the fact that the economy will be further buffeted by U.S. tariffs. It can punch back, but not with the same force as the United States. China depends on its exports more than the U.S. depends on Chinese imports, and thus China is more at risk.
Countries often overstate their own strength. Sometimes the world ignores them. Sometimes it believes them and is intimidated. And sometimes it believes them and responds, with unpleasant consequences. These two articles indicate that China feels it has exposed itself by letting the gap between its myth and its reality get too wide. The question now is at what point – should China’s public recalibration continue – this correction begins to undercut U.S. arguments that tariffs are an essential defense against a powerful and predatory China.

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