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What explains this disconnect between China's corps of savvy, internationally minded thinkers and the country's recent slew of tin-ear policies and pronouncements on foreign affairs? Are we merely in an uncomfortable transition period as an old guard loses power, or is it a sign that a confident nation no longer feels the need to bow to the West or its value system? "Even five years ago, there were many things that China wouldn't say in diplomatic circles because it felt shy or uncomfortable with expressing itself," says Niu Jun, a professor of international relations at Peking University. "But now China is more willing to speak up."
A Host of Players
It matters who's doing the talking. In the past, China spoke with a single voice. But its current decisionmakers particularly on foreign policy hardly form a unified group. With a leadership succession due next year in which Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao are to start handing over power to the next generation of communist leaders, the jockeying for position is under way. In foreign policy, rivals include various government institutions, ranging from the Foreign Ministry and the Ministries of Commerce, State Security and Finance to powerful agencies like the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). The Chinese state-owned companies that have invested nearly $200 billion overseas since 1999 also want their say, as do local governments eager to cash in on opportunities abroad. "Authority over foreign policy has become fractured," says a report released in September by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). "Foreigners must take into account multiple agencies that have a stake or say in any given decision." At the failed 2009 Copenhagen climate talks, for example, Foreign Ministry diplomats appeared willing to compromise, but the NDRC officials who led the Chinese delegation didn't seem in the mood. Foreigners dealing with the Chinese complained that they didn't know who was calling the shots.
Looming in the background is China's military. Without the military's backing, a Chinese leader's authority would be diminished. (Hu is both head of the party and chairman of the Central Military Commission.) The People's Liberation Army considers defense and national security fungible concepts that include China's territorial quarrels and sensitive relations with countries like North Korea to very much be its business. Even as the Chinese Foreign Ministry has kept to a mantra of "peaceful rise" the phrase meant to convince the world of China's benign intentions the Chinese military has in recent months toughened its rhetoric. "We may be living in peaceful times," warned China's Minister of Defense Liang Guanglie in December, according to state newspaper reports, "but we can never forget war, never send the horses south or put the bayonets and guns away." Indeed, China is building a deepwater navy, and just this month tested its first stealth fighter jet.
Fierce words like that put the Foreign Ministry's growing stable of overseas-educated diplomats in a bind. "Theoretically we say that the Foreign Ministry is fully responsible for foreign affairs," says Zhu Feng, an international-relations professor at Peking University. "But even top diplomats are at a low level of China's power structure." The authority of Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who studied at the London School of Economics, hardly matches that of Dai Bingguo, the Russian-speaking State Councilor who is considered the most influential Chinese foreign policymaker outside the very top layer of party officials.
Indeed, the Foreign Ministry's profile may actually be waning. Lu Shaye is its director general of African affairs. A fluent French speaker with extensive Africa experience, he speaks persuasively about China's diplomatic efforts on the continent. "China and Africa have always treated each other equally," he says. "We never lecture them. We do not impose our ideology and political system on them, and we never use aid as a tool to interfere in other countries' internal affairs." Great but it is actually the Commerce Ministry and other state economic entities that oversee many of the multimillion-dollar natural-resource deals in Africa, and Lu can't help but lament that Chinese diplomatic responsibilities have proliferated without commensurate staffing increases.
So who signs off on the most vital foreign policy decisions? Much of the real power rests in the hands of men who technically aren't even in the government; instead, they are Communist Party leaders with impeccable ideological credentials. Wang Jiarui, for instance, the head of the Communist Party's International Department, sits higher in China's leadership hierarchy than Foreign Minister Yang. During the 29 overseas trips that Hu took from 2008 to early 2010, the directors of the party's Policy Research Office and General Office traveled with Hu on every occasion, according to SIPRI. Shielded from normal government proceedings, many of these men have little interaction with the outside world that can be publicly scrutinized. Their insularity helps explain why some of China's foreign policy decrees sound so at odds with the oratory of its smoother emissaries. "American and European officials get promoted in a democratic and open political context, and these democratic elements nurture these officials and train them how to express themselves," says Peking University professor Zhu. "But Chinese officials are appointed and promoted without a competitive environment. They don't know how to present themselves eloquently. So their public gestures feel rigid, static and even provocative."
Of course, any leader insular or not wants to stay in power. With communism hardly able to serve as a guiding force anymore, the party has used nationalism as a tool to rally the Chinese people. China's youth, who never lived through the deprivations of the People's Republic's early history, are among the most patriotic citizens. "Young Chinese tend to look for a muscular, more masculine foreign policy from their leaders," says China Foreign Affairs University's Qin. Within that context, the jingoistic drumbeat of China's official media makes perfect sense. These messages are not designed for a foreign audience but rather a nationalistic crowd back home.
Last year, a Chinese submarine containing three scientists drove to the bottom of the South China Sea. The region is contested by several countries, and may hold significant gas reserves. The feat was trumpeted in the state-run English-language press as a scientific breakthrough that allowed China to join the select club of nations with deep-dive technology. But in the Chinese-language press the story was more that a Chinese flag now flew on the seabed of the South China Sea. When it comes to Chinese diplomacy, there always seems to be two sides to the story.
With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang and Jessie Jiang / Beijing
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 24, 2011, issue of TIME Asia magazine.