I have been a scholar and watcher of China for a couple of decades, so by now, very little China does really surprises me; however, China's recent (over)reaction to Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize has caught me off guard. It caught me off guard, not because I never expected this kind of behavior from China, but because I just didn't expect it so soon. The latest news is that China's Foreign Ministry has delivered letters to other foreign embassies in Oslo, warning the representatives of other countries not to attend the awards ceremony for Liu Xiaobo.
Yesterday, China's Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai made the warning even more explicit (from BBC website):
The choice before some European countries and others is clear and simple: do they want to be part of the political game to challenge China's judicial system or do they want to develop a true friendly relationship with the Chinese government and people? ... They have to make the choice according to their own judgment. If they make the wrong choice, they have to bear the consequences.Excuse me? Is this the same China that constantly rants about people intervening in its internal affairs? Whatever happened to the China that was clever and reserved, the China that was supposed to be, according to Deng Xiaoping "concealing its capabilities and biding its time"?
What happened was that China decided the current recession affecting the West was the signal that China may now return to its rightful place as the "central kingdom".
Central kingdom? Yes, central, not middle. For years I have been trying (apparently ineffectively) to convince people that "middle kingdom" is not the proper translation of 中国. While the 中 may be translated as "middle", as in a physical location, it may also be translated as "central," as in importance, as in 中央政府 (central government).
This may be difficult for non-Chinese to understand, especially non-Chinese speakers, but to the Chinese, the name of the country has a meaning: it's not about a place, it's not even (primarily) about a race, it's about importance. When one is taught from the earliest age that the country in which he was fortunate enough to be born is the world's central kingdom, that means something.
To the rest of the world, it's just "China", a word applied centuries ago to a far way country due to one of its valued talents -- making really nice pottery.
I mean no disrespect for China. If anything, my respect for China has only grown over the years as I have spent much time in China and as I continue to learn much about the place and the people on a daily basis. My purpose today is to say that, if you, like me, are surprised at China's latest hubristic display, don't be. China is simply being what it is: the central kingdom. And that will never change, not as long as its name is 中国.
The difference now is that China's 150 years of misfortune at the hands of foreigners is over, and it is no longer the "central kingdom" in name only. And if the rest of the world refuses to recognize that, well, "they have to bear the consequences."