China cut to the core
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - When a Chinese official recently called on nations around the world to respect China's "core interests", he probably did not expect it would lead to accusations that China's leadership felt its own political survival was more important than the nation's territorial integrity.

"To ensure the long-term, healthy and stable development of Sino-US relations, one condition of paramount importance is that we need to support, respect and understand each other, and to maintain our [China's] core interests," Chinese state councilor Dai Bingguo said at the conclusion of the first round of the Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue in late July.

He then listed China's three core interests in order of importance: first was the survival of China's "fundamental system" and national security; second, the safeguarding of China's sovereignty and territorial integrity; and third, continued stable economic growth and social development.

This statement must have had the backing of China's power center in Zhongnanhai, the headquarters in Beijing of the Communist Party and the government.

"Nothing in diplomacy is trivial," is a major principle outlined by the late Zhou Enlai, who served as premier from 1949 to 1976. The dictum is still strictly followed by Chinese diplomats, and as a career diplomat, Dai would never have violated this principle, especially as he is a considerable heavyweight in the bureaucratic hierarchy.

A state councilor is equivalent to a vice premier; it is a rank higher than a cabinet minister, including the foreign minister. As the state councilor overseeing foreign affairs, Dai, 68, is also a policymaker.

Dai is the son-in-law of the late Huang Zhen, who was a vice foreign minister and a minister of culture. Dai is a close foreign affairs confidante of President Hu Jintao. At July's Group of Eight summit in L'Aquila, Italy, when Hu suddenly had to return home because of violence in the Urumqi region, Dai was entrusted with representing him.

Given his domestic importance, Dai's statement - while largely overlooked by the Western media - immediately drew wide attention and criticism from nationalists. Many people were angered by Dai seemingly putting the core interest of the survival of the "fundamental system" - meaning the current political and social system - above territorial and sovereignty issues.

"This explains the basic principle of our 'great' interest group," wrote one blogger on Sina.com.cn. "To safeguard the system that serves the group's own interests - our country's territory can be given away, sovereignty can be sold out ... How can 'fundamental system' be mentioned in the same breath as sovereignty and territorial integrity? A system is worthy to be maintained only if it is accepted by the people," said the blogger.

Some even branded Dai a "national traitor" over the comments, likening him to Li Hongzhang (1871-1895), a general and statesman of the late Qing Dynasty who signed treaties in the late 19th century that compensated as well as ceded land to invading powers such as Great Britain and Japan.

"In his [Dai's] words, [the] safety and security of the regime is the number one 'core interest', while territorial integrity is secondary. This shows his true color[s] as a 'national traitor," said a post on Netseas.com. "If Dai Bingguo really said that, he is worse than Li Hongzhang."

There has been no shortage of sarcasm in the online response. "Dai Bingguo is an honest man and he speaks honestly," said one blogger. "Of course, the interests and security of the 'core' group must be put above everything else".

"In other words: what is most important is that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] remains in power," said another.

But the bloggers seem to have misunderstood Dai, who was simply clarifying China's "core interests" in terms of foreign, not domestic, affairs. While the CCP will make every effort to safeguard its rule - this concerns internal politics, not international relations. The government is entitled to ask other countries that recognize its legitimacy to respect China's political system.

From this perspective, Dai's statement is just another interpretation of the "non-interventionist" and "peaceful coexistence" principles that Beijing has long insisted on when conducting international relations.

Dai has perhaps been misunderstood by Chinese critics because issues such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang habitually touch nationalistic nerves locally. So much so that issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity are considered the nation's utmost "core interests".

But in Beijing's view, with China's growing economic and military strength, it has become easier for the country to fight against overt "hard" interventions by foreign countries in China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity issues (such as with Taiwan and Tibet).

In comparison, Beijing is more concerned with what it regards as covert, "soft" interventions in issues such as human rights and democratization. These, Beijing fears, could lead to a change in China's system. This helps explain why Dai put maintaining the "fundamental system" and "national security" as the first core interest.

A more noteworthy debate over Dai's statement is why it was released at this time. It could be that Beijing has shied away from pronouncing its "core interests" as it considered it still had to learn from advanced countries in terms of development. China was willing to play the role of a student, listening to lectures given by advanced countries - particularly the United States.

But times have changed. Rattled by the current global financial crisis, the US now may have more to ask and gain from China than the other way around.

A rising and more confident China now wants to take a more proactive role in international relations - it wants to lecture sometimes, rather than to be always lectured to.