by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Government of Argentina/Public Domain

AS WITH GLOBAL summits of its kind more generally, the G20 summit held in Hangzhou has been an object of mass spectacle, receiving much media coverage over the past week. But as the first G20 summit held in China, it would be that this G20 summit has received particular attention.

Concrete outcomes of the summit include both America and China agreeing to ratification of the Paris Agreement and, unsurprisingly, world leaders vowing to continue policies aimed at increasing international free trade and globalization. But what has received the most attention would be China’s actions as host of the summit. And this perhaps points to something about how China understands its own place in the world today.

An incident in which American president Barack Obama was not provided with a staircase to disembark Air Force One, instead being forced to leave from a rarely used staircase in the rear of the plane, has been perceived by some as a deliberate slight by China against America. Nothing of this sort occurred to any other world leader. Some—including diplomats experienced with dealing with China—have perceived this as an attempt by China to show that it does not consider America as being anything special, this despite that America and China are sometimes thought as the world’s two superpowers. This incident occurred despite that China was preparing for the G20 for over a year.

China later pinned the blame on American officials refusing the driver they were provided with because of his inability to understand English. However, while American officials were scrambling to handle the incident, at one point a Chinese official screamed at an American official: “This is our country! This is our airport!” Two Chinese officials later also nearly got into a fistfight on the airport tarmac, with one attempting to assist American officials and one trying to keep them out. 

It is reported Chinese officials also attempted to prevent national security adviser Susan Rice from meeting with Obama and American journalists part of the press delegation that came with Obama were denied entrance to press conferences on ground that there was no space, this despite there seemed to be readily available room for other journalists. Obama himself would downplay the incident, stating that this was a product of miscommunications. Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times would later accuse western media of exaggerating the incident.

More dramatically, it would be that the city of Hangzhou was emptied out by ⅓ of its population during the G20 summit, with residents encouraged to take vacations or otherwise vacate the city for one week. This led to an exodus of over 157,000 tourists to Huangshan, 250 kilometers away. As with other public events aimed at impressing the international community, factories in the region were ordered to shut down in order to provide clear skies for the event.

What we may note is that, as a result of the lengths to which China is willing to go in order to try and impress, these attempts often backfire. International summits generally being objects of mass spectacle, it would not be that China is alone in taking measures to ensure it looks good in front of the international community. However, such dramatic acts as stopping all factory production in order to maintain blue skies or emptying out Hangzhou for the G20 conference only lead to China only reinforcing the image of itself as authoritarian in nature— that is, in being able to carry out acts of grand social engineering if this is what the state dictates.

As a result, China probably presents far from the image that it would want to—and we may point to way in which it cannot help but do this. The inability of China to speak the language of international diplomacy probably demonstrates another way in which the Chinese party-state has not mastered the art of being a “normal” capitalist state and serves to reinforce that it differs from other capitalist states by nature of its party-state. This drives home the point that because of its nature as a party-state China does not behave in the realm of foreign affairs as other states would and in that way can be quite unpredictable in its actions.

But this also points to China’s sense of inferiority to nations of the “western world”, as undergirding its motivation for such actions. The Chinese government has an internalized sense of inferiority to western nations, returning to the history of uneven development in China, and the Chinese government actually lacks the sense of cultural or political superiority it often tries to claim. When China claims such superiority, it is actually overcompensating for its sense of lacking prestige. Of course, as a result of this deep-rooted sense of inferiority, China’s actions can be self-undermining.

China often wishes to demonstrate that it has “made it” through events as global summits and is no different than other members of the international community—or even that it is superior to other members of the international community. But China only demonstrates where it still differs substantially from advanced capitalist “western” nations in this. For example, if China was in fact attempting to deliberately slight America through the stairway incident with Air Force One, China actually comes off as more petty than not through its actions, rather than asserting itself as a strong, confident nation. Likewise, where global summits are concerned, it seems unlikely that America would have go to such dramatic measures to impress foreign dignitaries as emptying out a city or shutting off all factories to ensure blue skies—this by virtue of that American global power is already self-evident. Yet even if China’s global power is also, in fact, quite self-evident, it feels the compulsion to carry out such actions. And in that way, China only drives home how it continues to grapple internally with its continued sense of inferiority to the West.

No more articles