The World Is Learning to Say “No” to China

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


Leaders of the G7 countries at the 2021 summit in Cornwall. At the conclusion of the summit, they called China out for its human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

In 1996, the nationalistic book, China Can Say No, was published, arguing that China’s time had come, that it need no longer swallow perceived insults from other countries (especially the US and Japan), and that it should adopt a more bellicose foreign policy.


Today, though, it’s the rest of the world that’s starting to say “no” to China. In just the past few years, the US has gone from a policy of engagement with China to initiating a trade war with it. The UK has gone from trumpeting a “golden era” with China to cutting Huawei out of its 5G network and offering British National Overseas passports to fleeing Hong Kongers. The EU has gone from courting Chinese commerce to freezing its trade deal with Beijing and, together with the US, UK, and Canada, sanctioning Chinese officials for their role in the oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Lithuania has withdrawn from China’s 17+1 cooperation forum and is moving closer towards Taiwan, even opening a trade office (i.e. a de facto embassy) in Taipei. Japan, too, seems to be drawing closer to Taiwan, and, just yesterday, its deputy defense minister said his country should defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression and questioned whether the policy of denying it recognition as a sovereign state is obsolete. At the conclusion of their summit this month, the G7 countries called China out for its human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. All these things predictably infuriated China, and, a few years ago, most of them were unthinkable; what happened?


For decades, China used the narrative of its own victimhood to get other countries to go along with it – and, to be fair, it had legitimate cause to feel like it had been victimized, since it was treated appallingly in the past. It invoked the memory of its “century of humiliation” – the depredations by foreign powers, the Opium War and the unequal treaties that resulted from it – to guilt-trip other countries into giving it what it wanted, and many of them, whether out of shame or sympathy, acquiesced. Poor China. It had been abused in its formative years, and if it now acted-out, wasn’t this to be expected? Wasn’t it entitled to a little leeway for its misbehavior after all it had gone through? And so, many countries looked the other way when it violated international norms and international treaties. They accepted unequal trade arrangements with Beijing, in which the same sectors of their economies that were open to Chinese companies were closed to foreign companies in China. They allowed it to steal their intellectual property with impunity. They tiptoed around China’s hair-trigger sensibilities, sensitive to how it would construe any criticism of its oppression of its own people as “interference with its internal affairs.” They bent over backwards to keep from upsetting China, even snubbing the Dalai Lama, a man known for his decency and grace (and for being the spiritual leader of one of the biggest religions in the world), and indulged Beijing’s ridiculous charade of pretending Taiwan isn’t an independent country. And, of course, as China grew richer and more powerful, this created even more incentive to please it.

1899 political cartoon depicting foreign powers carving China up between them

Today, though, China’s victimhood routine is starting to get old. Over the years, under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China has only grown increasingly repressive at home and increasingly aggressive abroad. Just as some people who were abused as kids grow up to abuse others themselves, China is emerging from its “century of mistreatment” to mistreat others in turn, harassing its neighbors in their territorial waters in the South China Sea, abducting and imprisoning foreign nationals on the flimsiest of pretexts, dispatching its Wolf Warrior diplomats to try to intimidate and coerce other governments, and attempting to suppress criticism of it even in the West. “The China Dream is to become the kind of predatory great power that oppressed China in the past,” said the sinologist Orville Schell, who was previously one of the biggest cheerleaders for more engagement between China and the West. “It’s the greatest tragedy of the century.” China has become the ultimate crybully – a country that bullies others, yet invokes historical suffering to try to portray itself as a perpetual victim.

Just as some people who were abused as kids grow up to abuse others themselves, China is emerging from its “century of mistreatment” to mistreat others in turn.

The nine-dash line (in green), depicting China’s claims in the South China Sea

But there’s a shelf life for blaming your abusive behavior on a difficult past, and, for China, that shelf life is over. Many are realizing that the CCP is a bully, whose notion of a win-win scenario is one in which China wins twice, and that giving in to bullies only encourages them. For America, it was when it realized that decades of engagement with China had failed to moderate it. For the UK, it was when it realized that, despite all its efforts to give China face, Beijing couldn’t be bothered to even act like it was honoring the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration to allow Hong Kong to retain its special freedoms and high degree of autonomy until 2047. Worst of all was the fate of Australia, who found that years of prioritizing its relationship with Beijing and sucking up to the CCP didn’t stop China from turning on it and sanctioning many sectors of its economy when it called for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19. To make things worse, Australia also discovered that China had apparently suborned one of its senators into advancing its interests. Because of this, Australia is making the painful decision to transition its economy away from dependance on China, and has revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with the US, Japan, and India to check Beijing.

There’s a shelf life for blaming your abusive behavior on a difficult past, and, for China, that shelf life seems to be over.

The CCP is unlikely to change for the better anytime soon – in fact, it seems to grow more tyrannical and belligerent by the day – and so this shift against it is likely to continue, especially as countries see that falling out with China isn’t the end of the world, that they can defy it and live to tell the tale. Increasingly nowadays, when China throws a fit over yet another perceived slight, the diplomatic response is no longer an apology, but a yawn. Still, China could look on the bright side. This is a sign that other countries are no longer treating it like a cranky infant in constant need of mollification and free passes for its misbehavior lest it fly into a tantrum, but are holding it to the same standards as a mature, developed country. After all these years, they’re finally starting to treat it as an equal.