Deng Xiaoping was fond of quoting the ancient Chinese proverb “Tao guang yang hui”, which is generally rendered: “Hide your brightness, bide your time.” The idea was to keep China’s capabilities secret until the moment was right to reveal them. Until then, the priority was to raise incomes and integrate the country into the global economic system.
Now China is comfortably the world’s second-largest economy and, quite possibly, on its way to becoming the largest. In Xi Jinping it has a leader whose articulation of a China Dream – “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” – is explicitly aimed at recapturing national greatness. The time for false modesty, it seems, is over.
China’s growing sense of itself as a country worthy of respect, even deference, has been noticeable since 2008. The Lehman crisis shook its faith in market capitalism in general, and in American infallibility in particular. Recently, the process has gone further. China is commanding more influence over foreign corporate executives, national leaders and journalists alike. In the words of Orville Schell, director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society, Beijing has revved up its “gravity machine”, exerting a stronger pull on those with whom it deals. Everyone from David Cameron, the UK prime minister, to Matt Winkler, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, has felt the effect.
Deng’s plan for economic take-off relied on attracting foreign capital and foreign technology. As China grows richer, however, it is no longer clear who needs who more. Beijing is challenging foreign companies over practices that until recently it might have considered acceptable. This year Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, was forced to apologise for his company’s “arrogance” in the application of a warranty programme to repair its iPhone 4s devices. Milk formula companies, including Danone, have been fined for engaging in supposedly anti-competitive practices. The latest example is GlaxoSmithKline, being hauled over the coals for allegedly bribing doctors and hospitals to prescribe its drugs. Sir Andrew Witty, chief executive, has already indicated that he will consider lowering the cost of GSK products. Foreign companies once had considerable leverage. But the new reality seems to be that China – the biggest and fastest-growing consumer market in the world – now has the whip hand.
Chief executives are not alone in feeling the force of China’s gravity machine. Britain was all but ostracised for a year after Mr Cameron had the temerity to meet the Dalai Lama. In April, when Fran?ois Hollande, French president, was granted an official visit to Beijing, some of his retinue barely hid their glee at trumping the British. What they did not say was that, unlike his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, he had refrained from meeting the Dalai Lama. France even returned two bronze heads looted from the Summer Palace in the 19th century as a sort of modern-day “reverse tribute”.
Mr Cameron seems to have learnt how to play the game. On his visit to the Chinese capital this month he was decorum itself. He hardly mentioned human rights. During his trip a British journalist from Bloomberg, a news organisation that published a story exposing the alleged wealth of Mr Xi’s family, was excluded from a press conference. Downing Street raised “deep concerns” over the interference. But the press conference went ahead without the journalist all the same.
Bloomberg has been in the thick of it. Along with The New York Times, another news organisation with the chutzpah to investigate the wealth of Chinese leaders, it has had trouble renewing Chinese visas for its journalists. Mr Winkler is alleged to have spiked a sensitive story on China, though he has said the article was “not ready for publication” and Bloomberg has denied any intimation it has comp