'This is our country!': China makes no apologies on the tarmac or at the bargaining table

Whether it's failing to roll out the red carpet for the U.S. president on the tarmac or sticking to its own rules for global trade, China isn't afraid to show its power and makes no apologies for it.

China seems determined to challenge the old world powers and to act on its own terms

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping go for a seemingly awkward handshake during their meeting ahead of the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China. (How Hwee Young/Reuters)

As world leaders descended on high-tech hub Hangzhou last week, Chinese officials left very little to chance.

The city of nine million was to be a stage to showcase China's growing importance. Residents were sent out of town with subsidized "vacations." Roads were cleared, schools and businesses closed, and security tightened.

"It's really going overboard," said Heyan Jiaye, a 25-year-old who stayed in town. "But we have to show our best face."

To many observers, China was showing something else as well — that its growing power is not to be dismissed.

The strange lapse in protocol upon U.S. President Barack Obama's arrival just might have been meant to underline that point. As Air Force One pulled up on the tarmac, the red-carpeted stairway provided to every other leader was missing. Obama had to step out through a little-used hatch underneath the plane.
U.S. President Barack Obama disembarks from Air Force One at Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport. Other leaders were greeted with a red-carpeted staircase. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Meanwhile, Chinese security officers wrestled with American media, pushing them back from their usual vantage point. One officer tried to keep U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice from joining the official motorcade.

"This is our country! This is our airport!" he yelled in English.

Some dismissed it all as an unfortunate, uncharacteristic misunderstanding. Others, including several diplomats to Beijing, saw it as deliberate, a shocking snub. Obama said the confrontation with the media revealed a difference over "values and ideals," while Beijing blamed the U.S. for the stairs mix-up.

In any case, it seemed to confirm China's determination to challenge the old world powers and to act on its own terms. ("This is our country" has since become a popular refrain on social media here.)

China's rules

Political and business leaders say China is also asserting itself on economic matters.

Speaking to the leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on G20 countries to work together, to move away from protectionism and to lower trade barriers as a way to jump-start a lacklustre world economy.

"We have come here for closer partnerships," Xi said. "It is crucial that we enhance mutual understanding, expand consensus and form synergy."
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama ahead of the G20 Summit at the West Lake State Guest House in Hangzhou. (How Hwee Young/Reuters)

But for many, it's China that's playing by its own rules. U.S., European and Canadian businesses complain they're unfairly kept out of the Chinese market.

"As foreign companies, it's not as easy for us to do business in China as it is for Chinese companies," said Sarah Kutulakos, executive director of the Canada China Business Council. "When we operate there, we operate under different conditions. There are different laws that apply to us."
Canada and China have a trade dispute over canola exports. (Scott Mason/The Winchester Star/Associated Press)

Kutulakos and Canadian farmers point to a dispute over China's canola imports. Beijing buys 40 per cent of the Canadian oilseed shipped abroad, but has threatened to stop unless producers implement much more stringent cleaning guidelines. China says it's a food safety issue, but others suspect Beijing is trying to pressure producers because there's a glut of canola worldwide.

"It's the perfect example of how non-tariff barriers can end up being applied in ways that can make it difficult for somebody abroad who might be already doing business," Kutulakos said.

The Canadian government is still negotiating this issue. During Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's visit to China last week, Chinese officials agreed to delay implementing any new rules.

10,000 jobs

At the same time as China restricts foreign businesses, European Union leaders say Beijing expects open access to Western economies. At the G20 summit, the president of the European Commission warned China not to dump excess steel in the EU at prices that undercut domestic producers, especially when some Chinese factories are subsidized.

Overcapacity in the steel industry "is a global problem but with a specific Chinese dimension," Jean-Claude Juncker said. "The European steel industry is losing 10,000 jobs in recent years and we cannot accept this."
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, warned China not to dump excess — and often subsidized — steel in the EU at prices that undercut domestic producers. (China Daily/Reuters)

The concerns go far beyond steel. This year, China is expected to spend more than $80 billion US in Europe and more than $20 billion in the U.S. acquiring businesses. Both are record amounts.

A few of the deals have been ​delayed or denied because of concerns over technology transfers or utility ownership. Australia recently blocked the sale of the country's biggest energy grid to Chinese investors, a deal that would have been worth $7.7 billion US.

China has reacted angrily to such interventions, and says criticism of its trade practices is unfair.

Wang Wen, director of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Beijing's Renmin University, says the West should cut China some slack.

"If you look back 20 years ago, look at 10 years ago, you would never imagine that China would be as open as today."

No apologies

Wang says foreign companies are complaining not because they can't get into the Chinese market, but because they now face more competition from domestic firms once they do.

And, echoing Beijing officials, he dismisses Western ​complaints about the subsidies China offers struggling industries. Without them, he says, the economic situation would be worse.

"They'd say, 'You slow down and you hurt the world's GDP growth.' Whatever China does, we have a lot of international criticism," Wang said.

As the meetings wrapped up, there was much talk about reducing trade barriers and increasing co-operation for the sake of the world economy.

But Chinese officials ​offered nothing concrete to make it easier for foreign firms to thrive in this market.

And ​they offered no apologies for ​the ​missing stairs on the tarmac.
A member of the honour guards waits in a bus for the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama at Hangzhou Xiaoshan international airport before the G20 Summit in Hangzhou. The president's arrival would feature a dispute between officers and journalists and the absence of the red-carpet staircase that was rolled out for the other leaders. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

About the Author

Saša Petricic

Asia correspondent

Saša Petricic is the CBC's Asia correspondent, based in Beijing. He has covered China as well as reported from North and South Korea. He previously reported on the Middle East, from Jerusalem, through the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war. He has filed stories from every continent for CBC News. Instagram: @sasapetricic


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