Thursday, July 21, 2005

Beacon No. 53: I Need a Hero


Let's say you're the People's Republic of China.

You've been making your East Asian neighbors nervous by securing mineral assets and using spare cash to sop up properties around the region.

You're getting into the power-projection business, developing a blue-water navy complete with ICBM-capable submarine, which is as destabilizing a geopolitical move as you've made since the Korean War.

You're taking pains to be friendly with neighbors and spend a lot of time reassuring them that your intentions are friendly—but you still notice them looking sideways at you, watching you nervously.

What's an expansionist country like you to do when you don't want to be seen as expansionist?

Split the difference, and dust off a reassuring, heroic figure from the last time you were big on the oceans—even if that was 600 years ago.

That's right: As Joseph Kahn wrote in yesterday's Times, the PRC is resurrecting Zheng He, the 15th-century mariner whose 30,000-strong navy sailed the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Zheng's Ming Dynasty expedition was a largely peaceful exercise that supposedly spurred regional trade, and in fact Zheng is still a popular historical figure in the region.

Zheng eventually fell into disfavor and his entire fleet was destroyed, kicking off a 600-year period of Chinese cultural retreat. That all seems to be ending now—but the PRC clearly hopes Zheng's renewed presence will assure East Asia that its intentions are good:

For Chinese officials today, the sudden end of China's maritime ambitions 600 years ago conveniently signals something else: that China is a gentle giant with enduring good will. Zheng He represents China's commitment to "good neighborliness, peaceful coexistence and scientific navigation," government-run China Central Television said during an hourlong documentary on the explorer last week.

Earlier this month, authorities opened a $50 million memorial to Zheng He. Tributes to him fill courtyard-style exhibition halls, painted in stately vermillion and imperial yellow. A hulking statue of Zheng He, his chest flung forward as in many Communist-era likenesses of Mao, decorates the main hall.

As the Zheng He anniversary approached, delegations of Chinese diplomats and scholars also traveled to Kenya to investigate the claims that islanders there could trace their roots to sailors on Zheng He's fleet.

On one remote island, called Siyu, the Chinese found a 19-year-old high school student, Mwamaka Sharifu, who claimed Chinese ancestry. Beijing's embassy in Nairobi arranged for her to visit China to attend Zheng He celebrations. Beijing has invited her back to study in China, tuition-free, this fall.

"My family members have round faces, small eyes and black hair, so we long believed we are Chinese," Ms. Sharifu said in a telephone interview. "Now we have a direct link to China itself."

The outreach effort has generated positive publicity for China in Kenya and some other African countries, as well as around Southeast Asia, where Zheng He is widely admired.

Of course, there are problems with Zheng, and some scholars say that he treated the people he met as barbarians or vassals. But check out the Times article for more on how the PRC is leavening its expansionist image with a good guy from its past.

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