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FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST:

But, first, here my take: I was in Malaysia this week and I expected a volley of complaints. The country was one of the stops on President Obama’s planned trip to Asia this month that was canceled because of Washington’s manufactured budget crisis.

The country’s Prime Minister Najib Razak told me, We were disappointed, but we understood the situation.

Others were less diplomatic, pointing to the cancellation as evidence of America’s dysfunctional political system and general decline. But many in Malaysia and across Southeast Asia told me that they were mostly puzzling not about what’s happening in Washington but rather in Beijing.

This is partly the product of power. As China has grown in importance, its neighbors have become increasingly attentive to the Middle Kingdom. In the past, the only politics that these countries followed outside of their own was in Washington. Today they feel they must also understand Beijing.

And there’s much to understand. China is in the midst of great political change. Last month, the country watched on national television as President Xi Jinping sat in on a meeting at which senior Communist Party officials publicly engaged in “criticism and self- criticism.”

It is part of the party’s “mass-line” campaign, designed to address concerns that the party is out of touch, elitist and corrupt.

The campaign includes a strong anti-corruption drive, most visibly involving the humiliation of Bo Xilai, the former party boss of Chongqing. Many in China have worried that anti-corruption is a mechanism that is being used to eliminate political opponents.

“There is so much corruption in China that whom you choose to prosecute is really a political decision.” Those are the words of a Beijing businessman to me.

More surprisingly to many, the new leadership has begun a sweeping crackdown on dissent. Chinese media and human rights groups say that hundreds of journalists, bloggers and intellectuals have been detained since August, charged with the crime of “spreading rumors” among others.

China scholars have noted in recent years that the Communist Party is deeply concerned about its legitimacy and grass-roots appeal. That led many to believe it would address these issues by opening up its political system, with political reforms that would accompany economic reforms.

Instead, it appears that the Communist Party is choosing older, Mao-era methods’ crackdowns, public confessions and purification campaigns.

The people I talked to in Southeast Asia were not approaching these issues from the perspective of human rights activists. They were really just trying to understand what was going on in China.

Above all, they wondered what the internal changes meant for Beijing’s foreign policy. “China is being very friendly with us these days,” an Asian politician told me, “More so than it was a few years ago, but it still pushes its own interests very strongly.”

Diplomats have worried that China has been circulating new maps of the region in which a previously dotted line demarcating Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea now appears as a solid line.

Last month, China’s foreign minister denied any such change in its claims when he was publicly asked about it at a Brookings Institution forum by the former U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen. Yet, the concerns highlight the nervousness felt in the region.

The United States washes its dirty linen vigorously and in public. When Washington messes up, it does so in prime time, with politicians, journalists and commentators describing every gory detail with delight.

China, by contrast, has an opaque political system, which makes it far more mysterious. But China, too, has its share of crises, controversies and change. And because of its newfound clout, the world is watching and wondering what to make of the black box that is Beijing.

http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1310/27/fzgps.01.html

 

 

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