On Feb. 21, 2010, the Chinese Embassy in Harare threw a birthday party for Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's heavy-handed and increasingly erratic octogenarian despot, complete with cake, almost 100 guests, and a "Happy 86th birthday" sign. Xin Shunkang, China's dapper ambassador, led the embassy staff in singing the Zimbabwean national anthem in the Shona language. The embassy invited local students to sing Chinese folk songs. "The Chinese people sing the Zimbabwean national anthem in Shona; Zimbabwean people sing Chinese songs in Chinese," recalled Xin when we met in Harare some months later. "It's harmonious." It was the first time Mugabe had visited a foreign embassy since Zimbabwe became independent in 1980. "It's not easy to get a president to come to your embassy," said Xin with a bit of pride. "Not every ambassador can do this, but I could do it."
In Zimbabwe and many other countries far from Beijing, China's hand is increasingly conspicuous these days, and its choice of friends, like the thuggish Mugabe, is increasingly under scrutiny. It used to be that the Western world lectured China most extensively about its poor human rights record at home, for detaining dissenters and silencing free speech. But as China's power and influence grow, the Chinese government now finds itself weathering criticism for its support of cruel regimes around the world -- from accusations, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and others have put it, that "Beijing is financing, diplomatically protecting and supplying the arms for the first genocide of the 21st century" in Darfur, to the recent warning by Win Tin, co-founder of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, that if Chinese leaders "praise the [Burmese] regime" without helping the public, then "China will fail to win the hearts of the people." Chinese officials are newly sensitive to such reproaches, if not exactly responsive. As one Foreign Ministry official told me with surprise in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, "For the first time, China's foreign position on human rights outweighs the world's concern for China's domestic human rights."
Certainly, as Chinese trade and commerce have exploded over the last decade, they have been an economic boon to many developing countries, correspondingly boosting China's clout in countries as remote from Beijing as Angola, Ethiopia, and Uzbekistan. But in many of those places, China has purchased its clout at the cost of maintaining warm ties with murderous governments, from Burma to North Korea to, perhaps most prominently, Sudan -- where two U.S. presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, have accused Omar Hassan al-Bashir's regime of genocide.
Yet it is much less obvious how the Chinese government thinks about these awkward relationships. How does a generation of Chinese who opened up their own country to the world square China's ongoing transformations with such ties to some of the most closed societies on Earth? How does a country haunted by awful memories of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution overlook suffering in other countries? Is the Chinese government defending its long-standing principle that national sovereignty should reign supreme, seeking natural resources to fuel its red-hot economic growth, or offering a new model of international development and diplomacy? Is there any way the United States can more effectively engage with China on these issues? Above all, what do China's complex attitudes toward its rogue friends say about the kind of great power China will become?