For China's cautious leadership, no news is good news -- and this has been a bad month. Rising tensions with the Philippines in the South China Seas have reached a point that Beijing has deployed ships. The ceasefire in Syria seems to be fraying -- again. Sudan and South Sudan are again engaged in armed conflict. And the United States, whose decline the Chinese leadership continues to trumpet, continues to pivot closer to Asia and is on the brink of dispatching an ambassador to Burma. The only good news seems to be North Korea's failed rocket launch.
What is most threatening to Chinese leaders, however, is the scandal of deposed Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai, arguably the biggest domestic political crisis in China since 1989. The year 2012 appears unlikely to play out at home or abroad the way the Chinese leadership had hoped -- with a smooth political succession underscoring China's rise to a global power. The state media directives of the past week suggest the Communist Party is scrambling to impose a return to normalcy; it's likely that the government will be very risk-averse in the coming months as it tries to contain the fallout from Bo's ouster.
But the rest of the world isn't going to stop turning. The current generation of leadership will likely step down during this fall's 18th Party Congress to make way for Xi Jinping and his colleagues. In the previous large-scale power transfer in China, in 2002, the country was at most a middle power. The next generation, stewards of what is now the world's second-largest economy, will have to confront a treacherous foreign policy landscape where their country is enmeshed in arrangements and disputes in practically every country around the world.
Chinese workers, diplomats, and property are increasingly the targets of protest or violence across the globe, particularly in locations involving significant Chinese-backed infrastructure projects. Over the last 12 months, rebels kidnapped Chinese oil workers in Sudan, disgruntled locals protested against the Myitsone Dam in northern Burma, and environmental activists occupied the Chinese Embassy in Quito, Ecuador. It's increasingly clear that not everyone believes the Chinese government's line that its rise is "harmonious."
The violence against Chinese expatriates is reprehensible. But it nevertheless spotlights one of the worst dimensions of Beijing's "going out" strategy: tone-deafness to local voices. Despite its current domestic preoccupation, the upcoming Chinese leadership needs to learn to solicit and accommodate dissenting views regarding investment and diplomatic activity in other countries. It would also benefit from a significant investment in consular services for its own citizens, who increasingly find themselves caught in such conflicts.