[转载]The New Republic: The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome

The New Republic

The China Syndrome

by The Editors

Post Date Wednesday, July 09, 2008

When it comes to China policy, American presidents over the past generation have adhered to a relatively simple pattern: Talk tough before taking office, then, once in the White House, backpedal. As James Mann documents in this issue ("Senior Moments"), the first President Bush was something of an idealist on China early in his career, decrying Henry Kissinger's strategy of cozying up to Mao Zedong during the 1970s and worrying that U.S. policy toward Beijing did not give high enough priority to the promotion of freedom. By the time he became president, however, Bush had adopted a very different approach; and, when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, the erstwhile defender of Chinese human rights could muster only the weakest of responses. Indeed, just over six months later, Bush would dispatch Brent Scowcroft to Beijing, where the ur-realist saw fit to toast China's murderous leaders as "friends."

And friends they would remain. During the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton sounded a lot like the young Bush Senior on China, denouncing our "very tepid response" to the Tiananmen massacre and saying, "I think it is a mistake for us to do what this administration did when all those kids went out there carrying the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square." He promised to be "firm" with China's rulers and demand that they "observe human rights in the future." And then? Clinton got elected and promptly changed his mind, admitting that his initial approach to China had been a mistake, largely ignoring Beijing's abuse of human rights, and rationalizing it all by predicting that, "when over 100 million people in China can get on the Net, it will be impossible to maintain a closed political and economic society." (How convenient for a president to argue that he needn't look out for American principles abroad because technology would do the job for him. History, of course, has made a mockery of this sentiment: Today, there are more than 220 million Chinese online, and the country is little closer to political freedom.)

Then, in 2000, along came George W. Bush, who also talked tough on China, albeit with more of a focus on grand strategy than human rights. Asked by Larry King in 2000, "What area of American international policy would you change immediately as president?" Bush responded, "Our relationship with China." He went on: "The current president has called the relationship with China a strategic partnership. I believe our relationship needs to be redefined as one of competitor." Once Bush took office, of course, this tough stance toward China melted. To be sure, September 11 altered America's strategic priorities in a way that no one could have foreseen. On the other hand, for a president who has staked his legacy on the worldwide promotion of freedom and democracy, Bush has been notably reticent to challenge China's leaders--on Tibet, Burma, Darfur, or their abuses at home. And, in two months, Bush will do China the honor of attending the Olympics, despite considerable evidence that Beijing's human rights record has actually worsened during the run-up to the Games.

Now we find ourselves in another campaign season and, wouldn't you know, once again awash in the usual tough talk (McCain: "When China builds new submarines, adds hundreds of new jet fighters, modernizes its arsenal of strategic ballistic missiles, and tests antisatellite weapons, the United States legitimately must question the intent of such provocative acts"), idealistic rhetoric (Obama: "China is not an enemy of ours. ... But whether it's the situation in Tibet or their support of the government in Khartoum that is helping to perpetrate the genocide in Darfur, we can't be silent"), and nods to principle (both candidates have suggested they would consider boycotting the Olympic opening ceremonies). Chinese leaders, however, are almost certainly not alarmed. Over the years, they must have noticed how presidential aspirants who denounced America's accommodation of China became White House occupants who dealt gingerly with their "friends" in Beijing. They surely expect that, come January 2009, the usual pattern will hold.

We hope it doesn't. It is true that America has key interests in China--strategic, economic, environmental--that no president would dream of ignoring. And of course there are times when human rights should take a backseat to these matters. For too long, however, the mere existence of other priorities has given presidents an excuse to permanently relegate human rights to second-tier status in our relationship with Beijing. This practice has to end.

The next president might start by drawing a clear distinction between the men who hold power in China and the people over whom they rule. China scholar Perry Link has persuasively argued that Americans have long tended to confuse the statements of the Chinese government with the sentiments of Chinese citizens. As a result, Link says, our government plays "a much weaker hand than it could in supporting the Chinese people in their quest for [a] ... fairer, more transparent, and more law-governed society."

There is, in fact, considerable evidence that many Chinese resent their government's ugly practices--its endemic corruption, its restrictions on religious freedom, its land confiscation policies, and so on. It may seem like a small step, but for the next president to speak forcefully and regularly about these issues would represent an important change in our relationship with the country. "The United States ... could do much more good than it is now doing by using dignified, clear, and strong public statements," argues Link--and he is right. No, such a step will not bring down the government. Nor will it necessarily lead to dissidents flooding out of jails. But it would, at the very least, signal to the Chinese people that our ultimate solidarity lies not with their odious government but with them: the billion, long-suffering men and women of the world's largest dictatorship, our true "friends" in China.

© The New Republic 2008


TNR TALKBACK [9 comments]

Posted by Danno
1 of 9
Don't you think it is in the international interest to make China feel it has an interest in becoming a responsible member of the international community? If it has a stake in preserving the status quo, our own soft power may be far more effective in securing human rights for all of Asia. no?

Posted by DinAZ
2 of 9
Subvert China. China's one-party, "harmonious" rule-of-the-strong state is creating a pressure-cooker situation that in the long run only democracy can solve without bloodshed. The solutions of democracy - which may include splitting the country, may be unacceptable to those currently in power, which is one considerable reason they abhor it. Uyghur's, Tibetans and Taiwanese all have legitimate independence claims. They may not choose to exercise them if Beijing actually offered them a fair deal, but lacking that, in the absence of democratic resolution, it's hard to see a soft landing on the current road. Meanwhile the rule of the strong creates resentment throughout China proper. Having given up our economic leverage with China and thereby actually having increased the likelihood that we may someday have to exercise military leverage, it's time we create leverage through subversion. All of these counter-Beijing groups, if funded and organized, can create massive aggregate pressure. Time to play the great-powers card. Get the CIA in there, get money in there. Import dissidents, give them a pulpit. China sends thousands of its students to the US - put Chinese dissidents on US university campuses where they can have an audience with their nationalistically indoctrinated countrymen. It's ugly, Beijing would complain bitterly - but it is leverage and exactly the kind of leverage that Beijing understands and never hesitates to use on its own people, say nothing of competing powers. Besides, Chinese officials constantly accuse the US of as much anyway ... "meddling in internal affairs" and "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people". They think we're doing it ... do it.

Posted by Winslow
3 of 9
Whatever the strategy it must be recognized that the Chinese government has administered the move forward of 1.3 billion people with skill, This composures with the US and their administration of the Katrina event.

Posted by Rotoboy
4 of 9
I'm an American living in Beijing, and I have to take issue with a few of the points in your editorial. While I agree with the overall thrust, there are some general misconceptions about China which I would like to address. First, far from the American people being unable to distinguish between "the statements of the Chinese government with the sentiments of Chinese citizens," it is the Chinese who do not understand the concept of political dissent. They see no real distinction between government, ethnicity, and culture. In the west we view criticism of policies as the pinnacle of a functioning governmental system. When someone says, for example, that they disagree with Bush's Iraq policy this is not taken by the public to mean "I hate everything about America." (Snarky comments from the punditry notwithstanding.) This, however, is exactly the way the Chinese view it. When you criticize their government you are, in their eyes, attacking their culture and their country. Consider the recent Olympic Torch fiasco. Undoubtedly western liberals were highly pleased with their stance against the Chinese government, and viewed themselves as standing up for the common man. The Chinese, however, thought of it like this. "Why are these foreign barbarians trying to sabotage our Olympics? Who do they think they are interfering with our internal policies? Are these western governments so weak that they can't control their people? Why didn't anyone try to sabotage the games in Athens or Sydney?" Every one of these questions has, at one time, been directed to me by a Chinese. There are many words in Chinese for foreigner but the most common is "lao wei." This basically means "foreign person who is not ethnically Chinese." This is important, because a fifth generation Chinese American who knows nothing about China will be held in higher regard than a white American who has lived in China for 20 years and speaks the language fluently. China, for so much of its history, has been closed off from the rest of the world, and they are only now learning to deal with the outside. Their society is racially homogenous (about 90% of the population is ethnic Han), they have the one-party government, and they are fiercely nationalistic. They don't understand the distinctions between citizenship and ethnicity, or ethnicity and government, in the same manner that we westerners, especially Americans, understand them. It is for these reasons that the decision by President Bush to attend the opening ceremonies is absolutely correct. The Chinese still adhere to the ancient East Asian concept of "face." Not attending the opening ceremonies will be seen as a great loss of face by the Chinese people. They won't think, "If only our government did things differently maybe these world leaders would have attended." They'll think the exact opposite, "Who do these people think they are insulting our nation and culture in this manner?" You mention the situations in Burma and Darfur. If we ever hope to get the cooperation of China in these matters the last thing we want to do is alienate the Chinese people. With most of Europe's leaders boycotting the Olympics Bush's attendance will be seen by the people here as the United States giving the Chinese people a great deal of face, made even more significant by the loss of face on Europe's part. This will be vitally important in the years to come. Near my office there is a basketball court. There is often a group of boys around 12 years old playing there, many times wearing Houston Rockets jerseys, pretending to be their idol Yao Ming. As my fellow expats and I walk past they will smile and wave and say in English "Hello! Welcome to China!" This is the future of the country. The Olympics is, in effect, China's debutante ball on the world stage. Kids like these are the first generation to have a great deal of interaction with foreigners and western culture. They like us. The last thing we want to do is alienate them, and confirm every negative thing they have ever been told by their elders about the barbarian "lao wei." If we want to affect change in China, we have to do it in a manner that will be receptive to the Chinese people.

Posted by kevincollins
5 of 9
Why can't you people at TNR state the obvious: That we'll never do anything serious about China because they're holding a big fat IOU over our head for all the billions we've borrowed from them to fund deficit-contributing tax cuts?

Posted by Keone Michaels
6 of 9
China now has 350 million people in the "middle class" alone. The United States has about 300 million total population, including those in poverty etc. China and India are now surpassing us in many ways. The numbers should make it clear to even a fool. Your article takes the quaint position that we really have any say in what the Chinese do. Our time as boss of the world is over. Don't you get it? We can no longer make foreign policy with war.

Posted by mclurman
7 of 9
Rotoboy points to a crucial gap in perspective which frequently create a chasm of misunderstanding between Chinese and Americans when discussing human rights. My discussions have taken place in America with Chinese co-workers in the high tech industry. Discussion will start with me praising a Chinese dissident whom I particularly admire (Mr. Jiang Yanyong is a good recent example). The initial reaction from my Chinese interlocutor is reticent with a hint of embarrassment. If I try to continue the discussion or to get some explicit reaction she becomes uneasy, defensive or occasionally hostile. Examples might be Some variety of "America is no better" or even an attempt to be conciliatory like "I realize that America may have a more advanced legal system." Both of these reactions make me feel that the spirit of my comment has been misunderstood. In both cases the Chinese listener has interpreted my praise for the Chinese dissident as criticism of China, of everything Chinese and by extension of her (or him). As Rotoboy puts it "they see no distinction between government, ethnicity and culture." It would be as if a non-American came up to me and said: "I really admire Katherine Graham for the brave way in which she stood up to the goons in the Nixon Administration during the Watergate crisis." Of course my reaction to such a comment would be" "I couldn't agree with you more." And I would be pleased that the foreigner has grasped the real strength of American Society in its ability to stand up to the government when necessary. Imagine how bizarre we would judge an American whose reaction to such praise for Katherine Graham was: "Well your country has problems too," or even a huffy "I know America is not perfect." Both reactions would be judged bizarre because the American would be over identifying America with a badly behaving American government. I wonder if there are any suggestions for transcending this huge gap in perspective.

Posted by Never certain
8 of 9
I take issue with the implicit premise to the argument: (a) that there are obvious ways to improve the human rights situation in China, (b) that there are obvious ways for an outside power to effect such change, and (c) that such an outside power has a right to do so. Obviously, all three premises are necessary for the argument to make any sense at all. Starting from the end, (c) is very doubtful except in extreme cases such as genocide, which is not the case in China. Moving to (b) it seems to me that any conceivable pressure on China would only serve to unite the Chinese people around their government, and so slowdown any realistic prospect for change. And as for (a) China is now in a very positive trajectory. Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of extreme poverty, and civil society is slowly growing. Any shock to the system would destabilize this process with unpredictable and likely negative results. My take, therefore, is that the best a new President can do is cut down on the Guantanamos and Abu-Ghraibs, and make America a somewhat better example than it looks now. As for China, be careful what you wish for.

Posted by Nationlist Chinese
9 of 9
use of military leverage??? do people really wants to see that? when the time comes that the Eagle meets the Dragon, maybe the American people and its leaders will start to reflect. America did not beat China in Korea or Vietnam all those years ago, now when China has become a military power when America is being bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan... who would win if there was a war? I personally hope that will never happens for the sake of all the Chinese and American.