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Warren I. Cohen on China’s Charm Offensive

Posted on Aug 15, 2008
book covers

By Warren I. Cohen

The Olympics have gone to China, exposing the many contradictions within Chinese society and among international perceptions of the modern Chinese state. Newspapers and periodicals are filled with stories and photos of the magnificent new world-class architecture in Beijing and Shanghai. President George W. Bush and other world leaders attended the opening ceremonies. This is a moment of enormous pride for the Chinese people. Hundreds of thousands celebrated in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 2001 when the announcement came that Beijing had been awarded the 2008 games. The age of humiliation was over. China’s resurrection as a Great Power has been recognized and the past sins of the Beijing regime have been forgotten, at home and abroad. China’s status in the world has not been so high since the days of the Qianlong Emperor, back in the 18th century. The rule of the Chinese Communist Party has been validated.


book cover


Charm Offensive


By Joshua Kurlantzick


Yale University Press, 320 pages


Buy the book

book cover


Out of Mao’s Shadow


By Philip P. Pan


Simon & Schuster, 368 pages


Buy the book



But reports of the harassment, detention and arrest of dissidents all over China, apparently aimed at preventing unpleasant scenes that might detract from the glory of the games, are also filling the media. Contrary to promises made to the Olympic Committee, the Chinese government does not appear to be making a serious effort to demonstrate its respect for human rights. The recent abuses provide additional evidence of continuing repression in China. What’s going on? What kind of country is China becoming?

For my generation of students of modern China, the defining moment came on June 4, 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army massacred hundreds of the people in the vicinity of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Conceivably thousands more were killed elsewhere across the country—all for the crime of protesting against their government’s arbitrary use and abuse of power. For me, that stain will remain at least until the Chinese government admits what it did and apologizes to the families of the victims and to the citizens of China. I don’t expect to live to see that day. And most of my Chinese friends, including some who participated in the protest movement, tell me that it’s time to move on—as they have. I’ve discovered that many, probably most, Chinese college students are unaware of what happened in 1989, that the government has suppressed that memory, as it has memories of many of the horrors that the Chinese Communist Party has inflicted on the Chinese people.

Two new books— Philip Pan’s “Out of Mao’s Shadow” and Joshua Kurlantzick’s “Charm Offensive”—look at today’s China from very different perspectives. They describe the conflicting forces within China and the difficulty the international community has in understanding what’s happening there. Pan, one-time Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, roamed the country collecting tales that provide evidence of the Communist Party’s transgressions, past and present, of its increasing corruption, and of its determination to retain a monopoly on political power. Crushing those who attempt to keep alive memories of the sins of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping or who try to reveal or seek restitution for the crimes of the thousands of avaricious officials who plague the nation today, the one-party state rolls on. The scores of thousands of mass demonstrations annually against its practices change little. And, he argues, the party has succeeded in part because the people have been willing accomplices in the act of forgetting. Movingly, depressingly, Pan tells the story of some of the ordinary people and some of the rights activists, lawyers and journalists who struggle, largely in vain, to call the party to account.   

  On the other hand, Kurlantzick, also a journalist, focuses on China’s international achievements, its growing influence in Asia and the world. Lamenting the sullying of America’s image in the world, he conjures up a China overtaking the United States in the affections of mankind. He is not unaware of Beijing’s miserable human rights performance or of the Communist Party’s arbitrary and unchecked rule. He notes, however, the success of Chinese leaders in keeping the outside world focused on their nation’s economic miracle—the extraordinary development of its coastal economy over the last 10 to 15 years and the millions of its people it has lifted from poverty. He attributes China’s growing influence in the world to its “soft power,” a term deriving from the work of Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who was an assistant secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. Nye defined soft power as a brand, a view, for example, of the United States as a beacon of values universally treasured, excluding any form of coercive power. Kurlantzick stretches the term a bit to include the Chinese government’s use of its increasing wealth to buy friends, either by investing in the development of some countries and threatening, however implicitly, to withhold investment from others. 

There is no denying that today’s Chinese diplomats are well trained and effective representatives of the regime. Nor can it be denied that for the last decade, China’s approach to the outside world has been less abrasive and that it has moved haltingly and grudgingly toward acceptance of international norms of behavior—toward becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. Not least, Beijing has played the critical role in keeping Kim Jong Il’s minions at the negotiating table, keeping alive the hope that North Korea’s nuclear weapons will be destroyed some day. In general, as the United States seems content to abdicate its role as the dominant power in East Asia, there can be no doubt that China is poised to fill the gap.

Pan is less interested in China’s international role. He examines China’s evolution since the death of Mao from the bottom up, from the perspective of those being screwed by the system. In the 1950s and again in the 1980s, the great investigative reporter Liu Binyan bravely exposed the corruption of provincial officials and the helplessness of their victims. Twice he was expelled from the party, suffering 21 years of forced labor the first time and exile the second. Today, other brave young reporters appeal to the Chinese constitution, to the laws that allegedly govern party officials as well as ordinary citizens, but their exposés are more likely to end with them in prison than the culprits they indict. Lawyers and rights activists are barred from court, harassed, beaten or put under house arrest. When there are trials, the courts are almost always controlled by the party officials responsible for the behavior being challenged. The party is above the law.


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By Michael, October 15, 2008 at 7:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I find it so odd how most all people from western countries ( I am American, but not an ignorant one) jump on the bandwagon and yell “Beijing is so bad! They killed all those innocent kids in Tienanmen Square!”, where as most all the people who say that no very little, if anything about the event(s) surrounding the last few days.

First of all, it lasted not for a few days, but went on over a period of three months! Originally the “kids” showed up to lay flowers on a memorial to a righteous party leader. The next day, the offerings were gone—disappeared, so a small group of university students decided to protest. The whole “democracy movement” came later, and it wasn’t even intentional in the beginning.

Later, after more than a month, some students decided to make a lot of noise and defy the gov’t, while most all the students had no intention of that what so ever. It basically got out of hand, all because of a very small handful of self righteous students.

All the while, the gov’t sat back and watched what was happening, not taking it too seriously, until the crowds of ONLOOKERS (not protesters) got too big, so they told EVERYONE to leave the square. They REPEATEDLY ask everyone to leave the square over a period of TIME, not one day, but for several days; nearly one week.

Then the gov’t had no choice but to call in the military, who did nothing at all in the beginning, to allow the people in the square to disperse, which most of them DID…only a few hundred stayed behind, and those are the people that caught HELL.

Bottom line: those people killed in the Tiananmen Square incident (it was by no means a massacre—they had all been warned fair enough) deserved their deaths.

They deserved it, and I know it hurts some ignorant people out there to read that, but it is the truth. When a gov’t says to get OFF a public area, and the people do NOT, what choice did they have?

Ignorance is NOT bliss, it is the definition of a lack of knowledge…those that died weren’t ignorant; they were just plain STUPID.

By the way, if you wish to email me, my address is:
.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

I lived and worked in mainland China for five years. I know what I am talking about.

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M Henri Day's avatar

By M Henri Day, August 23, 2008 at 4:35 am Link to this comment

O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion


While the reader of Professor Cohen’s article does not learn much about China, he or she is certainly afforded a revealing glimpse of the tragic state of politicised imperial sinology in the United States. 谢谢你,老教授!。。。

Henri (戴安理)

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By Ted Swart, August 22, 2008 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment

Sorry BruSays:
Don’t know where you get “make good movies ” from. If you said widely watched movies then it may well be tree for US movies but “good”?? 
My wife had a knee operation and we were rather house bound for 6 weeks. So we have been watching a string of movies and for every good US movie there are 5 or 6 better ones from elsewhwere. Try something like “Goya’s Ghosts”—made in Spain by Spanish directors but made in English.  A searing indictment of the Spanish inquisition and, in the second half, an equally searing indictment of the French Revoluion as well—which was very far from real liberty ,equality and fraternity.
None of the systems we have chosen to run things brings any guaranette with them tha they will actually work—whether it be so-called democracy in the US or so-called communism in China. Everything is relative. China’s current regine is better than Mao’s was and he was completely ignored—as if he never existed—in the opening ceremonies at the olympics.  It is not difficult to screw any system up.  The us still has much more freedom of speech than China. But, when the system more or less ensures that lees tha opr=timal people get into power freedom is not worth much. 
The US has far too many lawyers on the ground and far far too many of them in government.  And I am not very enthused about the fat that Obama and his wife are both lawyers—as was the case for the Clintons and as is the case for GWB! The politburo in China is stuffed with engineers which is an imbalance of another kind. I don’t see a rosy future for either country unless there is a way of getting a more representative government.

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By BruSays, August 22, 2008 at 1:38 pm Link to this comment

Folktruther…nope, you’re not alone, though I doubt that’s a huge consolation!

Today, most of the world sees the United States as powerful, arrogant and ignorant…a very dangerous combination. We’ve elected (twice!) a doofus with “mad cowboy disease” (I heard that from a Czech a few years ago and almost choked on my Urquell Pilsner laughing so hard) and given him matches and a loose cannon to play with. 

To expand on the “ignorant” ingredient above: adding to the danger is that we THINK we’re living in a democracy. We THINK we’ve got it good. We THINK we’re empowered. We THINK there’s no voter fraud, corporations don’t own us, health care is the best in the world and we hold the torch for world peace.

To most the world, we do two things well: make movies and build bombs.

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By Folktruther, August 22, 2008 at 9:47 am Link to this comment

You can’t blame the people, Brusays, for the sins of the power systems or polities that rule them.  It is quite true that they will be corrupted, brutalized and conceptually deranged by opporssive power, but this is inevitable when the people have no viable power alternatives.

I am delighted that you can see political and social reality from a world historical perspective.  I am sure, or rather I hope, that there are a sprinkling of people who reject the ideological bullshit we have been taught and are capble of beginning to develop a world historical worldview formulated from the perspective of the population rather than from the customary historical perspective of power.

Your comment has spelled touchdown in the hopeful heart of an old fart.

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By BruSays, August 21, 2008 at 6:27 pm Link to this comment


Your insight on the “Chinese Charm Offensive” were perceptive, interesting and entirely accurate. I agree with all you said and can’t state it any better…but I can add a few lines!

My belief is that although it was a wonderful run, our little 200-plus-year experiment in country-building is crumbling. While the ideals of We The People were honest and well-intended, the truth is we’ve long-since become a “Corporatocracy” peopled by a complacent, clueless and univolved electorate. While owners of this Corporatocracy quote passages from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as proof of our noble foundations, we slowly rotate around and around, getting closer and closer to the drain.

Most likely this is the inevitable, built-in route of our experiment whereby once-emboldened, once-empowered, once-involved citizens simply lose interest, no longer bothering to balance corporate greed with the common good and common decency. “We The People” morphs into “We The Stockholders” and the whole nation eventually goes bankrupt.     

Truth is, Russia and China never WERE Communist (“from each according to his abilities - to each according to his needs”) any more than we WEREN’T. We played at our version of the game of representative government, this Republic, and we certainly had our strengths and certainly have much to be proud of. But in the end, we will be just a chapter or two in the history books.

Having said all this, I will still go down kicking and screaming! That this IDIOTIC ADMINISTRATION has been allowed to speed our movement to the drain really pisses me off! But at that same time, that Bush was elected TWICE simply proves the point…we’re truly clueless and undeserving of the freedoms we still have.

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By Nino Baldino, August 21, 2008 at 4:03 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

..the author does not know how to count those bodies in that dreadful was some 6,000 brave young Chinese kids fighting to be heard…yes,anyone subscribing to sites like the CardinalKungfoundation which works with the underground church as I do…does not appreciate the term ‘charm’ to describe these thugs that have hijacked this once great nation..of course with the help of Gen.George Marshall and his infamous commment..‘with this stroke of my pen I disarm 12 divisions of Chiange Khi Cheks(spellin..) army..these hoods have all the charm of a crutch Ralph!

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By yellowbird2525, August 19, 2008 at 12:31 am Link to this comment

amazing: the PEOPLE in CHINA are better off; yet the PEOPLE in the USA are far worse off than ever before; Woodrow Wilson, Pres during WW1, lamented the FACT that “we were no longer a land of the FREE, nor even of MAJORITY VOTE: rather under the DICTATES of a few dominent men;” 573 men/women along with Pentagon parasites sit down with the wealthy & everything is done at their whim; just like the good ol boys who owned the huge plantation farms; the wealthy & Corps get it all; the people are exploited to the maximum degree: get nothing but the shaft; and BELIEVE the fabrication that “they are free”; every other country on the planet knows the TRUTH but the people residing HERE. Amazing, isn’t it? THIS country was NEVER set up for the people to be taxed; or POISONED at every opportunity to their harm; for profit to doctors; and the evilest company on the planet known for agent orange & spreading formaldehyde everywhere; says it is not going to lose a $; and lo & behold they are the ones behind the genetic seeds (probably laced with agent orange, formaldehyde & other poisons); banned from some countries; has to be labeled for all others; BUT the USA; (aren’t YOU glad YOU live in a “democracy”?????

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By yellowbird2525, August 18, 2008 at 11:41 pm Link to this comment

our political parties “claim” to be democratic: however, they are in reality a dictatorship masquerading as “do gooders” and claiming this is the way democracy works when confronted with the monstrousity of their deeds; human right abuses? let me LIST the ways: bringing back top Nazi’s to LEARN from them HOW it was done that over 1/2 of Germany had no clue what was going on (media consolidation and LIES told; the propaganda continually that “they were the GOOD guys”; gosh, ring BELLS anyone? LOOKING behind the SCENES quite a different scenario is REALITY: the American people are deluded; they need to take their GLASSES off: and behold reality; sadly, most are so deluded they will NEVER see the reality but be in denial; TOLD: there is THIS democracy which means freedom; or COMMUNISM: which means this: we are the good guys; NEVER seeing PAST the LIES bombarded from mags, radio, tv; to the TRUTH: that honesty, integrity & honor have NEVER rested in Capitol Hill; they claim they are gods obviously; as truth is relative: meaning whatever they say is what is & should never be questioned or doubted; therefore, they are taken to task for telling the truth under oath to a judge; now, the cops are doing the same, as video after video is proving; BE SURE you have the TIME on your camera phone & camcorders; cuz they TRY & even cut & fix videos to PROVE that what they say IS: when in fact, they are lying; but the citizens BELIEVE an authoritive figure; alas and alack; many are never coming back.

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By Sang Ze, August 18, 2008 at 5:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you, Lester Ness & Folktruther for your observations. As someone who has lived, worked and taught in China for a number of years, I have witnessed the development of that country from those days not too long ago when donkey carts and tricycles traveled San Huan Lu in Beijing and hardly a car could be seen to a time when private vehicles dominate that highway. The population is becoming more affluent. Yes, there are significant problems within the government, just as there are in that of the United States; however, the people are far better off now than they were then, more optimistic and determined. Americans remain alarmingly ignorant of China, relying upon hackneyed government propaganda as presented on mainstream media and dreaming of a mysterious and exotic land that may only have existed in literature and lore.

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By tres, August 17, 2008 at 10:27 pm Link to this comment

Folktruther, yours are right on. It is ironic in a so called “democratic” system, the elected officials can do almost anything against the majority’s will, yet in China the unelected official must do what the majority want (historically rulers must have mandate from heaven).

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By 911truthdotorg, August 15, 2008 at 11:03 pm Link to this comment

I just heard Naomi Klein on Democracy Now…I’m paraphrasing what she said:

I just found out why that piece of shit went to the Olympics. The first US president ever to go to a foreign Olympics.

After Tiananmen Square, we passed a law barring US companies from selling police and surveillance equipment to China.

So in order for US companies to sell this stuff to China….$40 Billion worth, the Secret Service said that they had to install this stuff to protect the
drunken mass murderer in chief. That’s how they got around the law.

And once they have everything working correctly over there, they’re going to bring it here. If they haven’t started already.

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By Folktruther, August 15, 2008 at 4:26 pm Link to this comment

American ideology-and I say this with all due respect-is a tapestry of bullshit from beginning to end.  I am using the term ‘bullshit’ here in a philosophical sense of course, following the learned droppings of H.G. Frankfort in his trenchent philosophical treatise, ON BULLSHIT.

Nowehere is the stuff piled higher and the smell stronger than in American comment on China.  China is in the process of replacing the US as the leading power in the world and is doing so as quietly as possible to avoid unecessary friction and a thermonuclear war.

It is also undergoing the horrendous historical problem of getting its people from the farms and rural areas to the towns and cities to industrialize, and it is doing it faster than it has ever been done before in history.  Suffering is inevitable during this developing process but China is obviously trying minimize it, if only to keep dissent within manageable limits.

Instead of leading the world to socialism, as Mao wished to do, Deng won control, and is leading the world to a new form of capitalism.  China contains and borders more than half the people of the world, 60% of the world’s people living in Asia, and it is forming economic common markets that, hopefully, will develop the surronding peoples as well as the Chinese.

The new form of capitalism is centralized capitalism, with the government owning a third of the economy.  This generates a very different power system than, particularly, the American one.  It appears to be a better one, historically, but of course the Western media, especially the American media, would never say so.

The Amereican mainstream truth is that the US is a Democracy and China is a Dictatorship.  the reality is that the US is a Democracy by definition, and always has been no matter how many people are enslaved, imprisoned, impovrished, and deprvied from voting. 

The major power decisions have always been made by a capitlist plutocracy rather than by the population, but this has entered into the American definition of Democracy.  It is bullshit of course but good old American bullshit that the population has ben indoctinated with in the mainstream truth.

Polls have indicated that 90% of the Chinese agree with the trend of their governement’s policies and 80% of the American population think the US is headed the wrong way.  Any reality based definition of democracy would include that the power system promote the policies that the population wishes, but we are talking here about American mainstream truth, not reality.

The regaining of China to its normal place in the world after Western depredations the past few centuries increases reality-based democracy, power being proportioned to representing the most people.  But the American people, and particularly the American powerful, do not wish to know this, accounting for the Educated denial in the learned tradition, and the continous truth droppings in the mass media.

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By Ted Swart, August 15, 2008 at 7:39 am Link to this comment

The overarching corruption and nepotism in China strangely parallels that in Zimbabwe and it is little wonder that China tried to ship arms to Mugabe and voted against sanctions at the UN. As a refugee from Zimbabwe—now living in Canada—I can see the parallels only too clearly. The only difference is that the Chinese government has,up until now, been financially suceessful albeit in a rather ruthless manner—whereas Zimbabwe under Mugabe is in a parlous state.

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By AT, August 15, 2008 at 7:01 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How many surveillance cameras did China install at the behest of US corporations (the word is sale). yet there is always a need to install more because it wasnt safe enough. The East is red again.

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By paul easton, August 15, 2008 at 5:49 am Link to this comment

The tone of this review is pretty hopeless, but I doubt if things are really that bad. When people are deprived they can be bought off with material goods, but once their material needs are satisfied they require ideals, and in this sphere the regime has absolutely nothing to offer. Hence the hippies and the punks. I would suspect that something of the sort already exists in Hong Kong.

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By Lester Ness, August 15, 2008 at 4:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

That the sorts of blood-thirsty do-gooders who led the US into Iraq and killed vast numbers of Iraqis, supposedly “liberating” them, now lust to do the same thing in China. My students deserve better than to be ripped to bits by US shrapnel, burnt by US white phosphorus and napalm.

Lester Ness, English teacher in China

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