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Warren I. Cohen on China’s Charm Offensive
Posted on Aug 15, 2008
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.
By Joshua Kurlantzick
Yale University Press, 320 pages
Out of Mao’s Shadow
By Philip P. Pan
Simon & Schuster, 368 pages
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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