Warren I. Cohen on China’s Charm Offensive
Posted on Aug 15, 2008
Zhao Ziyang was general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party during the Tiananmen demonstrations in the spring of 1989. Pan begins with the story of Zhao being pushed aside for his unwillingness to crack down on the demonstrators and then spending the rest of his life under house arrest—punishment admittedly far more benign than anything Mao would have meted out. Zhao’s continued refusal to accept the party line—that the students camped in the square were counterrevolutionaries who needed to be bloodied—resulted in his becoming a nonperson. As far as the official media were concerned, he ceased to exist. In standard Leninist fashion, his past performance, as reformist premier as well as general secretary, was deleted from the public record. And then, in 2005, he died—and the party leaders, fearing a revival of the debate over its actions in 1989, panicked. They did not want to risk a funeral becoming a popular celebration of Zhao, to the detriment of the party’s reputation. But efforts to keep his death secret and to limit the number of people who could attend memorial services failed. Thousands went to pay their respects, braving police harassment—and it is with those thousands that Pan places what little hope there is for the democratization of China in the foreseeable future.
Pan’s subsequent chapters focus on a number of courageous individuals who refuse to be cowed by the authorities. An amateur documentary filmmaker obsessed with telling the story of a young woman, a devout communist, put to death in 1968 for refusing to repudiate her earlier criticism of Mao’s policies, for refusing to accept the “Rightist” label, receives the most attention. Pan also writes of victims of the Cultural Revolution and people who struggle to keep their memory alive, of factory workers who tried to organize to fight for wages and pensions stolen by officials, of a journalist and a free-speech advocate who challenged the party, and of the doctor who bravely revealed the true story of the SARS epidemic in Beijing in 2003—and then dared to exploit his celebrity status to demand that the party tell the truth about what happened at Tiananmen in 1989. One of Pan’s most interesting chapters, titled “The Rich Lady,” is the story of a less admirable character, a woman from modest circumstances who suffered during the Cultural Revolution and then shrewdly developed connections with party officials. Those relationships enabled her to become one of the wealthiest people in China, with a fortune estimated at $550 million. She and others like her are quite content with party rule: Democracy is not in their interest.
Pan demonstrates again and again that China is run by a Leninist party that remains above the law, that denies its people freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear. The Chinese Communist Party has co-opted entrepreneurs and many, perhaps most, intellectuals. Many of those who rode bicycles to work and lived in dank apartments in the 1980s now live in attractive detached houses in the suburbs—and have lost the urge to demonstrate against the government. Coal mine operators collude with officials to ignore safety requirements and thousands of Chinese miners die in accidents every year. Pan estimates that one Chinese miner dies every 30 minutes. Developers like “The Rich Lady” bribe party officials who allow them to drive people off their land and out of their homes to make way for high-rises and shopping malls. Pharmaceutical companies adulterate the drugs they sell while complicit bureaucrats look the other way. And the hundreds of millions who still lead marginal lives at best have been manipulated by clever appeals to nationalism, such as surround the Beijing Olympics, and are persuaded that in a great China a better life will one day trickle down to them or their descendents. The Chinese government, Pan suggests, is conducting what may be the largest and most successful experiment in authoritarian rule. He came across a handful of decent men and women who still fight for democracy and the rule of law, for respect for human rights in China, but he found little cause for optimism.
Kurlantzick, however, demonstrates why Chinese leaders are themselves optimistic about their nation’s future. He sees a nation that through its “charm offensive” is succeeding in changing perceptions of itself from threatening to benign. China’s revolutionary days are over: Communism as Lenin or Mao might have understood it is gone. China is now a capitalist dynamo, driving the world economy. Its regime provides a model for undemocratic governments throughout the world: Authoritarianism works. It can bring prosperity to the people, legitimacy and staying power for the rulers.
Moreover, Kurlantzick reminds us frequently that the American brand has been tainted by the failure of Americans to live by their principles. Once the world viewed Americans as liberators and thrilled to hear that “the Yanks are coming.” But the Yanks never appeared in Rwanda, and their invasion of Iraq is widely perceived as wrongheaded. How can the United States claim the moral high ground in the face of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, after its leaders approved the methods of torture used by the Chinese Communists against American POWs during the Korean War? How can Americans talk of democracy and fair elections after the travesty of the vote count in Florida in 2000? Once emigration to the United States was the dream of the poor and the oppressed all over the world. Since Sept. 11, 2001, its doors have been all but slammed shut in the faces of foreign students and workers. International polls in recent years justify Kurlantzick’s concern: More people fear the United States than fear China; increasingly, China is a nation to be admired. Its support for the Sudanese government despite that regime’s genocidal policies in Darfur, its support of Mugabe in Zimbabwe and of the murderous Burmese junta appear to offend fewer people than does the hypocrisy of the American government.
For the United States, the dilemma is obvious. The People’s Republic of China is a power with which it must work. China is too big and too strong to ignore or to intimidate. Beijing is beginning to compete successfully with Washington in efforts to shape the international system while its leaders simultaneously deny their own people basic human rights and refuse to be bound by their own constitution and laws. Sadly, there is no choice for Americans. As the power and influence of their nation have drained away in recent years, they are offered no alternative to “engagement,” to attempting to work constructively with a regime whose leaders do not share their values. Thus far there has been little talk of policy toward China in the U.S. presidential election campaign, and China’s leaders are smugly complacent about the outcome. They are confident that no American president will pose an obstacle to China’s “peaceful rise,” to the success of its “charm offensive.”
Warren I. Cohen, professor emeritus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and senior scholar in the Asia program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the author of several books, including “America’s Response to China,” the fifth edition of which will be published by Columbia University Press next year.
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