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Warren I. Cohen on China’s Charm Offensive

Posted on Aug 15, 2008
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By Warren I. Cohen

(Page 2)

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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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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