Letter from Shanghai: Behind the U.S. decline of influence in China

Copyright – The International Herald Tribune
Howard W. French
SHANGHAI It is as established a part of the relationship as the purchase of new airliners and other big-ticket trade items. A Chinese leader’s arrival in the United States is prepared through gestures meant to clear the air on issues relating to human rights. Long- held prisoners may be released, exiles allowed to return home, sellers of counterfeit goods briefly closed down. When President Hu Jintao visits Washington soon, there may well be more of this sort of thing, but the tradition as a whole would not seem to have long legs.
Any number of indicators point to an end to this pattern drawing near. Put simply, American influence over China has peaked, and may have entered an era of long-term and perhaps accelerating decline.
There is an inevitable quality to much of what is going on here. Along with China’s amazing quarter century of growth has come both a rise in power relative to the West, as well as increasing self-confidence.
But it is beyond the obvious elements intrinsic to China’s much ballyhooed re-emergence that the really interesting things are happening. For one, in Hu , China has its least cosmopolitan leader since Mao. Deng Xiaoping lived in Paris as a young man, and was smitten there with an exotic Western ideology – communism.
Jiang Zemin, his successor, trained in the Soviet Union, and speaks Russian, as well as halting English. He retained a lively curiosity toward the broader world, reciting snippets of the “Gettysburg Address” to regale foreign audiences.
Hu has never lived outside of China, and indeed has spent much of his career working his way up the party hierarchy in poor and conservative backwaters, places like Tibet and Guizhou Province, where even foreign modes so eagerly embraced by China as market capitalism have arrived both late and weak.
Hu has spoken pointedly in rejection of the Western idea of liberalism, and has worked quietly but with remarkable effectiveness at reconfiguring China’s foreign relations in ways that dilute what was only recently the overwhelmingly preponderant influence of the United States.
There he was in Beijing this week, signing a mammoth natural gas deal with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, an incipient ally who shares a suspicion of the United States and a desire to rein in its liberalizing influence.
“The United States used to be the center of its foreign policy,” said Wu Xinbo, an expert in international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Now China is playing chess in all directions, in a way that counts Europe, Asia, Russia and others. That is Hu Jintao’s foreign policy.”
His American counterpart’s most recent international splash, a visit to India, in which a slightly desperate- looking George W. Bush signed an agreement giving China’s great regional rival a pass on long-held nuclear nonproliferation restrictions, is as good a place as any to start in on the other side of the equation: how the United States is squandering its own influence in China.
“Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue,” said Voltaire. Maybe this held up in the 18th century. But in today’s interconnected world, where everybody knows what everyone else is doing and saying all the time, people begin accumulating tallies, and the feeling in China, as in much of the world, is that Bush has been running up quite a tab.
Many of the recent actions taken by the Bush administration seem almost like plays read from a script written by a Chinese mole, whose purpose was to give Beijing a pass on some of its most offensive behavior by preemptively discrediting the United States. Just count the ways: detention of prisoners without due process (Guant·namo Bay), the indictment of journalists, the subpoenas for Google’s search engine records, the torture of prisoners, domestic surveillance and on and on.
Events like these have created a huge opening for China, which this country’s leadership, as savvy and nimble as it can be cynical, has been quick to exploit. When the State Department released its most recent annual human rights report last month, the Chinese were ready with an answer in the form of a counter-report on the United States that was more assertive than its replies in the past. A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, pointedly said that Washington should “mind more of its own human rights issues.”
The declining moral influence of the United States is bemoaned by intellectuals in China’s burgeoning but fragile new civil society, just as surely as it must be applauded off camera by the leaders in Beijing. Both keenly understand the importance of foreign examples and foreign friends in the struggle under way here to create the rule of law and a semblance of pluralism.
“People of my generation have admired the United States for lots of reasons, from the help they gave China in defeating the Japanese to their push to promote the idea of freedom,” said Mao Yushi, a 77-year old-pioneer of this country’s nongovernmental organization movement, whose group, Unirule, was recently ordered closed by the government.
“The problem with the United States is that there’s such a big gap these days between the internal discourse and its international actions. In Iraq, for example, they kill 10,000 Iraqis, and nobody figures it’s a big deal.”
China’s intellectuals have not given up on the United States. They cannot afford to. The lessons they draw of recent American experience are at once sobering and inspiring. “We don’t approve of many things done by the Bush administration, but we are also aware of how a democratic government goes about solving its problems,” said Yuan Weishi, an emeritus historian from Zhongshan University in Guangzhou. “We are aware of the role of civil society in supervising the government, and how this can play a big role in our own future

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