Fearful Asymmetry

ROSS TERRILL – The Wall Street Journal

Copyright The Wall Street Journal
April 24, 2006; Page A14
Before and after each Sino-American summit, Beijing offers a triple
spin: China is an equal of the U.S., the U.S. needs China even more than
China needs the U.S., and the two powers are fundamentally like-minded.
Left out are a few points. Chinese come to the U.S. and read scathing
criticisms of President Bush in American newspapers. Americans go to
China and never read a word of criticism of President Hu Jintao in “China
Daily.” The Chinese state creates a lock-step view of events within
China and the world that is completely different from our own marketplace
of ideas.
Asymmetry marks access and availability of information in the U.S. and
China: 100,000 Chinese students are on our campuses (enormously more
than the Americans on Chinese campuses), and they have extraordinary
access to information, whereas many sensitive materials are withheld from
Americans in China. Hundreds of prominent Americans who know a lot about
China are pro-Beijing and are publicly critical of U.S. policy toward
China. That is their right. But there is no equivalent community of
specialists in China that is pro-American and criticizes Beijing’s policy
toward the U.S. — nor could there be.
The professions in China are not autonomous: Journalists, professors,
most lawyers and clergy for licensed religious organizations are all
beholden to the party-state. Hence many cultural exchanges between China
and the U.S. are flawed projects since Chinese journalists, judges and
other professionals are not independent.
Time and again an American leader speaks in China after a promise from
Beijing that his remarks will be transmitted unaltered to the Chinese
public, only to find sensitive parts have been cut. “People’s Daily,”
reporting the joint press conference between President Clinton and
President Jiang Zemin in 1998, omitted Mr. Clinton’s words on freedom, Tibet
and the Tiananmen tragedy of 1989. Vice President Cheney’s speech in
Shanghai in April 2004 was gutted of key passages about democracy after a
promise to transmit it in full. And so on. The Chinese people cannot
know what they do not hear. And they are unaware of how much they do not
Just as Beijing uses divide-and-rule at the national level to try to
split Japan, Australia and other allies from the U.S., it does the same
at the level of the individual writer, journalist or academic. The
Chinese try to pick favorites and isolate critics of Beijing. They dangle
access (as they do with businessmen); they intimidate potential critics.
In the mid-’90s, National Geographic invited me to write an article on
the Three Gorges Dam project. Some months after the photographer and I
began, Beijing refused me a visa to travel to the dam area. National
Geographic was in a bind; inevitably, they chose another writer to whose
views Beijing would have less objection, a quiet victory that remained
unknown to readers of the published article.
Another Chinese method is to plant themes in American minds by
repetition and infiltration. “The U.S. is trying to hold China back” says
Beijing. Taking 25% or more of its exports is a strange way of holding China
back. “A Cold War mentality in the U.S. is damaging U.S.-China
relations” says Beijing. In truth, North Korea, China’s only ally, is the
conspicuous Cold War relic that is gravely unsettling to northeast Asia.
“Japanese militarism is the great danger in Asia” says Beijing. Never mind
that China has fought wars on four flanks in the last half-century,
during which Japan’s military has killed not one non-Japanese in combat.
To help plant these themes, Beijing draws into its sphere Americans
with good knowledge of China and readiness to agree with Chinese policies.
All the statements listed above are embraced by prominent business,
media and academic figures involved with China. New is the amount of money
China has available for its manipulation. The corruption of power was
familiar in earlier years of the PRC; the corruption of money becomes
evident today. Beijing is bold with its open wallet. It is true that
Beijing’s behavior in the face of the international flow of information has
improved in the post-Mao era. But the Leninist basis of the Chinese
regime remains. President Clinton, while in office, twice referred to
China as a “former communist country.”
This only sets us up for disillusionment. Far from being like-minded,
China fends the U.S. off, undermines it across the globe, and desires
its decline in East Asia. Beijing will not “help” Washington over North
Korea since its interests (propping up Pyongyang) differ from U.S.
interests (solving the nuclear weapons issue by reunification of Korea under
What should we do about the situation? Our overall China policy can
(and does) blend full engagement with participation in preserving an
equilibrium in East Asia that discourages Beijing from expansionism. No
contradiction exists between these twin stances. There are two Chinas,
after all: a command economy that sags, and a free economy that soars; a
Communist Party that scratches for a raison d’?re, and 1.3 billion
individuals with private agendas. Being wary of authoritarian China while
engaging with emerging China is a logical dualism.
Beyond that strategy, we should, above all, avoid wishful thinking
about the Chinese state. We should be aware of the asymmetry in cultural
exchanges. We should resist the Chinese divide-and-rule policies by a
stance of solidarity with those whom Beijing singles out for attack or
exclusion. We should talk back every time the Communist Party mocks the
freedoms of the U.S. or denies the repression of its own rule.
Far better to have cordial relations with Beijing than the
confrontations of the ’50s (Korean War) and ’60s (Indochina Wars). But in the
absence of a common enemy and with a yawning gap between democracy and
dictatorship, the relationship cannot be cozy. “Avoid politicizing the
issues” between the two countries, Hu Jintao said last week, but the
fundamental issues are political. It is good that Beijing finds common ground
with Boeing and Microsoft; but less common ground exists between
Beijing and the American democracy. One worries at times that authoritarian
China has an advantage over the U.S. It can take the long view, hide
plans it does not want revealed, pull the strings of Chinese public
opinion, set the agenda of international organizations while doing little to
implement their decisions, win access to American society while closing
doors within China, and deceive non-Chinese about all this by its
political theater. Yet ultimately an authoritarian regime is not stron!
g. China today is no match for the U.S. in any realm except
population, and as long as it remains a dictatorship it will never equal the U.S.
as a power and influence in the world.
The average life span of the European Leninist regimes that collapsed
between 1989 and 1991 was only a few decades; the Chinese communist
regime is now 57 years old, 17 years short of the Soviet Union, the longest
running authoritarian regime of modern times. Democracies sound
raucous, but the U.S. and Australia, to take two, have been stable for a
period that runs into centuries. The oxygen of freedom prevents many evils.
Our quarrel over the manipulation of news and views is not with Chinese
culture or people, but with the Communist Party state. It manipulates
because that was its political upbringing. It strokes the feathers of
sycophants and ditches independent spirits because that has been the
Leninist way in every country where a Communist Party has held a monopoly
of power.
Political systems do matter. Washington and Beijing could hardly be
more different on the fundamental issue of freedom.
Mr. Terrill, associate in research at Harvard University’s Asia Center,
is the author of “The New Chinese Empire” (Basic Books, 2004).
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