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Let Human Rights Guide the Path of Sino-U.S. Relations

John Li discusses why human rights should be the determining factor in shaping Washington’s China policy.

Eighty years ago, a thirty-something Mao first let the world know of his unusual revolutionary zeal in a humbly titled article "Investigative Report of the Farmer’s Movement in Hunan Province," which was the very first of his prolific writings on how to take power by violence from the incumbent. There, his assertive words would go down in history—"Who is our friend and who is our foe? This is the number one question we have to figure out for our revolutionary cause."

Eighty years later, a sixty-something Hu, planned his first formal visit to the United States. In Mao’s day, the United States was considered China’s number one enemy and Mao fought to maintain this stance during his entire tenure in Beijing as the leader of the Communist Party, the same post Hu holds now. The world may have changed a lot since then; but the same question remains: Are the United States and China friends now?

Friends or Foes?

For America, the position on this issue is unclear, toggling between "strategic partnership" as announced by an exuberant Clinton during his happy hours in China, and the "strategic competitor" framework that came about just one administration, or two years, later. The Chinese response to the same question, however, seems to be much more resolute and uniform. Most Chinese believe America is trying to keep China down; they also see America as the ultimate obstacle to a satisfactory resolution of the Taiwan issue. And they’ve been convinced by the communist regime that Falun Gong is a force that the CIA cultivated to achieve these objectives against China.

In the past five years or so, this "friends or foes" question has become ever more apparent. The Chinese are more certain that America has ulterior motives against them, fueled by the rising nationalistic sentiment encouraged by the communist regime, and the U.S. position seeming more nuanced, thanks to its growing commercial interest in China.

The United States may believe it has attained a cozy equilibrium in its dealings with China. Remember, there was a glaring absence of the usual "China debate" in the 2004 presidential election, which was once a fierce contest about "who will be the hardest on China." When the two countries first established formal diplomatic relations, this topic was prominently featured in every presidential debate since 1979. And more recently, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal were singing the same tune in their diatribe against Congress’ intervention in the CNOOC-Unocol saga, which, in my view, was almost unprecedented in the two papers’ editorializing on Sino-U.S. relations in the past decade.
Meanwhile, the Americans seem to have comfortably subscribed to the idea that pumping money into China to buttress an otherwise moribund communist regime is doing the Chinese a great service, because, as the seemingly elegant theory of "engagement" goes, "wealth will breed a clamor for freedom and democracy." Unfortunately, so far, there has been no solid evidence to support this argument; on the contrary, the persecutions against the labor activists, underground churches, and the spiritual movement of Falun Gong bear all the hallmarks of a ruthless outrage that the communist regime has been unleashing upon the Chinese people since day one.

Asymmetry in the Equilibrium

The money flowing into China has strengthened the hand of evil, enabling the regime to impose, unscrupulously, its will on the Chinese people. In the Orwellian world of 1984, "Big Brother" monitors every nook and cranny from ubiquitous TV screens, an eerie indication of an open-arms embrace of hi-technology in that consummate authoritarian state. Now, companies like Cisco, Yahoo, and Google are suppliers of similar technology and services to their Big Buddy in Beijing. Even worse, Yahoo has recently been found to serve as a despicable "informant" for Beijing in tracking down the regime’s "most wanted."

The media, especially those with their vital Chinese presence, have turned themselves into busy conveyors of Xinhua news, as if it were ever free media. Recently, a new trend has taken hold, that is, to quote the so-called experts or professors from China’s academic institutions, to give it a thinly veneered, U.S.-styled pretense of impartiality, as if those people, themselves Party members, would not gingerly toe the Party’s lines whenever they speak. I can’t help but wonder: Can’t they find somebody like Mr. Wei Jingsheng, who once spent 18 years in a Chinese prison and dedicated his whole life for China’s freedom, to share his thoughts on what’s truly going on there? And, when they write, would it be hard for them to focus on Mr. Wei’s ideas rather than his speeding ticket or smoking habit?

Sixteen years ago, China’s college students erected a replica of the Statue of Liberty, with a Chinese face, in Tiananmen Square, that was soon smashed into pieces by the PLA’s tanks, along with the student’s aspirations for democracy. That generation used their blood and lives to tell the world they yearn for freedom and they are ready for it, anytime. Today, their successor, the younger generation, is being brain-washed into believing the Party’s glories, and is being instilled with hostility toward the United States from toddler-hood on up. It is saddening to witness the widespread euphoria over the 9/11 tragedy among China’s college students, the hope of China’s future a mere 15 years ago.

As far as the United States is concerned, turning a blind eye to this fundamental asymmetry in the Sino-U.S. relations and regression in China’s quest for democratization is troubling. I agree, it would be good for the United States that this equilibrium would be kept forever, with the Chinese regime getting the assurance of "no regime change" and U.S. business getting the money squeezed from cheap Chinese labor, because one way or the other, money is what a capitalist society is about, right? However, as much as the United States would like it to continue, how do we know China would not upset the balance when it feels it has the power to challenge the status quo? The truth of the matter is, the timetable is now in the hands of Chinese, who have never wavered in their belief that "America is their number one enemy."
It is true that China has opened its doors for foreign capital and investments, but people might neglect the fact that the dominant force of the Chinese economy, the private sector, which accounts for close to three quarters of its GDP, is being closely watched and ruthlessly subdued. This means China is not, as many pundits theorized, embarking on the same path of economic development and political liberalization as experienced by Taiwan and South Korea, which have always placed their private sector as a priority. What is happening in China now is the communist regime is putting up the whole country for sale, to the Western capitalists, to bargain for an exclusion from the "Axis of the Evil," and the Chinese people and the country’s resources are being used in the same way that Kim Jong II "bargains" with his nuclear program. Indeed, political calculations are behind China’s startling fast integration into the world economy; it shows the Chinese regime would rather trust the foreign capital to feed its people, as long as it promises no "regime change," than its own private sector, which, when fully developed, could challenge its monopoly on power.

China’s Timetable to Overturn The Equilibrium

General Zhu Chengwu’s nuke saber-rattling at the United States exposes China’s timetable for breaking off the cozy Sino-U.S. equilibrium. What is of significance was the State Department’s responsethat his remarks were "irresponsible," a reaction that I wish had come from China’s foreign ministry, instead. The word "irresponsible" indicates how unhappy the U.S. government is about the idea of any possibility that the current equilibrium would be overthrownand how committed the government is to the equilibrium being continued. Really, how would the state department know that what General Zhu said is "irresponsible"? Could he happen to be "responsible" this time? China absolutely has the power and the motive to go to war, and it was not the first time a PLA general made such a remark. The only difference was seven years ago, when General Xiong Guangkai said that China’s missiles, according to him, could only reach Los Angeles, a city on the west coast, and now, apparently, they can reach the entire United States.

It is understandable that the United States wants to keep the status quo in its relations with China—who wouldn’t? After all, they don’t have to take responsibility for practices outlawed in the Western society such as profits from bribery, slavery labor, and mindless exploitation of natural resources, all standard practices in China, and can then take credit for "helping China grow and helping the Chinese people gain freedom."
Someone might ask: Why are you so sure China would have the incentive to break this mutually beneficial equilibrium? Isn’t it true that China has shown its "generosity" or "sincerity" by lowering the exchange rate of RMB against the dollar only after tremendous U.S. pressure? Well, the answer to this point comes from the beginning of this article, when I posed the crucial question about whether China and the U.S. are "friends or foes." If you believe, as I do, in what Chairman Mao said, that this question is the first one you should have an answer to, the next question, a natural one, would be: What, then, determines a friend from a foe? Should it be that CCP officials are now dressed more like Westerners? If you take a look at Mao, he, of course was always in a Mao suit, but Hu seems to like dressing like a Westerner. If you think this might be too circumstantial—similar to the fact that the Party secretaries are now more fashionably being called "CEOs" or "Presidents"—you might suggest China’s break-neck growth in GDP as the winning evidence of Westernization working for China. Well, the growth rate might be truly stellar except for possible statistical errors, but remember, it was written into the five-year plan of a Stalinist-era remnant, that economic growth would be always fulfilled, anyway. The underlying reason for the Party’s obsession with economic development is because it realizes that economics is its first obligation so much as it is now a necessity for its political survival. The growth gives it the legitimacy to rule, just as did political movement in the past. Your author once joked to his friends that: If the growth rate is not attained, the Party has a contingency plan that will make it work anyway—"you know what, let’s build another Great Wall. It will attract more tourists, and it will, as you would guess, boost our GDP."

How to Determine a Friend From a Foe?

In your author’s humble opinion, the only way a friend can be told from a foe is for the Americans to check that country’s human rights record. Yes, it is very simple, and it is effective. You may not believe it and might say, "Do you mean we do not need those political scientists or commentators to enlighten us and bombard us with fancy theories and English or even French words (remember détente)?" If you have such an opinion, you should not be faulted, but instead should be told that you’re in good company. When your author visited an editor of a political magazine, he shrugged my idea off with, "It is simply absurd to build diplomacy on human rights." But let’s do a reality check: Have those theories, or compromises, given us lasting peace and benefits or just short-term conveniences with long-term trouble?

I believe that America would be more powerful if it chooses to stick, in form and substance, to the principles created by its founding fathers—and the world would be a much quieter place if that happens. This may sound too simplistic an approach, but in information economics, a signal has to be simple and consistently followed through to be powerful and credible. Just as you know, credibility is the cornerstone of diplomacy and a country’s projection of power or deterrence. Smart deals or gaming will jeopardize this process and complicate already murky situations, rendering them inevitably intractable.
If McArthur had not been recalled by Truman but left to do what he set out to do, there would be no nuke crisis in today’s Korean peninsula—because there would have been no North Korea to begin with. If America persisted in Vietnam longer, it is likely the Cold War would have ended sooner, with many Americans saved from the trauma of the war. That war, many people believe, was lost in the columns of The New York Times. If the United States had not neglected Saddam Hussein’s atrocities against the Kurds and fostered it as a counterbalance to Iran, there would have been no first Gulf War. And if the Bush senior had not ignored the calls from the tens of thousands of uprising Iraqis gathered by his call to overthrow Saddam and later summarily executed by that tyrant, his son might have had a much easier job in the current Gulf War—because winning the "heart and mind," as the campaign was later renamed, would be much harder when people felt betrayed, although their bitter experiences deserved no more than a one sentence mention on CNN.

Like corporate America, U.S. foreign policy sometimes pursues a similar kind of instantaneous gratification, with stock prices being replaced by Gallup poll numbers, and the executive compensation by political capital or survival. By contrast, an authoritarian regime has the advantage of steadfastly implementing its long-term strategy with an iron hand, and without the vagaries induced by countless interests diverting its attention from the central issue. China has been studying America as its future rival, but the United States has not figured out the first question, whether China is its friend or foe. No wonder the recent laments in The Washington Post by a congressional leader that "China apparently knows more about us than we do about them."

It is right that there is no such department of study on university campuses called "human rights." As human rights ideas, perceived to be lofty and grand, are at the same time, too empty, trite, or even irrelevant. But human rights hold the key to numerous knotty issues that are baffling researchers in other departments for many years. For example, without the moral compass of human rights, how and when will the endless crises in the Middle East have at least the hope of ever ending? Before the killings by Israeli soldiers and Palestinian bombers are condemned in the same manner, absent any biases or political agenda, as violations of basic human rights, I do not think there is any peaceful process that will lead us anywhere.

On the other hand, if the United States, as the sole superpower, holds fast to the simple and consistent message of human rights and freedom, it will gain more support and respect, and many problems will melt away, of their own accord. This is because when human rights are truly respected as they should be in foreign relations, the United States is not just dealing with a few VIPs of a particular government, many of whom are odious tyrants or terrorists themselves, but with the vast number of that country’s populations—and believe me, people’s memories are enduring, especially when you show some genuine care about their future.
Japan and Korea

The experiences of China’s two neighboring countries, Japan and South Korea, lend support to this argument. It is well known that since the 1950s Japan has been the hub for America’s presence in Asia, and is its most reliable ally in that area. So much so that one Japanese Prime Minister once proudly called his country "America’s unsinkable aircraft carrier." Surveys suggest over 80 percent of Japanese admire America and treasure their friendship, despite the brutal war the two countries fought 60 years ago. In South Korea, a country that would be nonexistent without GIs’ sacrifices and even now only shielded from Kim Jong II’s firepower largely by the U.S. military, a recent Wall Street Journal article shows less than 20 percent of its population even like Americans, and U.S. products are far less popular there as they are in Japan. What is going on?

Again, it is about winning people’s hearts and minds, which can only be done by a genuine interest in their freedom and human rights. The same McArthur, thwarted in Korea by an administration more interested in keeping the "strategic balance" in that area, was luckily left alone in Japan. He wrote the current Japanese constitution, and implemented many reform programs that culminated into today’s thriving, liberal democratic, Japan. Japanese revered him as their savior, and they voluntarily lined the streets to see him off.

In South Korea, the United States has followed the so-called pragmatic policy, supporting military dictatorships to achieve expediency and short-term benefits, even when the Korean people had an uprising in Kwangju in 1987 against the military strongman.

The irony in this story is instructive, in many ways. For businesses preoccupied with building their beachheads in the tough-and-tumble Chinese markets, the true visionaries will know they should invest in China’s heart and mind, by bringing freedom and human rights to the Chinese. Although it is hard to resist the temptation for quick money by colluding with the festering regime and its corrupted officialdom, the Chinese people will remember those who truly care about them, and believe me, those are the ones who will be rewarded in the future.

To the author, it is also disturbing to note the loose definition of "ally" in the U.S. dictionary. Just when you were told Pakistan’s General Musharraf was the people’s enemy because he led a coup that dissolved the democratically elected government, the same general became a hero in America’s anti-terrorist campaign the very next moment. Similarly, the Chinese communist regime has been portrayed as an "ally" in America’s efforts to rid North Korea of its nuclear capabilities, although the North has been China’s lap dog to make trouble for the United States-and a trump card in its deck to "deal" with the United States. Next time you hear the term "ally," please remember Mr. Bin Laden was once in that category in Washington, too.
China: The Bush Legacy

Several months ago, this magazine reported that an overseas Chinese language newspaper called The Epoch Times published a series of commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has triggered a massive wave of Chinese people quitting the CCP. So far, 4.5 million Chinese have recanted their association with the CCP, sometimes at risk of their career and even lives. Once again, the Chinese people remind us that they are ready to free themselves from the shackles of the CCP—anytime.

While we applaud the 4.5 million who represent a larger number of Chinese who would part ways with the CCP, the silence is so deafening here in the United States that a question has to be asked: Is the United States ready for the long overdue exit of the CCP from the world stage? Twenty years ago, this would have sounded silly to ask, because America’s answer would be a resounding "Sure. Anytime." But now it becomes a question that is worth looking at.

True, China has been subsidizing our lifestyle and enriching certain sectors of the economy, but a prospering China under the leadership of a soulless totalitarian regime is perhaps even more dangerous. If you share the author’s hobby in studying Mao’s works to better understand this weird creature called the "CCP," whose frictions with the Soviet Union had for 20 years been an enigma for no less an expert than the CIA, Mao had another exhortation that we should heed. He said, in the early 1960s, that "all the imperialists are like dust in a room that has to be swept; and if your broomstick isn’t sweeping, the dust will never leave us." So is the absolute power of the CCP—and the nightmarish torments that the Chinese people have been subjected to. Indeed, the CCP is a tumor in the healthy body of human civilization. No matter how it metamorphoses for its survival, it remains a malignancy that is better to be rid of—the sooner the better.

At a time when President Bush is considering how he will be remembered in history, the author would suggest that he echo the call of the 4.5 million Chinese, to end the tyrannical rule of the CCP. This will be a legacy comparable to Reagan’s dissolution of the "evil empire" without firing a shot.

Eighteen years ago, a prescient Reagan spoke to an audience in West Berlin, in front of the Berlin Wall, "Mr. Gorbachev, please pull down this wall!" It only took two years for his words to become reality. When President Bush met with Hu Jintao, I hope he highlighted their conversation with a request, "Mr. Hu, please tear down the Great Wall of Red Terror, and join the 4.5 million Chinese ready to move on into a new life and new era."

John Li is a New-York-based freelance writer on Sino-U.S. relations.