There has been an immense amount of action which has occurred in the U.S.-China relation in the past week, actions about which, being on several “fool’s errands” of my own, I nevertheless hope to comment upon.
At the end of a week of bilateral meetings in Washington, rather than grand strategic debates, we seem to have in hand the following tempest-in-a-teapot:
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview with the Atlantic Monthly about democracy in the Arab world, made brief and passing — and very critical — comments about the Chinese Communist Party.
These remarks have caused something of a kerfuffle in the Beijing media.
In response to Clinton, the Huanqiu Shibao editorial of May 15 2011 noted:
Which translates roughly as:
American Secretary of State Hillary [Clinton recently] critiqued China’s human rights by describing China’s ‘fool’s errand.’ By using this language, [Clinton] laid wreckage to diplomatic etiquette, and brings even more unpredictability to the Sino-Western debate on human rights. The Western attitude toward China appears to be one where human rights is used as an implement in the mish-mash of domestic politics, diplomacy, and the war for public opinion. Gathering that the story of fierce Western criticism behind [China’s] back is tiresome, [we can] put it simply: Western criticism of China’s human rights has presently become totally overbearing [咄咄逼人]. However, on this field of struggle, only history will say who emerges ‘the victor’.
Huanqiu Shibao’s editorial language is far more expressive that that of the paid-to-be-sternly-taciturn Jiang Yu, the Foreign Ministry spokesman whose remarks are reported on by China Digital Times [hat tip to CDT; an earlier version of this post can be found in the comments section on the linked piece over there].
The Global Times’ English version of the May 15 editorial in question is way, way toned-down and changed around, and includes the token reference to the now-useful-to-all-parties Ai Weiwei, who is so good at disappearing that he does not make the Chinese edition at all.
The strange thing in analyzing Clinton’s comments to the Atlantic is that they came in the midst of a much longer interview focused almost entirely on the Middle East. In fact, Clinton is in the middle of a comparison of China with — get this — Saudi Arabia when the conversation turns, and then she almost immediately swivels back to the prospects of regime change in Syria.
Is it possible that Clinton’s criticism of China is quite intentional, and intended to lay down some preemptive covering fire (in the form of “empty cannon shots,” as Mao famously said to Nixon about pro forma propaganda) for the Obama administration’s domestic opponents as the administration is engaging in multiple high-level meetings with China and signing a battery of bilateral agreements?
The anguish of the artistic community, and the Tibetans in exile, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, and the Falun Gong notwithstanding (all of whose complaints are, like those of the American communist parties, very much separate and disconnected, united only by the object of mutual derision), is there nothing to celebrate about last week’s cooperative efforts in Washington, D.C.?
There is a ton of video footage available of Clinton’s various bilateral sessions with Chinese leaders last week, and in none that I’ve seen does Hillary Clinton appear to be lecturing Chinese leaders in tones reminiscent of the Atlantic Monthly interview as to how they need to change in order to avoid the historical dust heap.
(Stalin’s advice for avoiding said dust heap, by contrast, would have been an ice pick to the head of the regime’s opponents — effective and cheap, but in China there are not enough ice picks and too many heads for this strategy to work, and besides, this is the United States, where no problem, including the President’s national origin, can’t be solved without a little public bellyaching and a lot of transparency. The relative clarity of ice, in other words, beats steel ice picks, and Jefferson trumps Lenin.)
At one point, Clinton happily looks on as her Chinese counterpart describes the good old days when [the Republic of] China and the U.S. got together to launch air raids on Japan. When you’re remembering World War II and channeling Song Meiling, it’s best not to mention that China vaguely resembles Saudi Arabia, even if you think it does. (The video of this session was up on Friday on the State Dept. website and on YouTube, it now appears to have been taken down.)
The Huanqiu Shibao editorial therefore accurately notes the milieu in Washington last week. The Secretary of State did indeed warmly greet her Chinese colleagues, the editorial states, concluding: “It makes one wonder if, when they talk about human rights to China, the leaders of some countries aren’t just going through the motions [走过场].”
Hey, if “going through the motions” gets us some real “Eco-Partnerships,” maybe it’s all in a day’s work.
Or maybe the State Department is banging on the table about the rights of American students — like the 25 I brought to Sichuan and Tibet last fall — to travel to China as part of the Hundred Thousand Initiative.
Or maybe they are busy talking about currency, trade, and our mutually dependent economies.
Fool’s errand, indeed, but then again, so was Henry Kissinger’s trip through Pakistan to Beijing in 1971, laden with briefing books by Chas Freeman and the hopes of a President burdened by a war (or two) and the hopes of a second term. Who is writing Clinton’s briefing books and coordinating her strategy on China might even deserve a bit of begrudging support, as to both Sun Tzu and Chairman Mao (as well as their successors and their advisers in Zhongnanhai), “unpredictability” might be considered a word of praise for a premeditated but previously unseen Washington strategy.