CAMPAIGN OUTSIDER Jawboning the Chinese elephant
By Muhammad Cohen
HONG KONG - Interviewing me for The Real News, founder Paul Jay called China
"one of the elephants in the room" of the US presidential campaign. Even though
the Olympics are putting the China elephant in the spotlight, neither candidate
has shed much light on where he believes US-China relations need to go. Their
near-silence may indicate deep ignorance or a profound grasp of the situation.
The Beijing Olympics signal "a coming in party for the house that Mao built as
a full-fledged member of the global establishment" (see
Olympics mark China's second coming, August 7), and few seem prepared
for the new member. Although China likely poses the top bilateral challenge for
next occupant of
the Oval Office, there aren't many votes in it beyond the fluffy fringes of the
policy. It's a lot easier to bash China about lead paint on toys, human rights
and the yuan's exchange rate than to tackle the tough issues. But hitting the
easy notes is pointless, if not counterproductive.
George W Bush campaigned against the Bill Clinton administration's close ties
with China as a strategic partner. Bush cast Beijing as a competitor and came
into office breathing fire against the evil dragon. China was the new Soviet
Union for Dubya. He visited China while his father was ambassador to Beijing,
saw how pretty the women are, and so understood the gravity of the threat. He
didn't want to do business with Beijing, he wanted to bury it.
Fighting doesn't fly
In its early days, the Bush administration picked fights with China from the
United Nations Human Rights Commission to Baghdad, where it accused China of
aiding Iraq's air defense upgrades to help Saddam Hussein break the no-fly
zones hemming him in. But Bush's tune changed in April when a US spy plane
operating on the fringe of Chinese airspace collided with an interceptor,
downing the Chinese jet and killing its pilot.
The US aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing on Chinese soil where
the plane and crew were held hostage. The Bush people had to do business with
Beijing. When it successfully negotiated with Beijing for the crew's release
and no one in the administration turned into a pillar of salt, the Bushies
quickly snuggled up every bit as tight as Bill Clinton and his team had.
The attractions of China grew more tempting when Beijing entered the World
Trade Organization at the end of 2001. Aside from its commercial potential as a
production platform and market, there are vast areas for strategic cooperation
(or conflict) with the US. The Bush administration has made common cause with
China on North Korean nukes and much more. Yet on this trip to the Olympics,
Bush showed his knack for getting it all just wrong.
A public demand to the Chinese government virtually ensures that Beijing will
do precisely the opposite; to act under foreign pressure would represent a
crippling loss of face for the leadership. So when Bush spoke out for human
rights in Bangkok and Beijing, he was grandstanding for US voters and the
history books while setting back the cause of freedom in China.
As part of its shamelessly political effort to use the Olympics to boost its
status at home and globally, China's Communist Party rulers brewed up this
instant tradition of inviting world leaders to attend the opening ceremony.
With his presence, Bush gave Beijing a propaganda victory. Criticizing his
Chinese hosts while enjoying their hospitality offends the very people Bush
thinks he's defending. To grassroots Chinese, it appears Bush hates China -
since he insults it while visiting - but even this enemy of China must pay
respect to our great nation. That's double happiness for Beijing and a pair of
swift kicks for Dubya.
As if that's not enough to clinch first ballot induction by acclimation into
the Old China Ham Hands Hall of Fame, Bush also puts freedom of religion at the
forefront of his appeals for human rights in China. That's a dumb, losing
banner to fly. The Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of worship, and Bush
attending church services in Beijing undermines the complaint's credibility in
Yes, churches in China must agree to government supervision. That rankles many
religious groups, from the Vatican to evangelical extremists. Talking about
religious freedom in China, Bush is pandering to fundamentalists, not trying to
change China. More pointedly, churchgoers remained banned from the Communist
Party, therefore effectively disenfranchised politically. But it's hardly
America's place to lecture on this potent issue while one presidential
contender combats charges he's a closet Muslim and thus somehow disqualified
for the presidency.
Teddy Roosevelt redux
Bush ought to know and the contenders to succeed him must understand that for
progress with the Chinese leadership, a president must speak softly and carry a
big stick. Don't bluster in public but stand up in private. Instead of going to
China then talking about human rights, Bush should have stayed in Washington
and quietly given Chinese leaders a list of demands - unblock Voice of America
transmissions, free dissidents arrested in the Olympic cleanup, and more - to
break the scheduling conflict that would otherwise prevent him from sharing the
glorious Olympic moment with his good friends in Beijing and the wonderful
people of China.
Bush may not have learned the dance, but his successor will have ample
opportunities to get it right. Sino-American relations face an Olympian agenda
beyond human rights and a basket of trade and investment issues.
China's leadership is committed to providing rising living standards for its
1.3 billion people. For that, it needs an increasing share of global resources.
That phenomenon is playing out across the globe. The most sensitive areas today
are in oil-rich Sudan, where Chinese support for the government is fueling the
humanitarian crisis in Darfur, and Iran, China's top source for imported oil.
Just imagine the potential impact of a US attack on Iran. On the other hand, to
fulfill its bargain with its people, China still needs the help of more
developed countries like the US. For the sake of all, China needs to be
integrated into the world economic and financial system to become a responsible
Security provides a different mix of competition and cooperation. The US and
China are part of the six-party talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament.
That's part of a much bigger picture of Asian security, where the US wants to
legitimatize the nukes of China's neighbor and former shooting war opponent
India. The US remains Taiwan's chief protector; Russia's invasion of Georgia
shows how big powers treat small neighbors in the early 21st century if the
protector has more bark than bite. Most of China's neighbors look to the US to
balance China's growing gravitational field.
Climate change is one issue where the Bush people understood China's gravity
despite taking the wrong approach. Without the participation of China - now or
soon to be the world's top greenhouse gas emitter - there won't be meaningful
progress on global warming. The United Nations process to find a successor to
the Kyoto Protocol gives China, India and other developing countries a pass,
politically correct but completely impractical for a solution.
These issues are crucial for the next president. But the road to solutions is
behind closed doors with Chinese leaders, not along the US campaign trail. So
the candidate with the best China policy will be the one that talks the least
about it. Sometimes the best way to deal with the elephant in the room is
keeping quiet until you're alone with it.
Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America's story to the
world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air (www.hongkongonair.com),
a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal,
high finance and cheap lingerie.