Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 22

By Jonathan Mirsky

Summits are a good time to plumb the depths of hypocrisy and pierce the verbal smoke and mirrors in international discourse. The recent exchange at the Crawford ranch between Presidents George W. Bush and Jiang Zemin vibrated with mutual compliments and assurances of good will. Mr. Bush spoke warmly of his visitor: “This is the third meeting of the president and me, and our personal relations, and the relations between our two countries are strong.” Mr Jiang agreed: “We all agree that China and the United States are two great nations sharing extensive and important common interests.”

In such discourses audiences are important. Mr Bush therefore mentioned human rights, Tibet and political prisoners, which many Americans take seriously, while his guest–keen not to look weak at home–made clear that “democracy and human rights are the common pursuits of mankind and that China’s human rights situation is at its best time, characterized by constant improvement.”

Such exchanges, as ritualized as Noh drama, are cleared in advance to prevent embarrassing frankness. But the words reflect reality, as well as distort it, and it is fascinating to see how different schools of China-watchers interpret American-Chinese relations. Political scientists, for example, deal in power and international relations as they exist on the day. Thus they can refer to the present Chinese leadership as mature. Historians look at things differently. For them pragmatism is not the operative word nor are power relations the central issue; for historians the past lives in the present. In this they may be closer to the concerns of many Chinese, for whom the realities are not only decades of Maoist repression but twenty years of arbitrary authoritarian rule, regardless of law, and the denial of any organized contention for rule with the Communist Party.