Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 22

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.

China has come to understand, some political scientists say, that if a country wants something it must give something. Beijing wants Washington to agree that in Xinjiang the Chinese are dealing with Muslim terrorists. So, in exchange for China not being publicly recalcitrant about a tough UN resolution on Iraq, Washington has agreed to label as terrorist a group of Xinjiang separatists, who have functioned for years but have only now been condemned. Although Mr. Bush was careful to say at his ranch, as he did last year in Tokyo, that he would never support political repression in the form of antiterrorism, he also made it plain that he now regarded China as an “ally in the war against global terror.”

Additionally, Beijing is now described in Washington as “cooperative” on North Korea; the two presidents agreed that Pyongyang’s disclosure that it is on the verge of possessing nuclear weapons must be dealt with peacefully and through negotiations. The Americans know, as does Beijing, that Pyongyang’s internal depredations, threats to neighbors and possession of weapons of mass destruction rival and probably exceed Iraq’s. But President Jiang went unchallenged when he noted that China “was in the dark” about recent admissions in Pyongyang, although administration officials acknowledged that “Chinese companies” had furnished technical assistance to the North Korean uranium enrichment project. At the Mexico summit “cooperative” Beijing declined to agree to any robust statements about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Some political scientists also see signs of Beijing’s new “pragmatism” in its negotiations with envoys of the Dalai Lama (which the envoys said led to nothing), occasional moderate language about Taiwan and the freedom of many Chinese to say what is on their minds.

What, then, can one say of China’s “domestic challenges and agenda” and its new “membership in the family of nations”? A good place to start is the emergence of the new leadership some time in November. For months China-watchers have debated who the leaders will or might be, their backgrounds and their qualifications. They observed that the process is as secretive as ever and that the actual personalities and their qualities to rule are almost wholly unknown. What seemingly reliable information exists appears to come from purloined documents which, even if they prove reliable, will also prove how deeply traditional, in a Communist sense, China’s leadership succession remains as it maneuvers within its well-used black box. How can international leaders judge China’s “maturity” or “reasonableness” when they have no more than fleeting contact with a few of Beijing’s possibly future leaders and none at all with others? Who, for example, can appreciate the qualities of Hu Jintao, Mr. Jiang’s likeliest successor, who until recently had never traveled abroad and then for only a few days? Or, far more sinisterly, what is known beyond a brief vitae of Luo Gan, soon to sit on the Politburo Standing Committee, which runs China, and is in charge of security? Is China really “more reasonable” about Taiwan? Has it renounced the use of force to reacquire the island should it declare independence or moved its missiles away from the Fujian coast? No. But because of recent, somewhat softer pronouncements, some political scientists have declared that now it is for Taiwan not to “provoke” the mainland. These observers warn Taiwan about such provocation–even though they know that few Taiwanese wish to live under Beijing’s rule–almost as if it would be justifiable if Beijing, driven into a corner by Taipei’s stubbornness, mounted an invasion.

During its interminable “strike-hard campaigns” China annually executes thousands of prisoners, more than the rest of the world combined, after a process that Chinese describe as “verdict first, trial afterwards.” What fascinates certain China-watchers, who do not deny the enormous number of deaths, is whether the killing-trend is up or down. Such a person said to me only last week that the reason there are so many executions in China is that “there are so many more Chinese.”

China has been exposed by the pioneering research of Robin Munro of the London School of Oriental and African Studies as using psychiatric methods learned long ago from Stalin’s psychiatrists to incarcerate several thousand political prisoners diagnosed with “political mania” in special mental institutions run by the security services. China is a member of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), which declares such political treatment illegitimate. Beijing’s spokesmen wholly deny such malpractice and claim not to know that last February the WPA’s president discussed the matter with China’s deputy minister of health. China regularly releases a few political or religious dissidents just before summits–a repulsive practice also learned from the Soviet Union–and just as regularly detains others. The fact that such people are not shot or exiled forever, or that their numbers may be smaller, is taken by some China-watchers as a sign of progress, and it is a mark of the state of Chinese human rights that this cannot be denied.

China’s treatment as criminals of those religious leaders and their followers, whether Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist or Muslim, who decline to operate under the various branches of the Party’s Patriotic Church, is so well known that some political scientists categorize them as examples of problems. They add that there is now a recognition that these problems must be dealt with in a less repressive way; this is the new maturity. Such persecution, together with Beijing’s repression of industrial workers, forbidden to form genuine trade unions, and farmers left behind by the galloping corrupt economy could be deemed as proof of unfitness to rule. “Where would China be without the Communist Party?” a professor of political science asked me rhetorically last week, echoing the words of the Party. She had been assured of the need for the Party to carry on, she added, at a recent lunch with the Chinese ambassador.

There are China-watchers who treat Beijing’s manhandling of critics and enemies almost, as Maoists used to say, as “questions left over from History.” They are indeed. Left over means still here, now. This includes Beijing’s state terror, intended, literally, to terrify and cow those deemed to be the state’s enemies. More than 2,500 years ago Confucius remarked that the first step for a wise ruler is to get words straight. George W. Bush is being irresponsible when he names state terrorists as “allies.”

No sane person denies that it is necessary for the United States to deal state to state with the People’s Republic of China. But never by checking our memories and our values at the door.

Jonathan Mirsky was the China correspondent of The Observer [London] and East Asia Editor of The Times [London]. In 1989 he was named the British editors’ International Journalist of the Year for his reporting from Tiananmen. He lives in London.