Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 14

What is China’s magic? How does the Communist Party get away with it? Beijing exports weapons of mass destruction to dangerous states, oppresses its minorities, locks up political and religious dissidents, menaces Taiwan, looks the other way as human organs and blood are illegally secured and sold, denies the extent of AIDS and executes more people extrajudicially than the rest of the world combined.

Despite such a damning dossier, and this would not be the case with any other country, some China-watchers and officials in democratic countries find it difficult to face the facts of China’s rule over its own subjects–one cannot use the word citizens–or they rationalize them away. They insist, undeniably, that “things are much better now than five/ten/twenty years ago” and certainly much better than in Mao’s day. Such improvement does not excuse us from looking squarely at Beijing’s depredations.

One of the reasons for special pleading on Beijing’s behalf can be found by analogue in the 62-year-old case of Hiram Bingham IV. Mr. Bingham, a foreign service officer who died in 1988, has just received, posthumously, the State Department’s Constructive Dissent award for challenging Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s policy of appeasing the French Vichy puppet-government. This was not a mere oral dissent: Mr. Bingham, vice consul in Marseilles in 1940, gave 2,500 U.S. visas to French Jews, hid others in his own villa, forged identity papers and provided disguises and safe passages at his own expense. Among those he saved were the artists Marc Chagall, Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp. For years the Bingham family received an annual card from Chagall, but even his children had no idea that their father had saved many more lives than Schindler, although they knew he was a bitter man who had been demoted and finally forced out of the State Department.

Why? Because as the State Department’s belated award, which Secretary of State Colin Powell awarded to Mr. Bingham’s son, stated “The official U.S. policy was that Jews were not to be granted American entry visas as it would not be wise to upset any Government that might become legitimate and important in Europe and therefore a possibly valuable ally of the United States.” Hard as it may be to comprehend now, this possible ally was the Nazi’s Vichy regime. The now-revised official biography of Hiram Bingham says, “He foiled official U.S. policy, the Gestapo and the Vichy police, but the department did not appreciate his efforts.” The Foreign Service Association notes that “Hiram Bingham could easily have acquiesced to the State Department’s policy directives and dismissed all Jews who came to him for visas, but he possessed the courage to ignore what he viewed as an inhumane policy.”

Washington is now more robust with Beijing. But just before a meeting between President Bill Clinton and President Jiang Zemin, when Secretary of State Madeline Albright was provided with the details about China’s exports of weapons of mass destruction to foreign customers such as Syria, Libya, Iran and Iraq, she declined to place them before the president. I am informed by an involved official that Mrs. Albright claimed it would make relations with Beijing awkward if Mr. Clinton confronted Mr. Jiang with the facts. British officials used to assure me that it was much better to raise human rights issues with their Chinese counterparts “behind the screen” rather than announcing that they had done so. “The Chinese react badly to confrontation,” I was told. These days the State Department’s annual reports on global human rights fully catalogues Chinese violations as they do any other country–except the United States.

But some China-watchers criticize Taiwan for being “provocative” when it condemns China for its threats. A favorite target has been Vice President Annette Lu, who pulls no punches when she discusses Taiwan’s relations with the Mainland and is sometimes described, therefore, as reckless and intemperate. Hong Kong democrats who discern a Beijing creep into the city’s politics are similarly dismissed as alarmist. In 1999, when Song Yongyi, an American-Chinese research scholar, was arrested as a spy in China on trumped-up charges, one of the several hundred colleagues who signed a petition, addressed to President Jiang Zemin, to free him insisted that this was a one-off and must not be taken as a general comment on Chinese human rights.

Professor Perry Link of Princeton has raised the image of “the anaconda in the chandelier.” Like the giant snake, he observes, the Chinese Communist Party need do little. It is simply there, as everyone knows, and what provokes it is unclear. “Its constant, silent message is ‘You decide.'” Professor Link added, “when one of our major news organizations invited one of our nation’s top scholars in a relevant field for a television interview, the scholar declined. He didn’t want to lose access to fieldwork in China by appearing in public on a politically sensitive issue. He knew that foreigners who displease Chinese authorities can be denied visas, or, even if allowed into China, denied interviews or access to archives. The problem is more common, and more complex, for scholars who study the Chinese government and need to nurture and preserve their contacts among Chinese officials. In short, like the disincentives presented to Chinese scholars, the pressures on Americans come in various gradations and subtleties. And, like the Chinese, Americans have reasons for not wanting to speak of these problems in public.”

I suggest that in addition to wishing to maintain their access to important Chinese contacts and materials there are at least two other reasons some American China-watchers are reluctant to criticize Beijing: Like Cordell Hull before the United States went to war against the Nazis, they believe “it would not be wise to upset any government that might become a possibly valuable ally of the United States.” Last year ex-National Security Advisor Sandy Berger wrote in the Washington Post [July 8,2001], “Our overriding national interest with China today is contributing to a dynamic economic system, an open political system and constructive membership in the international system. If China can succeed in the next few years with perhaps the boldest market-oriented economic experiment in modern times–and peacefully manage the social consequences using law rather than repression–it will transform that country, Asia and the world in ways that serve our long-term national interests.”

Not many Americans, however, foresee China as an ally, though President Clinton came close when he suggested a “strategic partnership.” More likely, in the eyes of American “pragmatists,” and deeply alarming, is the possibility of China as an enemy in the medium-term future, or a Chinese break-up into a welter of civil war and central collapse, which could destabilize the region. Michigan’s Professor Kenneth Lieberthal, a China-advisor to Bill Clinton, recently told an audience of journalists in Beijing, “When I think of a ‘China Threat,’ it is an unsuccessful China…. the United States has to recognize the possibility of a China that fails to meet core challenges and becomes systemically unstable.” This is precisely the image of the future held out by Beijing, which regularly warns that only the Communist Party and its discipline can defend China against “instability and chaos.” Many Chinese who dislike the Party and are happier in the United States will tell you that this is true, that there is something inherently unstable about China and potentially hysterical and cruel about the Chinese. They always point to the Cultural Revolution as proof of this eternally looming disaster, never stopping to think that it was the Communist Party that dragged China into the quagmire of 1966-1976, not to mention the disaster of the mass famine of 1959-1961. The Party knows its own history very well, and has confected a mantra to deal with what a reasonable person might regard as its disqualification to rule: “The Party makes mistakes but only the Party can correct those mistakes.” (This is what passes for Chinese political reform these days.) Those foreigners who say “it’s better now” are saying something similar, and while it is true it would not serve for any other regime. It was regularly said about South Africa during the final years of apartheid how much better things were. Few would now maintain that the world should have kept silent while Johannesburg worked things out. In any event it seems virtually superstitious to suppose that condemning Beijing forthrightly would somehow lead to China’s dissolution.

There are of course plenty of academic China-watchers who confront the anaconda. Harvard’s Roderick MacFarquhar, for instance, said during a recent visit to Beijing, “Today, China seeks international respect, and particularly the respect of the United States, to erase the memory of its century of humiliation. By now it should be clear to China’s leaders they can expect real respect from the US only when they adopt, rather than superficially adapt to international norms of governmental behavior. To reinforce this understanding, U.S. officials could adopt a two-pronged policy which might be summed up as: engagement, yes; endorsement, no. That is, trade and diplomacy will be encouraged, but the United States will not cease to criticize China for domestic or international policies which it finds repugnant.”

In a revealing article in the Washington Post [June 28, 2002] Philip Pan noted that Beijing has now permitted Chinese workers to sue their employers, and indeed the number doing so has leaped from 17,000 in 1992 to 500,000 in 2000. But, Mr. Pan wrote, “workers are learning that China remains a country ruled not by law but by individuals with power or connections.” One of the plaintiffs in a failed suit, claiming that his state-owned employers had stolen his wages, said: “We have good laws, but they don’t apply to people with power. These people can do whatever they want.” Professor Lieberthal makes the fundamental judgment: “To achieve its aspirations, China must change… its relations to the people.” As Perry Link remarks of the Party, the anaconda in the chandelier, it needn’t move much. It signals to those down below, “You decide.” Many brave Chinese are taking up this challenge. If they can risk it, so can those foreigners who study them.

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.