The Qian Qichen Op-ed: Official Discontent or Just one Man’s Opinion?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 24

In one of his farewell interviews with the televised Wall Street Journal Report, retiring Secretary of State Colin Powell once again made the claim that Sino-American relations are now in their “best state in three decades.” The Report ironically illustrated the interview with shots of Powell conferring with former Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, apparently unaware that Qian had just done his best to demolish Powell’s claim in two publications owned by the Chinese Communist Party.

On November 1st, the op-ed page of the China Daily carried a major article entitled “U.S. Strategy to Be Blamed,” placed under a cartoon of a Republican Elephant and a Democratic Donkey struggling towards a distant White House. As the title implied, the article was a highly critical assessment of the United States’ role in international affairs. Had it been written by a Chinese academic, it would have attracted attention only by virtue of its timing, coming right on the eve of polling in the U.S. – but the bye-line attached to the article was that of Qian Qichen, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) recognized experts on international relations.

The episode was the more puzzling because it arose just as Chinese academic commentators on Sino-Americans relations were welcoming the fact that there had been no China-bashing during this current U.S. presidential election. “China has never been a positive factor in American politics,” wrote Professor Fan Gang of Beijing University, “from China’s perspective the less it is mentioned in this election season, the better.” Professor Fan suggested that the lack of China-bashing by Kerry and Bush “may indicate that America’s political elite is facing up to the new realities, and adjusting its view of China accordingly.” So it is strange that Beijing itself reminded the U.S. political elite of old and enduring communist realities by launching a strong verbal attack on the Bush Administration.

The article was a forthright rendition of the calculations and ambitions, fears and tensions, which customarily underlie the CCP’s view of the world, and with which any regular reader of Chinese propaganda is familiar. Besides its timing, the article attracted additional attention by virtue of its stridently anti-American tone and its well-placed author. As Foreign Minister in the post-1989 period, Qian maneuvered skillfully to try and win back China’s international prestige in the aftermath of the 1989 Beijing Massacre. Later, as Vice Premier, Qian continued to direct foreign relations after he ceased to be Foreign Minister. While he has retired from office, along with the rest of the “third generation” of CCP leaders, it is certain that he remains highly influential in foreign affairs, and is therefore capable of delivering an election-eve attack on the Bush Administration in the English-language newspaper owned and published by the CCP.

Reflecting traditional Chinese fears of encirclement, Qian suggested that, under the Bush Doctrine “the U.S. has tightened its control of the Middle East, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Northeast Asia,” and that “Washington’s anti-terror campaign has already gone beyond the scope of self-defense.” On the Bush Administration’s motivation, Qian was blunt: “The U.S. has not changed its Cold War mentality…The philosophy of the ‘Bush Doctrine’ is, in essence, force. It advocates the United States should rule over the whole world with overwhelming force, military force in particular.” Nor was Qian sparing in his criticism of the Iraq War: “the United States did win a war in the military dimension but it is far from winning the peace…Washington has opened a Pandora’s Box, intensifying various intermingled conflicts such as ethnic and religious ones…The Iraq War has made the U.S. even more unpopular in the international community than its war in Vietnam…The Iraq War was an optional war, not a necessary one…” He suggested the Iraq War should help end the trans-Atlantic alliance since “the rift between the U.S. and its traditional European allies has never been so wide. It is now time to give up the illusion that Europeans and Americans are living in the same world, as some Europeans would like to believe.”

Moreover, Qian takes a distinctly negative view of the so-called war on terror: “The pre-emptive strategy will bring the Bush Administration an outcome that it is most unwilling to see, that is, absolute insecurity of the ‘American Empire’ and its demise because of expansion it cannot cope with…The Iraq War has destroyed the hard-won global anti-terror coalition…Mounting hostile sentiments among the Muslim world towards the United States, following the war, have already helped the al-Qaeda terrorist network recruit more followers and suicide martyrs. Instead of dropping, the number of terrorist activities throughout the world is now on the increase.”

Qian’s view of the U.S. is equally bleak: “The current U.S. predicament in Iraq serves as another example that when a country’s superiority psychology inflates beyond its real capability, a lot of trouble can be caused. But the troubles and disasters the United States has met do not stem from threats by others, but from its own cocksureness and arrogance. The 21st Century is not the American Century. That does not mean that the U.S. does not want the dream. Rather, it is incapable of realizing the goal.” Obviously, none of Qian’s comments would be welcome in the White House.

The sensation was not merely what Qian said, but the fact that he said it. Retired ranking CCP leaders remain subject to party discipline, and do not slip into the role of free lance journalists, as retired politicians sometimes do in Western democracies. The China Daily is very much part of the communist system, and of the still strictly-controlled press. So any editor in the China Daily would automatically know that an article strongly critical of the United States on the eve of the American election could only appear after some high official approved it. Official approval was further suggested when Qian’s article, apart from appearing on all website editions of the China Daily, also appeared, in full, on the People’s Daily English-language website.

Chinese officialdom was quick to produce excuses once Qian’s controversial comments drew adverse headlines abroad. The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue insisted that Qian Qichen had not been interviewed by, nor had he written any article for, the China Daily. But Zhang did not deny that Qian had actually made the comments the article contained. Asked to explain how the article appeared, she said that the Chinese side would look into the situation. So far, no further report has been released – nor is it likely to be.

It has been suggested that Qian originally made the remarks in a lecture at the CCP Central Party School, and that the lecture was then reported in the party school’s newspaper, the Study Times. The China Daily is said to have then translated and published that article. However, this explanation fails to resolve how any editor of the China Daily or People’s Daily would publish such a controversial article at such a sensitive time when the party line is that Sino-American relations are generally improving, without first getting permission from very high in the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy.

If such permission was given, what was the motive? China-watchers are still seeking a convincing explanation for this discordant message. Was the Beijing leadership, or some faction within it, making a very late, and certainly ill-timed, bet on John F. Kerry becoming President of the United States? Since much of what Qian had to say was related to the criticisms Senator Kerry had been making on the campaign trail, it could have been a crude attempt to curry favor with the next U.S. Administration – in which case it has backfired. Or was there a more devious political motivation at work? Was the article an extremely devious Chinese effort to see that Bush was re-elected?

Another possibility is that deliberately defective diplomacy may have been attempted, possibly by a high-ranking Jiang Zemin protégé, with the specific aim of embarrassing the Hu Jintao administration. Alternatively, it was conceivably an attempt by a Hu Jintao ally to discredit Jiang Zemin. But unquestionably Qian was either expressing a CCP majority view which he himself nurtures, or at least the opinions of an influential minority. While Chinese officials dismissed the article as the work of a retired official, the significance of Qian’s comments was underlined by the speedy disappearance of the article from the Internet archives of the China Daily and People’s Daily.

We may never know who ordered Qian’s trenchant words to be published. As it undertook hasty damage-control, Beijing must have been hoping that the Bush Administration would fail to notice what the article strongly suggests – a growing alienation in Sino-American relations. Interviewed by the Financial Times on November 8th, Colin Powell said he accepted Chinese protestations that Qian Qichen’s remarks did not reflect official policy. This, however, hardly resolves the matter.