Publication: China Brief Volume: 2 Issue: 4

Whether at Tsinghua University or at the Central Party School, President George W. Bush will soon be talking to the youth of China, a tremendous opportunity for real communication if compared, say, with a “full and candid” discussion with the top leadership. What should he say? Here are some thoughts:

1. The Chinese government actively poisons the minds of its people by telling lies about the United States–that we want to “contain” China, that we intentionally bombed their embassy in Belgrade, that we caused the EP-3 incident, and so forth–as part of a risky strategy of uncorking the dangerous bottle labeled “xenophobia and nationalism” in order to save the regime. Bush should set the record straight:

Today’s Tsinghua is the lineal descendant of a university founded with part of the nearly US$11 million (gold) from the Boxer Indemnity, remitted by the U.S. government to the Chinese for educational purposes [roughly US$144 million at today’s values]. That originally private university became part of China’s state system in 1925. If judged by the quality of its graduates, who have excelled in all fields, but in the sciences most notably, Tsinghua must be considered one of the world’s great universities.

As for the Central Party School, its name does not quite say it all. True, it has trained its share of unsavory characters. But among its most distinguished alumni and former faculty are some of the greatest champions of freedom and democracy, many of whom have been forced to live abroad since 1989, but whose voices continue to be heard in their homeland. I think particularly of its former Professor Ming Ruan, who strongly supported greater political participation for the Chinese people, but who since 1989 has lived in New Jersey.

Both of these institutions bear witness to the enormous talent to which China is home and to the long-standing Chinese commitment to education, really since the days of Confucius–and which the United States has respected and admired since the turn of the last century.

The case of Tsinghua is obvious. The Party school is less clear, but the way its dissident graduates seem to find America most accepting of them–not to mention the number of high party officials currently serving who have children or grandchildren with American citizenship, who own land or other assets in the United States, and who visit here frequently–surely that tells you something.

2. Beijing has long been promoting a vision of a multipolar world in which U.S. strength is constrained by a series of other states, from France to North Korea, that will counterbalance. Never mind that this strategy has run into some trouble since 9/11, Bush should present a positive vision of what kind of world the United States wants to see:

The United States has many allies and friends, and hopes that its relations with China will continue to improve. Our closest friends have, for reasons of flesh and blood, always been in Europe: our alliances with France and Britain, for example, however they may appear on the surface, have been forged in war after war, and they will endure. I think in particular of World War II in which we fought together in favor of human rights and values and democracy. Now we have millions of new American citizens who have come from the countries of Asia, as well as greater trade across the Pacific than the Atlantic, so it is only natural that we should be strengthening our friendships with Asian countries too, and I include China.

But American international friendships are not based only on flesh and blood or economic interest. Above all, they rest on shared values. I believe that Americans and Chinese share many values, including patriotism, love of family and freedom, and democracy. These shared foundations already undergird our relations with both our European and our Asian allies: Many of our best friends in Asia–Japan, South Korea, India, Thailand, Philippines, Mongolia [be sure to mention Mongolia] and others, are full-fledged constitutional democracies, just like France or Australia or South Africa and many other states on that continent. We Americans and Chinese are already trading partners. I would like us to share values as well.

Not conflict and tension within various polygons ranging from triangles on up, but rather the genuine identity of interest that grows naturally from our shared love of freedom is the most secure basis for the future world order. In such a world, I think, people everywhere would prosper and be able to live decent lives. There would be no need to think about blocs and endless military competition. Wars would be scarce. I see lots of evidence that we are moving toward such a world. We hope China will be a leading member of that world, fully enjoying the rights of sovereignty and respect as a nation, and freedom and democracy as a people.

3. The Chinese leadership regularly states that so-called “Western style” democracy is somehow culturally not suited to China. That needs to be refuted, but indirectly:

Americans and Chinese both believe that the ultimate foundation of government is virtue and the consent of the people. Think of the many statements to that effect in the works of the great Chinese sage Mencius (Mengzi)

More than 2,000 years ago he was one of the first thinkers in the world to distinguish between legitimate (hefa) and illegitimate (feifa) rule. He told his students:

“He who, using force, makes a pretence to benevolence is [not a true king but rather only] a hegemon (ba) A hegemon requires a large kingdom. [Only] he who, using virtue, practices benevolence, is a true king (wang)…. When one subdues men by force, they do not submit in their hearts. When one subdues men by virtue, in their hearts’ core, they are pleased, and sincerely submit.” Mencius, Book II, Part I, Chi iii. 1-2 (translation: After Legge modified by ANW).

[NOTE: Have this read slowly, in the classical Chinese original, by an American and have the text in Chinese characters incorporated in the text supplied to the press.]

A very similar belief animated the American colonists when they took up arms against the rule of the British King. As Thomas Jefferson put it:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”

[NOTE: Be sure that a very careful translation of this section is prepared beforehand and that it is read in Chinese by an American. Remember the hash that our translator made of President Clinton’s talk in China.]

So much for the idea, which we sometimes hear, even though it is utterly false and discredited, that Western and Eastern values are somehow different. They are not. Yet nevertheless, and undeniably, our two countries have a sometimes tense relationship? This is not something that makes sense for either side. How are we to explain it?

4. It is important to criticize the many dangerous actions China is undertaking on the international scene. But again, I would seek to do it in a way that does seem provocative:

Some people accuse the American people of being almost imperialists. One of our French friends has called us, critically, a “hyperpower.” One sometimes sees similar opinions in the Chinese and other Asian press. But the fact is that the United States is not interested either in building an empire or running other people’s countries.

We are averse to war. We entered World War I three years after it had started; we entered World War II two years after it had started, and then only when we were directly attacked. We did not start the Korean War: Pyongyang did–and nearly 1 million brave Chinese died in that conflict. We came to the assistance of South Vietnam only after the North Vietnamese had violated the Geneva agreements and begun moving regular troops into South Vietnamese territory. We lost that war–but perhaps the fact that nearly 2 million South Vietnamese fled their own country rather than face Hanoi’s rule, tells you something. These Vietnamese refugees have become American citizens, distinguished in all walks of life. We struck against Afghanistan only when the al-Qaida carried out the bloodiest attack ever on the home territory of the United States.

In other words, we defend ourselves and we defend our friends–make no mistake about that–but we do not seek conflict.

Yet pick up some of the newspapers here in Beijing and you would think that the United States was plotting some sort of invasion of China. That is absolutely baseless (hao wu ji chu de). But two things are true, and let me speak about them candidly.

The first is that, frankly, we Americans are very puzzled by your government’s choice of close friends. China is a great country. One places Chinese civilization right alongside the other greats–India, Greece and Rome, Western Europe, Islam. So I would expect that China’s closest diplomatic friends would be states like France and Britain and Russia and Japan and India and so forth.

But where is Chinese diplomatic effort and money concentrated? On a very peculiar group: Iraq, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Syria. What do these states have in common with one another? Really only one thing: They are among the handful of remaining dictatorial states opposed to the United States. Can it be that that is the reason China is so close to them? Certainly that is not where China belongs.

The second is that we have many friends in Asia and they speak to us candidly of their fear of Chinese military power. And we wonder why, at a time when America and Russia are negotiating a big cut in nuclear weapons, China is pouring tens of billions of dollars into building nuclear weapons, not to mention advanced rockets, military satellites, submarines, and so forth. These are all far in excess of any defensive needs China may have.

In Europe, the possibility of peace through negotiation among the European states was undermined by the German program of naval expansion, which began in 1893. It created such distrust that countries had difficulty talking to one another. The tragic result was World War I, in which China participated, alongside the United States. History, as the Chinese above all understand, has much to teach us.

5. But we must not end on a note of possible hostility. So close by mapping out a future of genuine friendship:

So where do our two great countries go from here? I see one problem and two alternatives.

The problem is that China’s economy and society have developed so fast that, as all of us would agree, I think that they have outstripped China’s institutions of governance. We all know that China’s legal system, created decades ago when China had scarcely any foreign trade, is completely inadequate to the international world in which she is today such an important player. We know too that the sort of rule from above by force, such as described by Mencius, while never right, could at least function in a poor country where nearly everyone lived in the countryside. Today China’s cities are growing and her educational levels soaring. Universities like Tsinghua are not simply turning out specialists (zhuanjia) they are turning out citizens (gongmin) and citizens have rights that no one can take away from them. Clearly the question now is how fast China’s political superstructure can catch up to suit her economic structure.

Mao Zedong gave an answer to that question more than fifty years ago, although he did not put it fully into practice.

In 1945 Mao Zedong spoke of the Communist Party as the party of democracy. Many idealistic Chinese joined for precisely that reason. They believed Mao’s democracy would be far freer than had been Chiang Kai-shek’s rule. But some were skeptical. So in September 1945 a foreign correspondent from Reuters discussed the topic with Mao.

REUTERS: What is the Chinese Communist Party’s understanding and definition of the concept of a free and democratic China?

MAO: A free and democratic China will have the following characteristics. Its government at all levels, including even the central government, will all be chosen in universal and secret elections, and will be responsible to their electors. It will carry out Mr. Sun Yatsen’s Three People’s Principles, Lincoln’s principle of “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as well as Roosevelt’s Atlantic Charter. It will guarantee the independence, solidarity, and unity of the country, and its cooperation with other democratic powers [Answers to questions raised by Reuters News Agency Correspondent Gamble, September 27, 1945; original text in Chongqing Xinhua ribao September 27, 1945; Jiefang ribao, October 8, 1945: the text printed from Mao’s original manuscript is in Mao Zedong shuxin xuanji (Beijing: renmin chubanshe, 1983) p. 201].

Twenty years earlier, one of the founders of the Communist Party, the great scholar Chen Duxiu, had said much the same thing when he said that China needed “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy”–education and freedom, values that are exemplified by the whole history of Tsinghua University.

So China has a long history of democratic thought, more advanced, in certain respects, than that of the West. Chinese political theory, for example, never accepted the divine right of kings, as did the Europeans.

We all know that China’s road to democracy has been long and difficult, and that the goal has not been reached even today, in the twenty-first century. That structural fact explains lots of the tension between Beijing and Washington, in the past and even today–just as it did the tension between Moscow and Washington, most of which evaporated as soon as the Cold War ended. Should that structural difficulty remain in the years ahead, intensified by the acquisition of excessive armaments and a continuing tendency, internationally, to line up with the Iraqs of this world rather than with the democracies–then I think, quite frankly, that U.S.-China relations will continue to be strained. Why? Because America is best friends with countries, East or West, with which it shares not only material interests, but values as well.

But I think I know China well enough to understand that this potentially very dangerous situation will not develop. I expect to see changes in China over the next few years in areas other than economics, in things like the rights of citizens, gradually to bring China to where she belongs: in the mainstream of the world’s great constitutional countries. And I look to the youth of China to do that job.

China has made great progress. Never in her modern history, I think, have her youth been as well educated and civic minded as you are today. You are free of the poverty that afflicted your great-grandparents, the war that killed so many of your grandparents, the internal conflicts that so blighted the lives of many of your parents. You live in a world that welcomes you. Tens of thousands of Chinese students are studying on American campuses. Chinese goods are found in nearly every American store. Chinese newspapers and television broadcasts of all sorts are easily available. And among native-born Americans, interest in China, as proven by soaring enrollments in Chinese language courses, has never been higher.

Chinese students, I salute you! You face great responsibilities and great challenges. But you have the minds and the training and, I hope, the moral courage and determination, to meet them. We Americans cannot participate in what you do. That is your responsibility. But never believe it when someone tells you that America does not want China to be a da guo (great country, great power). But only in a China whose citizens are truly the masters is this possible. We can only watch, with hope and sometimes with fear. But be assured that we Americans respect China and the youth of China, and will be wishing you every success.

[Final Note: Bush should not mention Taiwan in this speech. But he may get a question on the topic. He should not allow himself to be drawn, but rather respond simply: “Well, on that your government has made itself clear and I have made our government’s position absolutely clear: namely, the absolute inadmissibility of force or threats of force. I think we understand one another.” He might add: “I think all of us Americans admire tremendously the way those people have turned a dictatorship into a democracy.”]

Arthur Waldron is Lauder Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania.