Archive for the ‘Human Rights’ category


March 8, 2010

We’ve got increasing US-China friction on a number of issues.  Observers have offered some pretty simple explanations for this situation, e.g. “the Obama Administration has been too soft on China so they feel they can push us around” or “China holds so much US debt that they have leverage to push us around”, etc.

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”.  Chinese government behavior (like our own) is driven by a complex set of factors (with domestic considerations by far the most influential).  The following is a partial list of the factors as I see them:

  • Continued sensitivity about being bullied or dominated by foreigners, growing out of China’s experience in the period 1840 – 1949 (sentiments kept fresh by the Chinese educational system and media).
  • (Overconfidence) (Justifiable pride) from success in managing the domestic economy in face of global economic crisis, which has (incorrectly in my view) discredited the US model of growth in the eyes of some Chinese.
  • Leadership insecurity at home driven by Tibet, Xinjiang, and increasing protests over economic and social issues, leading to a stronger voice by security and propaganda officials, who tend to be more suspicious of foreign companies/governments than the average Chinese official.
  • Jockeying before unusually large leadership change in 2012 (Party Chairman, Premier, and most of the Politburo Standing Committee turning over); at a time like this hopefuls for senior positions want to look tough on domestic and foreign issues.
  • Success of foreign companies in the China market since China’s WTO accession in 2001 that has created a backlash (think:  US in the 1980s (yikes, Japan is buying Rockefeller Center!))
  • Impact of internet opinion, which by all accounts Chinese leaders regularly view and take seriously and which in turn tend to be dominated by a nationalistic tone (younger people use the internet more and they tend to be more nationalistic).

Ok, so what to do about this?  Complex issues do not have simple solutions.  There is no magic bullet, but there are important steps we can take.  The subject of a future post.



March 7, 2010

In a previous post I have railed against some pretty poor analysis in the NYT.  However, it is a great newspaper and can produce great reporting.  An example is a lengthy piece in the Sunday Magazine today, titled, “China’s Cyber Posse”  (link here:  NYT)

What’s great about the article is first, that it covers a fascinating topic (the efforts by netizens in China to track down and humiliate people who have for one reason or another incited public scorn).  But second, unlike much reporting on China, this article manages to convey the full complexity of the issue.  Yes, the Chinese “human flesh search engines” are a way for Chinese people to seek justice against some (e.g., corrupt local officials) in a society where a fair and effective justice system is still very much of a work in progress.  At the same time, it is frightening example of unrestrained vigilantism which can be directed at people whose only transgression is being seen by the mob as “unpatriotic” or who are mistakenly believed to have committed a crime.

Read the article.

Obama Shanghai Town Hall: Mission Accomplished

November 16, 2009

I stayed up way past my bedtime last night to watch the live feed (via White House website) of the President’s town hall meeting with students in Shanghai.  I took a particular interest in this event because while serving as Consul General in Shanghai I frequently visited college campuses and engaged in similar exchanges.  the format  (minus any press interest) was similar; I’d start with 20 minutes or so of views on US-China relations (including whatever topic was hot at the time) and then open the floor to questions.  Based on those experiences here are my reactions to yesterday’s event:

1)  The students were more polite to the President than they were to me.  This is no surprise.  I am certain the participants yesterday had been warned to maintain a respectful and polite attitude and to stay away from inflammatory questions.  This reflects more than anything the sense that China would be judged around the world by the demeanor of the students at this globally aired event.  To try to embarrass the President of the US or put him on the spot would be considered poor manners and would reflect badly on China.  So the questions for the President were pretty soft, though the clever students did manage to get in a question re US policy toward Taiwan (couched as a question from a Taiwan netizen); one about US aggressiveness around the world (couched as a question contrasting China’s drive for a “harmonious society” with US greater comfort with “diversity”); and one on internet freedom (again, a question from a netizen, relayed by a student in the room).

In contrast, I found in discussions with Chinese students that given the chance without the glare of cameras they could be very pointed, posing questions such as: Wasn’t it US policies in the Middle East that brought about the 9/11 attacks?  Why does the US see itself as the policeman of the world?  (in the aftermath of the EP-3 incident) Why does the US spy on China; isn’t it true the US wants to contain and weaken China? Why is the US so protectionist and why does it impose so many anti-dumping penalties on Chinese products?

As noted above, no surprise that in a very public forum Chinese students stayed away from very direct questioning.  That said, the students in the room were among the best and brightest in the country and I was impressed (again, as noted above) in the way that they managed to gently slide in questions on controversial topics.

2)  I thought the President did a great job, especially on the human rights and information freedom issues (take that NYT!).  He clearly intended to show the audience back home that he would not shy away from raising these tough issues.  However, he did so in the most effective way possible, which can be summarized as follows:  “Here is the way we in the US think about [human rights] [treatment of minorities] [internet freedom]; we are not perfect but we think our values in these areas have been central to our success as a nation; we are not out to force our views on other countries, but we do think that basic principles of freedom and human rights apply everywhere and we will continue to speak out in support of that view.”  In other words, his responses did not contain a direct rebuke to China but rather conveyed a humble expression of why we think our values/system is good for us and why we think these basic principles are universal.

3) Tiny nitpick of interest:  in responding to the question re Taiwan the President repeated our commitment to a one China policy and the Three Communiques.  Readers who know the intricacies of US policy on this issue will note that he did not refer to the Taiwan Relations Act, which is usually part of the mantra by USG officials when they mention the Three Communiques.  I took this not to be some intentional signal but rather a function of information overload for the President.  As insiders know, the language the USG uses on the Taiwan issue is exceptionally complex and nuanced.  In fact, the President clearly stumbled a bit when at one point he referred to Taiwan and then started to say “… and the rest of China”, but unsure if that was the right formulation, caught himself and said “…and the People’s Republic”.  So to me, he had done a great job of absorbing the sensitivity attached to the language surrounding Taiwan and dropping the TRA reference was, I think, not a signal but a sign of the limits of even his prodigious capacity to master complex issues in very short time spans.

The bottom line:  my goal in talking with students was not to enter into a debate nor win them over to my point of view.  Rather, it was to show them that the US government had a thoughtful, basically friendly approach to China, even if we did not agree on all issues.  I think the President conveyed very much the same message yesterday.

Obama Visit to China: Analysis too Awful to Ignore

November 15, 2009

I’ve been away from this blog for a long time, but every now and then something outrageous enough surfaces to drive me back:

One of the great pleasures of my younger days was sitting on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, sipping from a container of Tropicana orange juice while nibbling on a fresh pastry and taking a leisurely read through the Sunday New York Times.  I note this to emphasize that I am a huge fan of the NYT.  It is in fact the first thing I read each morning (though online now).  But that is why a particularly shallow and sensationalized article from that source is so upsetting.

Headline of the article (on the first page of the paper’s online edition) reads:  “China’s Role as Lender Alters Dynamics for Obama’s Visit” and here’s the link: article.

The gist of the piece can be summarized as:  The US owes China a lot of money so, unlike his predecessors, Obama is afraid to criticize China too much on his visit there.  Some samples from the article:

“… unlike his immediate predecessors, who publicly pushed and prodded China to follow the Western model and become more open politically and economically, Mr. Obama will be spending less time exhorting Beijing and more time reassuring it.

…It is a long way from the days when President George W. Bush hectored China about currency manipulation, or when President Bill Clinton exhorted the Chinese to improve human rights.

Mr. Obama has struck a mollifying note with China. He pointedly singled out the emerging dynamic at play between the United States and China during a wide-ranging speech in Tokyo on Saturday that was meant to outline a new American relationship with Asia.

“The United States does not seek to contain China,” Mr. Obama said. “On the contrary, the rise of a strong, prosperous China can be a source of strength for the community of nations.”

He alluded to human rights but did not get specific. ‘We will not agree on every issue,’ he said, ‘and the United States will never waver in speaking up for the fundamental values that we hold dear — and that includes respect for the religion and cultures of all people.’”

What a crock.  It is really disturbing to see such a total lack of understanding of US-China dynamics from such a distinguished source.

Here’s the way to think about the way the Administration is approaching US-China relations, including the President’s visit:

1)   Important countries get treated differently from less important countries, always.  Since Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the US has treated China more carefully than Liberia.  For that matter, Liberia treats the US more carefully than Peru.  And Russia treats Japan more carefully than Chile.  All administrations from Nixon on, have maintained a delicate balancing act of seeking to promote a wide range of evolving US interests with China, including security, trade, and human rights.  Some administrations have pushed on a particular area more publicly at one time and others have pushed on other areas at other times.  This administration is no different in this regard.

2)   The money the US owes China is just not a factor in the overall mix of policy considerations shaping this (or the previous) administration’s approach.  Yes (as noted in the NYT piece), the Chinese now ask more questions about the health of the US economy.  But this reflects their increasing sense of vulnerability about their exposure to the US economy.  One could just as well write an article saying that the Chinese leaders will be especially nice to Obama because they want to encourage him to take policies to keep the US economy strong and protect the value of China’s large US debt holdings.  It is pure nonsense to suggest Obama will pull his punches on human rights or other issues because China holds lots of US treasury bonds.  The US wants to get the US economy back on track and wants China to maintain strong economic growth while shifting to more reliance on domestic consumption.  The Chinese government, and the rest of the world, want, and need, the same thing.  There may be differences at the margins on particular policy steps, but there is no “leverage” here that either side has on the other.

3)   Though the fundamental US approach to China has not changed in 37 years (i.e., an effort to pursue a complex and changing set of US interests, each has brought its own style and areas of emphasis, in part depending on external developments (think: mutual fear over the Soviet intentions, Tiananmen, the collapse of the Soviet Union, etc.).  This administration clearly believes it is now critical to deepen cooperation with China in preventing global catastrophes, especially those dealing with:  the global economy; climate change; the spread of weapons of mass destruction; North Korea and Iran; and pandemics.  The process of deepened cooperation on global issues began in the Bush Administration with regard to the economic crisis, but the current administration is clearly seeking to broaden and deepen this kind of engagement.  In doing so, it is the case that more activities and public pronouncements on China will center around these global issues rather than others in the relationship.  I suppose one could say that in this sense the Administration is giving less public attention to human rights in China, but this is not the same thing as suggesting that the administration is treading lightly in this area because the US owes China a lot of money, as the NYT suggests.

4)   And last but not least:  Those who slam the administration for allegedly being afraid to press China on human rights have some serious explaining to do.  If the policy of publicly hectoring China on human rights was so successful in the past, why are we all still so concerned about the human rights situation there?  Where are the big achievements from that approach?  If the tough approach is the key, why did Bill Clinton (cited as a role model in the NYT piece) back down, with egg on his face, from his linkage of human rights to trade in the early part of his administration?  The point is that this administration’s enhanced cooperation with China on key global issues coupled with a less public approach on human rights stands at least as good a chance of achieving results as the in-your-face approach to this issue that some urge.  I believe progress on human rights in China will take decades and that those improvements will come as the result of changing priorities by the people of China.  Respectful exchanges of ideas with government and non-government actors in the US will play a role in this process.  Public hectoring adds little to the mix.  In any event, that fact that the current administration has shifted from a more public, critical approach on human rights to one emphasizing broad cooperation between our countries and quiet discussion of human rights, does not mean they are abandoning the search for progress in this area.

So, with much sadness, I can only report that this NYT article reaches a new (recent) low in China analysis from the news publication I admire most.  Let’s hope things improve soon.

Remembering, but Moving On

May 30, 2009

I did a post the other day (“Where Were You?”) with the story of where I was on June 4, 1989.  I want here to offer my thoughts on the events of that day and their meaning today.  As usual, I write from the perspective of someone who spent most of the last 25 years working to promote the broad range of US interests in our relationship with China.

The best word to describe the events of June 4th (and 5th) 1989 in Beijing is “tragedy”.  I don’t have much of a background in the classics, but I use that word in what I understand to be a sort of Aristotelian sense, i.e., a chain of events driven by mistakes or misunderstanding to a terrible outcome.

I have not yet read the newly released commentary on these events by former Premier Zhao Ziyang.  However one review I read noted that it is consistent with the picture provided in “The Tianamen Papers”, which I have read.  As I read through that book I had the vision of two trains racing at each other on the same track toward a horrible outcome.  The protesters – brought together by youthful idealism fed with a mix of economic and political concerns – were an unruly group not amenable to direction from their leaders.  China’s national leaders were operating in a bubble and ill-equipped to deal with the upheaval.  But I don’t believe they wanted or were pleased with the violent outcome of events.

The decision to restore order to the capital was reasonable.  But the nature of the political system and the inappropriate tools at hand (heavily armed combat troops rather than riot police with tear gas and rubber bullets) led to the events that are all too well known.  I believe it is important for us to remember those events and draw appropriate lessons drawn from them.

However, China’s political and economic circumstances, and its place in the world, have evolved rapidly since 1989.  Our challenge is to give due recognition to the events of June 4, 1989 while not allowing them to serve as the touchstone for understanding China today.

I have felt for many years that the shadow of Tiananmen has exerted too heavy an influence on how some Americans – especially in our legislative branch – view China.  As US Consul General in Shanghai from 1999 to 2002 I was impressed with (depressed by?) the number of Americans – including official visitors – who arrived in Shanghai and were astounded to find how far the reality of China differed from their preconceived notions of this “totalitarian state”.

Twenty years after Tiananmen I believe that finally we are putting those events, and the current human rights issues that do exist in China, into a more proper perspective.  In other posts on this blog I have offered my praise for the Obama Administration’s approach on these issues.  And even more recently, I noted that Speaker Pelosi too, long one of the most outspoken voices seeking to keep human rights central to the US-China relationship, has moved beyond that approach.

I know that some in the human rights community view this effort to more appropriately reflect the place of human rights in our bilateral relationship as a retreat from principle or a sell out of some kind.  To me, it represents the right approach by the people who ultimately bear the responsibility for working with this dynamic and complex country to advance a broad set of US interests.  And it is about time.

Where Were You?

May 28, 2009

All China hands of a certain age recall with perfect clarity where they were on June 4, 1989, especially as we approach the 20th anniversary of those events.  The following is my brief anecdote on this subject:

I spent the period July 1988 to July 1989 on a State Department professional development program on loan to GE, based at the company’s (then) Asia headquarters in HK.  One of my projects was the planning and implementation of a weeklong trip to China for a group of young, “fast-track” GE execs.  The group was participating in a three-month training program at GE’s management school aimed at giving them an understanding of global business.  The China part of the program I had put together kicked off on June 1, 1989 with a couple of days of briefings in HK.

On June 4th I was with the group in Guangzhou, our first stop on the mainland before our planned travel to Beijing.  We had a lunch hosted by local officials and business people in a private dining room at a hotel, as previously planned.  The hosts had a TV brought into the room.  They kept it on through the meal, thoughtfully switching back and forth between the Chinese and English language HK TV stations (which were accessible in Guangzhou) so they and our group could follow the continuing unfolding of the unbelievable events up north.  It was a surreal experience to say the least.

Sitting at that meal we were able to get the fresh and uncensored reactions of our Chinese hosts.  They left a deep impression.  Their attitude is best summarized as: “ALL those people in Beijing – officials and students – are crazy.  We just hope they leave us alone so we can continue to make money down here”.

I would guess that as the days and weeks went by our Chinese hosts formed more developed views on the righteousness or stupidity of the student and the government actions.  And I’d guess that more than a few had friends, colleagues, or relatives in Beijing whose experiences brought the events home to them in a very personal way.  However, I was struck at the time by the way our hosts local identity (Guangdong, southern China) trumped their national identity and how clear they were about their priorities (commercial activity).

Some things never change.

The Balance has Shifted

May 26, 2009

For any who may have missed it, Speaker Pelosi has come and gone from China (one among many summary articles; this one from AP via Yahoo News:;_ylc=X3oDMTB0cHRwdmExBF9TAzIxNTExMDUEZW1haWxJZAMxMjQzMzMwNzUx) .

The big news:  she kept her focus on the climate change and energy issues that had been bruited as the focus of the trip.  That is to say, she did not publicly raise human rights in any significant way, and this virtually on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen.


Since 1989 Speaker Pelosi has been among the leaders of those in the Congress who have wanted to elevate human rights issues above all other issues in our relationship with China.  In addition to visiting China in 1991 and unfurling a banner in Tiananmen Square, she has made human rights the focus of virtually all her major public statements on China and generally sought to keep this contentious issue front and center in bilateral relations.  On a practical level, she has been among those who have helped ensure that only limited USG cooperation funds could be used for programs with China.  Clearly, her approach has changed dramatically now (and for the better; I don’t know if she raised human rights privately with Chinese officials (my guess is she did), but that is certainly more effective than banners in Tiananmen Square).

But I will go out on a limb and say that the real big deal here is that, 20 years after Tiananmen, US priorities with regard to China have finally and definitively (and appropriately) been reset.  When Hillary Clinton laid out Administration priorities on her first trip to Beijing (cooperation on the economic crisis and climate change/energy) it was not clear that human rights hawks in Congress, esp. Speaker Pelosi, were on board.  We can now be certain she is.

To be clear:  I don’t think Speaker Pelosi (nor the Administration) is swearing off raising human rights issues with Chinese counterparts (nor should they).  Secretary Clinton made that clear in her comments in Beijing and subsequently.  But it makes a difference how you raise such issues (privately is much more effective than publicly) and the context within which you do so (ie, making clear that cooperation on critical global challenges is the centerpiece of the relationship).

However, the balance in the US regarding our approach on human rights has shifted.  With the Speaker of the House of Representatives/one of the leaders on human rights issues with China having recalibrated her approach, I predict that (barring another “Tiananmen-type” incident in China) human rights for the rest of this administration, and beyond, will revert to its appropriate place in the overall bilateral relationship (think about where it was when Nixon pursued his opening to China or when Ronald Reagan authorized the sale of weapons to the PLA).  And it’s about time.

Finally, I’d note that while not intended as a tit-for-tat by the Administration or Speaker Pelosi I would think, the Chinese government will attach importance to this change in approach.  For this reason I believe that, in addition to making our human rights efforts more effective, this recalibration of our approach will also create a better environment for tackling issues of common concern, be it climate change or North Korea.  An added bonus.