Sunday, June 18, 2006

Graduation Day!

The Chautauqua Program on China's New Security Perspectives is now done, and I have a nice certificate (suitable for framing) to prove it. We ended on a high note -- an incredible banquet. The food just kept coming, seemingly endlessly. I was chosen among the group to try my hand at the noodle dance, which is just a fancy, showy way of twisting and twirling the dough for the noodles that are a staple of Beijing diets. There are allegedly pictures of me doing so, with the noodles sprawled all over my head, but I can neither confirm nor deny their existence. The company was wonderful the food plentiful, the wine and drinkable yogurt endless. We heard jokes in Chinese, and our learning process continued, at least for those of us new to China.

The group was split between experienced China hands, people who had travelled here before but are not experts, and guys like me with a peripheral interest based in international relations, other regional experience, or as in my case, comparative historical and policy interests. There were lots of very sharp folks, several among us were fluent in Chinese. My own vocabulary has somewhat stagnated, though I am here for another four days or so and plan to continue to work to be able to, oh, say "good bye" as well as "hello," or to order Sprite as well as Coke.

Suffice it to say that in one week of intense work plus deep cultural immersion, I learned a great deal about China, though I have barely scratched the surface of even gradual knowledge of the area. A few issues clearly stand out, however:

China values national sovereignty above all other issues, at least rhetorically, and this stance informs everything they do with regard to foreign policy. This view informs what appears to me to be a mistrust of American intentions. It explains why China is not more forceful with regards to North Korea. It provides a fig leaf for China's noxious policies in relation to the Sudan (on which I plan to write much more in the future). It even serves to explain the one policy that was on everyone's lips as hands down the most important issue for everyone we spoke to here -- high level military officials, diplomats, politicians, professors, students, and taxi drivers all see the issue of Taiwan as the most significant one that China faces both on its own and vis-a-vis the United States. From an American vantage point, this stance seems contradictory -- after all, how can China preach national sovereignty yet maintain its stance regarding Taiwan? But the answer is simple -- they see Taiwan as an internal matter because they do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. I do not defend this stance. I was not "spun" over the course of the last week. But it is clear that this is China's stance, and understanding this is a key to understanding China's take on its own nationalism and our foreign policy toward them.

I honestly still cannot get my brain around the primacy this issue plays given that so many other issues are, from a geopolitical framework, so much more significant. To give just one example, China's truculent neighbor, North Korea, is of far more significance. Chinese relations with its western neighbors surely have more power to disrupt international relations than should the Taiwan issue. But here is what I perceive to be key -- with the exception, perhaps, of Taiwan's rather difficult current leadership, everyone else involved would probably be happy to maintain a vague and unresolved status quo whereby the Chinese keeps the military out, the United States does not agitate for taiwan's separate and democratic status, and taiwan maintain its place as a more autonomous version of Hong Kong. Who knows if such a situation could hold, but I get the sense that neither side among the superpowers has any interest in rocking the boat to find out if the Taiwan issue has gills.

So, does China pose a threat? This question is at the heart of the debate among Sinologists these days, so I will not presume to interject in that debate in any meaningful way, and certainly I carry almost zero authority on the question. But I perceive that this question has multiple dimensions.

From a lip service vantage point, everyone here acknowledges a disparity between the US and China that they expect to last for a long time. The Chinese leaders with whom we spoke were clear to maintain that the country has almost no wish to be a military threat to the United States. But underneath even that humility was a hint that China is trying to grow its capacity even while understating its intentions. Nonetheless, among the speakers I found most open and trustworthy (and there were several of whom I thought the opposite), I got no sense of a Chinese dragon seeking to strike. But there is more than the military to consider.

From a framework of international relations, the reality is that China has the capacity to be both friend and foe depending upon the interests at stake. Given their position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and their differing take on the utility and desirability of the use of force, it seems to me that we will sometimes find ourselves at loggerheads with China in the global arena. But I have to think that unlike during the Cold War, when opposition between the US and USSR was almost reflexive, the US and China do not always have to be on opposiing sides and that there is much about which we can find agreement. It was instuctive to see how from a rhetorical standpoint, the word we heard most often this week was "friends": "American friends," foreign friends," "professor friends." At least at a base level there need be no Axis of Evil/Evil Empire/"We will bury you" verbiage spewing from the lips of our leaders.

In the economic arena things are interesting, because China plays a role of both partner and competitor. On the surface China has fully embraced liberal capitalism, but beneath that surface roils a state still very much tied into controlling the economy, to making sure that whatever changes occur do not alter the fundamental nature of the state. China has adopted some of the accoutrements of capitalism. It has done little to adopt a similar puruit of openness in other arenas, and even most of the economy does not function as a free and open market unfettered by state control. Some experts predict that by 2020 China will be either the second or first largest economy in the world. Predicting that China will surpass the United States seems to imply a simple take on economic strength that is mechanistically linked sheerly to population numbers. It also seesm to underestimate the poitential force of economic nature that coiuld be India. But the larger point is that China will in fact become an increasingly vital player in world economic circles. Buzzwords of "growth" and "development" and "markets" and "prosperity" flow ubiquitously, like a faucet left on in an overlooked side street. It seems logical that it is in the realm of global economics that China will pose both the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge.

One final realm in which I am not so guarded or unsure is that this will continue for a long time to be a country in which human rights, internally and abroad, will be given lower status than they warrant. I have learned a great deal this week --among even hawkish American colleagues who are experts, for example, I learned that what happened on 4 June 1989 has been turned into a simplistic morality tale that elides some vitally important issues, discrepancies, and outright failings on the part of the student movement. But even if we grant that the rest of the world oftentimes misunderstands China, the fact remains that the current regime, like those that came before it and almost assuredly like those to follow in the near and distant future, simply places a diminished value on rights that we in the west hold, and that I maintain are fundamental. To put it bluntly, the Chinese simply seem not to care that their policies in the Sudan buttress genocide. Since they do not value free speech, they are willing to imprison journalists, to crush dissenters, to beat and torture critics. They are willing to shroud Mao in a gauzy hagiography because his cruel ideology of murder and violence does not possess the same capacity to outrage as it does elsewhere. Too many people here, leaders and otherwise, simply do not believe that means matter as much as ends, and do not think that individual rights and liberties are significant compared to a sort of forced social cohesion.

These are tentative conclusions drawn from just a week or so of first-hand observation, moderately privileged access (we were told that we were the first group of Americans to be allowed access to the Foreign Ministry the other day; most of what we saw and heard was anodyne, useless, and strictly within the realm of propotcol; I also do not believe that we were the first such group for even a moment, though if we really were, I guess that is a sign of something -- I suppose both of just how closed the Chinese past is and how progress is coming, but very slowly), a lot of reading, and in my case, the luck of having made friends with some of the more astute and experienced China observers in the group.

I've somewhat made the transition from observer, scholar, writer, and intellectual to camera-toting tourist. Yesterday I went with a couple of my new friends (probably the two best, most experienced, cleverest experts among our group) to the spectacular Summer Palace on a hot, steamy, but clear day (this latter condition is rare enough that both Kaz and Dex made mention of it several times) followed by a trip to one of the more boistrous of the hutong for dinner and beers and talk and more cultural exposure (I can now confirm that while there has been a crack down, one can, if so inclined, buy hundreds of movies on dvd for less than a dollar apiece, though quality is apparently an issue and buying them thus a crapshoot). Today the three of us had a brunchy-meal, before which we gave in to the relentless bootleg sellers of Beijing 2008 Olympic stuff (somewhat shoddy, but one cannot beat the price), and then headed off to the Kingdom of Heaven. Dex left partway through to catch his plane back to Rhode Island. For tonight I have been invited to a barbecue with Kaz and some of her friends (I may be lost once she leaves tomorrow morning!), which should be interesting. Tomorrow I'll be trekking some distance to see the Great Wall. Tuesday I hope to go to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Then on Wednesday I fly out to Hong Kong and about 12 hours later, to Johannesburg and the next phase of this extended adventure.

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