Obama’s Bad Bargain with Beijing

As the echoes of China’s spectacular military parade on October 1 were subsiding, officials in the Obama administration, in quieter settings in Washington, D.C., were telling representatives of the Dalai Lama that the president was not going to meet with him. This would mark the first time since 1991 that the Dalai Lama was invited to Washington—he was here to receive a human rights award from the U.S. Congress—without at least some visit, however short and informal, with the president. It also goes against Obama’s own pledge to the Tibetan leader during his 2008 campaign to “continue to support you and the rights of the Tibetans.”

In The Washington Post, John Pomfret reported that the decision “appears to be part of a strategy to improve ties with China that also includes soft-pedaling criticism of China’s human rights.” (Administration officials had said it would be better to postpone the meeting with the Dalai Lama until after the president’s trip to Beijing in November to meet Chinese Premier Hu Jintao.)

Indeed, Hillary Clinton, on her first trip to Beijing as U.S. Secretary of State in February this year, stated explicitly that human rights must not “interfere with the global economic crisis…and the security crises.” This contrasts sharply with what she told Russian students just a few days ago, on October 14, in an address at Moscow State University In Russia, she said, “people must … know they are safe to challenge abuses of authority. That’s why attacks on journalists and human rights defenders here in Russia is such a great concern: because it is a threat to progress.”

Why the “great concern” for this issue in Russia, but not in China or Tibet?

U.S. government strategy in China has long been based on a notion of good-faith barter: we concede X to you, and you help us with Y. But the record of relations between the two governments, ever since the early 1970s when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger re-established ties, shows that the barter strategy does not work. In June 1989, when people throughout the world were seething in anger about the Chinese regime’s massacre of protesters in Beijing, a main argument of the George H.W. Bush administration for sending envoys to meet with Beijing officials to reassure them of underlying “friendship,” was that the U.S. needed China’s help on issues like nuclear weapons in North Korea. Today, twenty years later, the North Korean nuclear problem is only worse, and we are still granting concessions to Beijing. That China appears to be able to help has had lasting benefits for China’s rulers. But so has the North Korean problem itself: if it were actually solved, China would lose some of its leverage over the U.S.

The essence of “barter” is the notion that one side gives to the other something that it otherwise would not have given. China’s rulers do not barter in this sense. They can agree to join George W. Bush’s “war on terror” but then use the consensus to call for Bush’s support as they repress their own “terrorist” Uighurs. On the other major issues between the two governments—Iran, Taiwan, currency rates, trade—one looks in vain for anything that unilateral concessions on the part of the U.S. have achieved. (Over the past few months, as much of the world has been condemning Iran’s fraudulent elections and fretting about its nuclear ambitions, China has invested tens of billions of dollars in Iran’s oil industry.)

This pattern in fact dates from the origins of U.S.-PRC relations. In 1971 the U.S. was stuck in Vietnam and fearful of Moscow. Nixon and Kissinger saw Mao as a source for help with both problems. Nixon traveled to Beijing (giving Mao great face; in Chinese culture, the one who travels has lower status) while Kissinger handed out concessions on Taiwan. This earned, in response, no concrete help from Mao in dealing with either Moscow or Hanoi.

In 1967, when I was fresh from college and living in Hong Kong, a Chinese journalist who had fled Mao’s Cultural Revolution told me, “You foreigners interpret what Beijing says as if it were a government; you would do better to think of it as a person.” I pressed him: “A person?” “Yes,” he said, “a small-minded person who watches closely.”

There is wisdom in that comment, and I thought of it again when I learned a few days ago that a well-known Chinese dissident, who is on a year-long fellowship overseas, has decided suddenly to rush home to China. Why? Because of news reports that another Chinese writer, Li Jianhong, a member of Independent Chinese PEN, was barred on October 15 from entering China on returning home from Sweden.

The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights prohibits member nations from denying entry to their own citizens, and China of course is a leading member of the United Nations. But no matter. Chinese who are critical of their government have long grown accustomed to the regime’s use of the national border as a thought-test. You criticize us? All right, if you are inside the country, we might not let you out. If you are outside the country, we might not let you in.

My friend, the well-known dissident, thought about this and decided to rush home. He had recently made some frank statements overseas, feared that they had been noticed, and, if he was going to be trapped, would rather be trapped inside China than outside. He hoped, although it was only a hope, that his chances would be better before Obama’s visit in November. “Is he dealing with a government,” I thought to myself, “or a small-minded person?”

In any case, that government, or small-minded person, or whatever it is, is now America’s largest creditor and has, as Henry Kissinger wrote recently in the International Herald Tribune, “a degree of economic leverage unprecedented in the American experience.” For Kissinger this is one of several reasons why the U.S. and Chinese elites should “make common cause.”

A better way out would be for U.S. officials to speak more often as Clinton did in Moscow—that is, at least part of the time, past China’s rulers and to the vast and dynamic society of which the rulers claim, jealously but implausibly, to be the sole representatives. On her trip in February Clinton spoke of “the human rights issue” as if it were only a humanitarian matter about a list of jailed dissidents—and not, as in fact it is, a systemic issue that affects the nature of China and that can have huge consequences both inside China and abroad.