It’s probably fair to say that the relationship between Obama and Zhongnanhai has gotten off to an uneven start. On one hand, we have presidential hatchet man treasury secretary Timothy Geithner’s provocative comments on revaluation of the yuan (can I say again, as somebody who gets paid in US dollars, easy does it boys), on the other is word that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will break with tradition and visit Asia (including China) on her first trip overseas as America’s top diplomatic official.
Closer to home, as the US financial crisis washes up on Chinese shores, folks in the PRC are dealing with the fallout in different ways, some through forced optimism and wishful thinking, others finding the best medicine in gentle barbs and jokes.
Moreover, after eight years of watching George W. Bush making a hash of democracy and America’s image abroad, President Obama, right out of the box, now presents an interesting and complex set of challenges for the world’s despots. It is no secret that the Chinese leadership would have preferred four more years of George W. and for all the wrong reasons.
But rapprochement is a dish best served warm, and David Bandurski has collected and translated a couple of fascinating recent essays, part of a series spinning about on email and the internet of late: one from Chinese general Li Yazhou (刘亚洲) and the other from poet and writer Liu Shahe (流沙河). I encourage everybody to visit David’s site for the full texts and relevant links, but I thought I might excerpt a couple of paragraphs I found particularly compelling.
The first from General Li is on the topic of “What makes America Scary”:
But the more you talk about it, what is it exactly that makes America so scary?
Personally, I think there are three things. First of all, America’s meritocratic system cannot be underestimated. Its leadership system, and its mechanisms of competitive election, are sufficient to ensure that policy makers come from the intellectual elite. The tragedy of China is that from the heights of the state to the lows of the individual work unit, in the vast majority of cases, those with ideas do not make decisions and those who make decisions have no ideas. If you have a decent head on your shoulders there is no place at the table for you. In America it is exactly the opposite — a pyramid structure sends the intellectual elite to the top.
And so, in the first place, Americans don’t make mistakes; second, they make few mistakes; and third, when they do make mistakes they can correct these quickly. [In China] we make mistakes in the first place; second, we make mistakes often; and third, when we make mistakes it is almost impossible to correct them. Using just one tiny little Taiwan, America has managed to hold China down for half a century . . . One Taiwan has transformed the climate of international politics in East Asia.
It goes on from there and is worth a read in its entirety.
The second, by Liu Shahe, comes a bit closer to the purview of this blog. In it, he discusses the American involvement in the invasion against the Boxers in 1900. While the US role in the foreign imperialism of the 19th and 20th century in China is deplorable, and likely unforgiveable, Liu reminds us that it might be instructive to differentiate the actions of the Eight Allied Powers in the aftermath of the invasion and the Boxer Protocol.
My second story is also something I saw with my very own eyes. I want to tell everyone: Americans are our best friends. China’s greatest friends in the whole world are Americans. The year after the eight armies entered Beijing in 1900 [during the Boxer Rebellion], when eight nations received Boxer indemnities (庚子赔款), there was only one country that did not use this money for its own ends, and that was America. Later, through various channels, the money was given back. One of these channels was the Boxer Indemnity Overseas Study Program (庚款留学生). Another was the subsidizing of our universities. I want to let all of you know that during the war of resistance [against Japan] there was in Shanxi a so-called “Mingxian Academy” (铭贤学院) that was established in my neck of the woods. The school was connected to America’s Oberlin College, and Oberlin had a “Shanxi Fund” that was established by the U.S. government using Boxer Indemnities. The “Shanxi Fund” monies were used to support the Mingxian Academy, and this was the case from its founding in the 1930s onwards.
I think we’re in for a rocky few months as the Obama administration finds itself between a Democratically-controlled congress who is no friend of China’s and a Chinese regime with little patience for on-the-job training in the field of presidential diplomacy. But it’s also good to remember that not all Chinese voices are fenqing, not all American voices are Neo-Cons, and that dialogue can happen when the ideologues and extremists tone down their blather and let the grown-ups do the talking.