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With Friends Like These

How not to gain China’s respect.

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By ROSS TERRILL
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Individuals, too, can find China asks more of a friend than of a skeptic. Back in the early 1970s, as the author of 800,000,000: The Real China, I was assumed by Beijing to be a friend. Expectations grew that I would agree with all of China’s positions. This did not occur. When Deng Xiaoping was purged in April 1976 and I said the charges against him were ridiculous, a senior Chinese diplomat in Washington retorted, “If you don’t understand Deng is a counterrevolutionary, you don’t understand anything about China!” Yet this stain did not reduce my access to China (and the Chinese diplomat, after Mao’s death, became Deng’s ambassador to the United Kingdom). Today, I agree with Beijing on some issues and sharply disagree on others. It makes for a more stable relationship than being a friend.

Obama may be in danger of experiencing bite-your-friend. He announced early in his presidency a shriveled notion of American exceptionalism (“I believe in American exceptionalism just as I suspect  … Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism”). Fine for a law school seminar, but self-effacing from the sole superpower. Obama also promulgated the idea that if big powers behave well, rogue states will be inspired to behave well too. This view—decidedly not Beijing’s—looks like a dove’s flight into the dark. To say the least, Sudan, Iran, Burma, and North Korea have been slow to get Obama’s message.

Still genial on his visit to China in November, Obama met no dissidents, did not insist on taking questions at the Obama-Hu press conference, allowed the joint U.S.-China statement to pontificate about India and South Asia, and did not attend church. Asking little from Hu Jintao, he apparently got nothing. The next month in Copenhagen, Obama drank as he had brewed in Beijing. Premier Wen Jiabao, a man normally as polite as Obama, was tough with him, some say rude to him. The media didn’t even notice that Hu Jintao, who is Obama’s counterpart, did not turn up in Denmark, but sent Wen, his number two.

Since then we’ve had the Google shock and Secretary Clinton’s clumsy effort to define Internet freedom, American businessmen facing new barriers in China, a war of words over U.S arms sales to Taiwan, and zero results from any pressure from Obama on Beijing over egregious human rights violations.

With China, stating where you stand is more productive than trying to please. Long ago, a British diplomatic specialist on Asia, Ernest Satow, told young recruits going to East Asia for the first time: “Do not waste your time worrying about what is in the Asian mind. The main thing is to be clear what is in your own mind.” In this respect Nixon and Kissinger and Haig, devising the U.S. opening to China in 1971-72, were correct (and ahead of Congress, the Democratic party, and the media). They knew what they sought.

Obama seems content to preside at the table of world politics, listen to all, and pluck harmony (he hopes) from a cacophony of voices. China, though authoritarian, is realist, distant from Obama’s idealism. Whether Obama is right or wrong in his noble aims, the philosophic gap exists. The Chinese party-state has not lost its talent for probing a soft underbelly to its own advantage.

Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, is the author of The New Chinese Empire and several books published in Chinese in the PRC.

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