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Freeman in Context on China, Tienanmen

5:48 PM, Mar 5, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Another note from Freeman to the China Security Listserv, this one giving greater detail of his views on the threat posed by China and Beijing's brutal response to the protests at Tienanmen Square. Note in particular paragraph (2) -- which makes clear that the previous Tienanmen e-mail wasn't "taken out of context" or a one-off. Overall the e-mail revelas the temperament of an advocate, not an analyst. Can someone who has made up his mind that Chinese power is benign be trusted with intelligence estimates of Chinese military power? Also note the moral equivalence of Freeman's comparison of the U.S. intervention in Grenada, Libya, and Panama with what the Chinese did in Vietnam. And finally, note the use of quotes around "unarmed students" in the discussion of Tienanmen Square. Whatever weapon Freeman believes Tank Man was carrying, it certainly wasn't apparent to the untrained eye.

If there ever was a realist with tin ear, Chas Freeman is the very paragon.

From: ""
To: China Security Listserv
Cc: [redacted]
Sent: Saturday, September 10, 2005 11:55:11 PM
Subject: Re: "Fallon dismissed assertions that the United States was trying to contain...

Of course, the US should maintain the capacity to intervene in the Western Pacific, not just with respect to the Taiwan issue but with respect to Indonesia-Australia and other potential conflicts involving our interests as well. Do you know anyone who advocates not doing so? With our defense spending now over half that in the world, it is, in any event, pretty hard to generate a lot of worry about our capabilities in this regard.

I have, until recently, been among those most outspoken in tolling the warning bell about the possibility of Sino-American conflict over Taiwan. All signs seemed to me to point toward a Chinese decision, faute de mieux, to use force to resolve the issue when the prospects of success seemed good and Taiwan and the US had been lulled into a mood that would facilitate surprise. More recently, I have noted a conclusion by the Chinese leadership that the use of force will not be necessary. I think that is a credible judgment on their part and that armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait is therefore now less likely than in the past and, given sensible policies on our part and some measure of self restraint in Taiwan, will become still less likely in future. Notwithstanding this judgment, however, I think we must keep our powder dry. So we have no disagreement on that score.

But I take issue with the "facts" on which you rest your conclusions. On your facts:

(1) I can't imagine there was no surprise to the Chinese offensive against Vietnam. (At least, although not working on China per se at the time, I was not in the least surprised by it.) The Chinese had repeatedly warned Vietnam that continued empire-building in IndoChina would draw a forceful response. They gained the tacit support of some sections of the USG for their decision to make good on this warning. Having demonstrated that they could take Hanoi, QED, they withdrew and then quite cynically used the artillery and infantry duel on the border as live-fire training to battle-harden the remainder of their flabby post Cultural Revolution, internal security-oriented forces. This was a classic use of force for diplomatic purposes. It is very hard for me to condemn it while endorsing our uses of force in Grenada, Libya, or Panama not too much later. Great powers do what they must. There is nothing particularly insidious about the Chinese in that regard.

(2) The attack on "unarmed students" at Tian'anmen (actually at Muxudi and Fuxingmen and other locations outside Tian'anmen) came after many weeks, even months, in which the Chinese leadership had lost control of security in their own capital. (The troops were, in fact, fired upon at Muxudi, though it is not clear by whom.) The only surprise to me (and other realists, including, I gather, you) was that the Chinese leadership did not act earlier to restore order. We would have done so, judging by the precedents set by MacArthur and our National Guard over the decades from 1920 - 1950. The main lesson those leaders who survived the affair have drawn from it, in fact, is that one should strike hard and strike fast rather than tolerate escalating self-expression by exuberantly rebellious kids. If June 4 tells us anything about the Chinese leadership it is that they are reluctant, often to the point of rashness, to resort to the use of force against their fellow citizens.