Taking the air out of US fantasies about China

China experts in the US have long fantasized about China, often in a naive and romantic way. The reality is much more telling and instructive, according to a seasoned China watcher in New York

By Cao Chang-Ching 曹长青
The Taipei Times
Wednesday, November 24th, 1999

US experts on communism have emotions that run the gamut from surprise to stunned: hundreds of American specialists on the Soviets were shocked when the former Soviet Union collapsed; none of them had ever predicted that a seemingly powerful empire with 70-plus years of history would fall in only three days.

They were astounded again in 1989 when a massacre took place in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. New York Post columnist Jeane Kirkpatrick asked at the time: "Why did so many know so little about an event involving so many people? Why was it that so many experts failed to perceive the explosive atmosphere from which the demonstrations materialized... Why were they so surprised?"

Those US China experts could not understand why Deng Xiaoping -- who was twice chosen as Time magazine's "Man of the Year" and on whom pundits placed "great expectations" for China's democratic future and hopes for a prosperous Sino-US relationship -- would brazenly kill innocent students while the whole world was watching on CNN.

The expert of experts John King Fairbank sighed with bewilderment when he saw the massacre unfolding on TV: China was truly singular, too profound to be understood, he said.

The Americans were stunned again when Deng's successor Jiang Zemin manipulated a nationwide anti-US demonstration after NATO's accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia and when Chinese authorities began a major crackdown on Falun Gong followers.

My fellow Americans could not figure out why that smiling -- and seemingly soft teddy bear -- Jiang, who dined with US President Bill Clinton at a state dinner and quoted Abraham Lincoln on freedom and democracy to a US audience, could carry out such capricious actions.

What was really behind those "surprises" and "shocks" was a certain naivete on the part of those China experts -- who remain somewhat romantic with their wishful fantasies about Beijing.

It is impossible to review the long history of these kinds of American fantasies in a brief commentary, but let's take a glimpse.

Marshall's ignorance: Mediation between the KMT and the CCP

Immediately after the end of WWII, the five star US general George Marshall visited China and climbed Lu Shan (庐山) eight times -- Lu Shan is the mountain where Chiang Kai-shek occupied the summit and Zhou Enlai stayed at the bottom waiting to negotiate with the KMT -- trying to persuade the two sides to establish a US-style government, and hoping the two parties could behave like the Republicans and the Democrats who ruled the US by turns.

Marshall's mediation efforts were , of course, failure, for there has never been a Communist party, in the whole history of Communism, that has been willing to share power with any other political group. The Communists' doctrine -- and they never denied it -- was to establish a Utopian society that is ruled by a one-party dictatorship.

The efforts made by Marshall and the US administration showed in plain fact that either they did not understand what communism meant or they had turned a blind eye to what happened in the Soviet Union before WWII.

The fairy tale of Nixon's `opening up'

I do not know how much the Americans actually learned from Marshall's failure to convince the communists. More than a quarter of century later, the "fairy tale" of US President Richard Nixon's opening up of China's door played on the world stage.

Although Nixon will forever be remembered and connected with the Watergate scandal, by the time of his death a couple of years ago, he was praised by both Republicans and Democrats for his great foreign policy achievements, especially in China. I have not yet seen any US scholars who have seriously challenged this take.

The fact is that before and after the 1972 visit of Nixon and his savvy adviser Henry Kissinger, China had been spinning on its own trajectory, without even the slightest derailment. In 1971, Mao's hand-picked successor, Lin Biao (林彪), betrayed him and crashed while escaping to the Soviet Union. Immediately after Nixon's visit came another round of of "anti-Lin and anti-Confucius (批林批孔)" campaigns.

Nixon's visit changed neither China's foreign policy nor its domestic practice; it merely added to the complacency of Mao and the legitimacy of the Communist regime. The only result of Nixon's visit was to rob Taiwan, a longtime US ally, of its seat at the UN.

What Nixon really did was to surrender to Beijing. Would any dictator refuse to accept surrender, especially from such a powerful country as the US? Nixon welcomed China to the UN with few conditions, not even a promise from the communists to refrain from the use of armed forces to attack Taiwan.

I doubt if there is anybody who lived in China during that period of time who consented to the statement that the door of China was opened up by Nixon. Frankly speaking, it was only the death of Mao that brought an end to the Cultural Revolution and began the true transformation of China.

Recently released details of the Nixon-Kissinger China visit show that the pampering from leaders of the free world only gratified Mao's ego, legitimized his authority, and therefore further strengthened his dictatorship.

Naive Carter and Bush

The 1978 normalization of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Washington was the automatic outcome of Nixon's visit. It was true that following the normalization of Sino-US diplomatic relations, China did begin a drive toward economic reform and gradually opened its doors to the outside world. However, this opening up was not the result of the normalization, but rather the consequence of China's internal political and economic changes, and above all, the decision of paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

There were two major reasons for Deng to take the route of developing the economy. First of all, it was his personal belief that economic prosperity was more important than an empty ideology. Characteristically, unlike the utopian and whimsical Mao, Deng was less radical and romantic, but rather practical and pragmatic. He had a reputation, which began long before he assumed power, of "following the path of capitalism," for which he was purged three times by Mao.

Therefore, it was Deng's personal willingness to develop the economy that prompted China's opening to outside world. This is the power of a dictator.

Secondly, Deng sought to rescue the Communist Party through economic reform. After the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese economy was on the verge of collapse; most people, including intellectuals, party members and high level officials, were tired of the endless political chaos.

Faced with an urgency for change, Deng believed that only the development of the economy could save the CCP and his own absolute power in China.

Therefore, the policy change in China and its consequent opening up to the world had almost nothing to do with Nixon's visit and the normalization of diplomatic relations with the US.

Invited by US President Jimmy Carter, Deng Xiaoping visited the US in 1978 and was very well received by the government and the media.

Although Nixon and Carter belonged to two different parties, they both had the same wish: to push China into the international arena by applying a policy of appeasement.

So how did Deng Xiaoping respond to his Western friends' expectations?

By cracking down on the embryonic stages of democratic discussions in Beijing immediately after coming back from the US in 1978 -- and then the1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square.

During the Tiananmen crisis in 1989, US President George Bush tried to telephone Deng, hoping to persuade him to give up the idea of firing on the students, but Deng didn't even bother to pick up the phone.

Bush thought he could talk a dictator into giving up killing: what a naive former ambassador to China!

Clinton's feeble-mindedness

The Clinton administration has boosted Americans' China fantasies to an all-time high.

During the 1989 Tiananmen student movement, Deng dismissed the second of his hand-picked successors, Zhao Ziyang, and elevated Jiang Zemin, the much lesser-known mayor of Shanghai, to the top position of general secretary.

Jiang himself also took the exceptional promotion with trepidation. His servility to Deng and other senior statesmen made people believe that he was only a puppet and a transitional figure. When Deng died, Western observers speculated that Jiang would soon follow in the footsteps of Mao's hand-picked successor Hua Guofeng (华国锋), who was soon inundated by a wave of political struggles after the death of Mao.

However, Jiang not only survived but soon turned out to be a dictator that would last.

There are several reasons for the stabilization of Jiang's power; among them was the invitation from Clinton to visit the US, which enhanced his influence on party officials and his reputation among the masses. Instead of being a struggling political clown, the state visit to the US made Jiang look like a world leader on the international stage.

After Jiang's "successful" visit to the US, especially after Clinton's visit to Beijing, the People's Daily opined: "Mao Zedong unified China, Deng Xiaoping reformed China and Jiang Zemin made the United Sates share power with China."

It showed that after the exchange of visits, not only the party bureaucrats, but also ordinary Chinese people began to regard Jiang, whom they sneered at before, with special esteem. Clinton's making China a "strategic partnership" appeasement policy only helped Jiang to strengthen his own power and strangle the true voices of the masses.

President Clinton also yielded to China's pressure and spoke of the "three nos" to Taiwan. This marked the biggest move made by the US government in favor of China since the Nixon administration's contact with Beijing. This move relinquished the strategic balance between Beijing and Taipei, which Nixon and Kissinger struggled to maintain.

It was Clinton's cuddling up to Beijing that caused Taiwan to claim that its relations with China be put on a special "state-to-state" basis in order to extricate itself from Beijing and Washington's "one China" policy that was making Taiwan's already tiny room in the international arena shrink.

Engagement or Containment

Certainly there are criticisms of Clinton's China policy in America;some advocate a policy of containment, emphasizing that otherwise the free world may face disastrous consequences similar to the result of Chamberlain's appeasement policy with Nazi Germany. The Clinton administration's defense was also seemingly reasonable: putting more pressure on China may force it to go back to isolation.

However, this assumption was not made according to the reality of China. As I stated before, the Chinese leaders' motivation to open the door and reform the economy came from the fear of following in the footsteps of the USSR. They believe that a better material life can reduce social conflicts and diminish public complaints -- which is similar to the way Burma's dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi characterized her government: "the government is trying to buy our silence with a better economy."

Therefore, China would not go back to the Mao era no matter how much pressure the international society puts on it. Chinese dictators have been clear on this point: in the wave of the global collapse of communist societies, going back means committing suicide.

When faced with international sanctions after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, Deng Xiaoping had the best opportunity and the highest authority to go back to the Mao era. But not only did he not do so, he even further enlarged the opening door and accelerated the speed of reform. Today's situation is the same: even though there was an anti-US demonstration after the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy, Jiang resumed negotiations on China's ticket to enter the World Trade Organization. Both Deng and his successor were sure at this point that the only way for them to stay in power was not to go back to the Mao era, but to continue economic reform and the open door policy. It goes without saying that for any dictator anywhere in the world, staying in power is the first and foremost priority. Therefore, nothing can stop China's own drive towards the outside world.

It is the Clinton administration and those China experts on Capitol Hill who are not clear about what kind of government and rulers they are dealing with. For more than half a century, US China experts and the White House have been hypnotized by their own fantasies about Communist China; they kept making wrong judgements and impractical policies. Those appeasement policies only gave dictators more credibility and legitimacy and therefore helped them last longer.

History has proved that policies made from fantasies about China -- from General Marshall half a century ago to President Clinton today -- have never been truly effective. Indeed, the only viable China policy should be "congagement," if not containment.

Within weeks, the 20th century -- plagued by horrible wars and the ugly face of communism -- will be over. I only hope that the US fantasy about China will also end with the turn of the century.


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