Our China Chimera

The Right Stuff

Much has been made of the fact that Meghan C. Howard ’04 interrupted Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during his speech last month at Harvard Business School. After Wen mentioned the love he had for “[his] people,” Howard unfurled a Tibetan flag and declared, “Tibet belongs to the Tibetan people! We will never stop fighting!” She was escorted out by police and will face the Ad Board tomorrow.

It should go without saying, but Wen’s country is not a normal state. Since 1978, when Deng Xiaoping famously announced that “to get rich is glorious,” Communist China has embraced a form of market economics, albeit a perverted one. But politically, it remains a Leninist dictatorship, one that routinely threatens a neighboring democracy (Taiwan) with nuclear destruction, harbors visions of regional hegemony in East Asia, brutalizes dissidents, religious minorities and even members of apolitical groups that it deems subversive and, as Howard intimated, maintains a vicious and culturally annihilative occupation of Tibet.

Among America’s elite Sinologists, however, it is often not considered proper, or convenient, to frankly discuss many of these issues. As noted China scholar Ross Munro has written, “academic Sinologists tend to produce polite reports and mushy books that rarely go beyond cautiously advancing the consensus of the Sinological establishment. Even when addressing China’s direst problems, they have perfected language and phrasing that will not offend Chinese officialdom. To offend is to jeopardize one’s ability to visit China and interview Chinese officials and academics—access that constitutes the bread and butter of the Sinological trade. No access means no field research, fewer research grants, and—for the top Sinologists—no fat consulting fees from corporations.”

Here, for example, is Georgetown professor James Feinerman’s rationalization of the deadly conditions in Chinese prisons to the Washington Post in 1997: “You can argue that it works. They have very low rates of recidivism. Who are we to argue with their choices?”

A student of contemporary China might therefore be excused for assuming that its government is basically a normal, civilized regime. The American public at large, meanwhile, watched a few years ago as Beijing was awarded the 2008 Olympic games—the ultimate confirmation of legitimacy, one would think. Yet the Chinese regime is far from legitimate; and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is anything but normal.

Normal states don’t deny their citizens the right to freely emigrate. They don’t use official propaganda channels to produce books, videos and games that praise the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (yes). They don’t conceal the outbreak of a deadly virus like SARS. They don’t hold millions of peaceful oppositionists, minorities and low-level criminals in a vast slave-labor camp system (known as “Laogai”). They don’t systematically torture and kill practitioners of a meditation sect (Falun Gong). And, of most immediate concern for Harvard, they don’t lock up a pro-democracy activist like Kennedy School graduate Yang Jianli on fabricated charges and detain him incommunicado for more than a year.

And yet, following Wen’s speech, not one of the three questioners raised the subject of Yang’s incarceration. (I can only hope President Summers did privately.) Nor, for that matter, did a single one press Wen on any Chinese human-rights violations at all. It was left to Howard to remind us, if only fleetingly, that China is not a normal state, and its government is not necessarily worthy of our deference.

I should say that this column is not meant to be a China-bashing polemic. We should take heart when China’s rulers move toward codifying private property rights and allow Chinese Christians to celebrate Christmas, both of which they did last month. We should applaud and encourage experiments with local democracy, manifested chiefly (since the early 1990s) in the growth of village elections in the countryside. America’s anti-China lobby can sometimes go overboard, depicting China as the new Soviet Union (or the new “evil empire”). While the severity of Beijing’s internal repression is undeniable, the Soviet comparisons are false and misleading. American engagement with the PRC is both imperative to our national interest and vital to the cause of Chinese liberty.

In that regard, we should support U.S. trade with China, mostly due to its beneficial effect on Chinese civil society and living standards, but also because the alternative—sanctions or high tariffs, and the isolation of Beijing—would likely be counterproductive. (Though it is quixotic to think that economic modernization will somehow oblige the Chinese Communist Party to go Jeffersonian overnight.)

But we must not nourish any false illusions about the basic character of the Chinese regme. We should remember, moreover, that PRC-style capitalism—hindered, as it is, by corruption and an arbitrary legal system—isn’t exactly the stuff of Milton Friedman and Ec 10. As China’s entrepreneurial middle class grows, Solidarity-type labor movements emerge, and Christianity increasingly takes root, we can expect the regime to bully, harass, torture and murder to resist political reform. If the past is indicative, it will do virtually anything to maintain its dictatorial rule over one-sixth of the earth’s population.

Besides defeating terrorism and halting WMD proliferation, then, perhaps the central challenge facing the West in the 21st century is to help China evolve into a legalistic, constitutional democracy—one whose government is loosed of imperial ambitions, does not stoke xenophobic paranoia, and treats the Chinese people with decency and humanity.

By interrupting Wen’s speech to remind the premier—and us all—of Beijing’s unspeakable crimes in Tibet, Howard courageously did her small part to further that goal. The Ad Board should keep that in mind tomorrow when it convenes to decide her punishment.

Duncan M. Currie ’04 is a history concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears regularly.