February 2009

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Following Hillary Clinton’s visit to Asia, there have been a range of commentaries on her new approach to China. Clinton’s downplay of that standard gambit of Sino-American relations, human rights, has pleased some commentators and maddened others. Here’s a selection of five ways of looking at her China visit:

1) A Missed Opportunity, Merle Goldman at the Boston Globe:

The Charter 08 episode in China reveals widespread dissatisfaction with China’s authoritarian market economy, including those who are the supposed beneficiaries of China’s political model. Their participation in the Charter 08 movement may be attributed not only to worsening economic conditions in late 2008 because of the increasing closure of China’s export industries due to slackening demand for Chinese consumer goods in the West, but also questioning of the political system on which the Chinese Communist Party has based its legitimacy. Despite the crackdown, Charter 08 represents a multi-class movement for political change in China that is likely to continue.

Such a movement needs the support of the international community. The worldwide outcry over the crackdown on the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslavakia marked the beginning of the unraveling of the Communist system in Eastern Europe. Clinton’s recent visit to China would have been the appropriate venue for criticism of China’s suppression of Charter 08.

Demands for political change in China will continue. The Obama administration should give more attention to human rights issues in China and support those who advocate peaceful political reforms. Clinton’s trip to China was a missed opportunity.

2) A “Relief,”AFP at The Straits Times:

CHINA’S state media on Monday described Hillary Clinton’s trip to Beijing as a relief, after the US secretary of state steered clear of human rights to focus on cooperation between the two nations…

She maintained that Washington’s concerns about rights in China should not be a distraction from vital trade and environmental issues, pointing to the need for cooperation between the world powers amid the economic crisis.

‘If the point of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s maiden voyage overseas in her new role as United States secretary of state was to assure and reassure, she made it,’ the China Daily said.

3) A Promising Approach to the Region, John C. Bersia of McClatchy-Tribune:

Both showmanship and substance were on display during Clinton’s tour. The showmanship was essential to underscore that a different approach is in effect. Toward that end, she – a globally known quantity – has distinct advantages. Many people, from officials to average citizens, want to see her, and she happily accommodates them. But I was even more pleased with the substance, notably what Clinton said during her visit to China.

In fact, her statements went to the heart of the creative engagement that is necessary for the United States to continue to lead in Asia. Although she rightly reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to human rights, she also indicated that the issue will not “interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises.” In other words, there will be separate tracks for those matters.

4) The End of a “Charade,” Alex Spillius at The Telegraph:

I found her honesty refreshing. For 20 years Western, particularly British and American, leaders have assured their publics that they would pressurise Beijing on Tibet, political dissidents and freedom of religion. The rhetoric was empty.

Perhaps the apogee of this cravenness was Jiang Zemin’s London visit during the Blair era, when protestors were kept from his view by police vans, while the Foreign Office insisted that human rights was heavily on the agenda.

Now Mrs Clinton has admitted that other things matter much, much more to Washington, namely economic survival. She has exposed the myth that we can’t afford to be unpleasant to the Chinese.

It will be to her shame if she drops human rights from all her discussions with the Chinese over the next four years. They remain guilty of abuses which should make all of us very uncomfortable dealing with Beijing. She says that won’t be the case. Human rights groups, rightly, will be holding her to account.

5) As One Visit Among Many, a wrap-up of Clinton’s recent trips abroad at Worldpress.org

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By James Millward

I never thought I’d see “Free the Uighurs” on the editorial pages of major U.S. newspapers, but there it was last Thursday in the Washington Post (Editorial, February 19, 2009, p. A14) and Monday in the Los Angeles Times (Editorial, Feb. 23, 2009). Of course, the editorial was not discussing Uyghurs in China, but the seventeen Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo, whom a federal appeals court ruled could be brought to the U.S. only by an act of the executive branch, not the courts. The Post urged the Obama administration to do the right thing by these men, whom the Bush administration acknowledged years ago were not “enemy combatants” but whom it could neither send back to China nor find a third country willing to take.

It was not that long ago that references to Uyghurs hardly ever appeared in the international press. From the late 1980s through the late 1990s there were occasional stories, when reporters given rare opportunities to travel to Xinjiang sought out silk road exotica and separatism—story lines they seem to have settled on before their trip. It was not hard to flesh out the template with colorful minority clothing, mutton kabobs and some young guy in the bazaar complaining about the Chinese. The rare actual violent incidents were exciting—they fit the imagined narrative that Xinjiang was a “simmering cauldron” or “powder-keg waiting to blow.” But they were harder to write about, as information was scant and mainly filtered through PRC state media, which was then intent on minimizing any local unrest or dissent. Internally, in the late 1990s Xinjiang Party officials still worried about the Xinjiang issue becoming “internationalized”—in other words, emerging, like Tibet, as a global cause célèbre.

After September 11th, 2001, China abruptly reversed course, deliberately publicizing the issue of Uyghur dissent as “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism,” and explicitly linking potential unrest in Xinjiang (the region was in fact quiet from 1997 through 2008) to Al Qaeda and the U.S. “global war on terror.” This linkage was accomplished through a document issued in English by the State Council in January 2002, official press reports, and print and broadcast interviews with Chinese leaders. The message was much reiterated in subsequent years; state media and PRC leaders proclaimed Uyghurs to be the main potential security risk to the 2008 Olympics (in the spring before and during the Olympics, there were in fact three incidents of what seems to have been politically-inspired violence involving Uyghurs in Xinjiang.)

The U.S. government, international media and anti-terrorism think-tanks contributed to the re-branding of Uyghur dissent as a “movement” motivated by Islamist thinking and linked to “international terror organizations.” Stereotyped notions about Islam and a paucity of solid firsthand information about Xinjiang made plausible the idea that Al Qaeda-type Uyghur jihadis were “waging” a “militant” “resistance” against Chinese authorities, even in absence of anything like a terrorist attack for over a decade. Because every “movement” needs an acronym, concerns crystallized around ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement), one of several groups mentioned in the Chinese State Council document. The U.S. listed ETIM as an international terrorist organization in 2002 and mistakenly attributed to it all the violent acts reported by the PRC as having occurred in Xinjiang for the ten years prior to 1997, though Chinese sources themselves up to that point had not attributed any specific acts to ETIM (they did so subsequently). The U.S. thus made ETIM the name to conjure with.[1]

Now the “Uyghur issue” is well and truly internationalized, thanks to U.S. and Chinese policies and rhetoric over the past several years. Indeed, at the moment it stands at the crux of U.S.-Chinese relations. In order to close down Guantanamo prison, as President Obama has pledged, detainees who cannot be repatriated must be resettled elsewhere. In order to convince third countries to accept Guantanamo detainees, the U.S. must first show willingness to resettle some itself. Politically, the Uyghurs are the easiest choice among the detainees for U.S. asylum: they were determined by the Bush administration to harbor “no animus” towards the United States; there is a measure of Congressional support for their resettlement thanks in part to effective lobbying efforts by the Uyghur America Association (itself funded by the U.S. government through the National Endowment for Democracy); and the Uyghur community here is eager to help in the detainees’ transition.

Of course, the PRC government strongly opposes resettling Uyghurs from Guantanamo in the U.S. or anywhere else, and wants them sent back to China. As Li Wei, from the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, put it in an interview with NPR’s Anthony Kuhn (Morning Edition, Feb. 20, 2009), “what would the American government think if China sheltered people who threatened America’s national security?” Li makes a reasonable point: if China publicly resettled Al Qaeda trainees from Afghan camps, the U.S. would take this as a major affront.

So now, with the Obama-era U.S.-China relationship still unformed, an act critical to realizing the president’s promise to shut down Guantanamo will also, like it or not, be seen as his major first act related to China: granting asylum to a group of men China has repeatedly and publicly denounced as violent terrorist members of ETIM. The Chinese public and most Chinese academics, party-members and officials sincerely believe Uyghur terrorists pose a grave security threat to China. ETIM is their Al Qaeda.

Moreover, despite the fact that no country and no serious scholar disputes the legality of China’s sovereignty in Xinjiang, some Chinese believe the U.S. supports and foments Uyghur terrorism in order to destabilize China. American academics who write about Xinjiang have been (falsely) accused in Chinese publications of working with the U.S. government to provide “a theoretical basis for one day taking action to dismember China and separate Xinjiang” (Pan Zhiping, in his introduction to the internal Chinese translation of Frederick Starr, ed. Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Frontier). We should not underestimate the perception gap between the U.S. and China over Xinjiang and the Uyghurs. In China, the issue is as radioactive as the sands of Lop Nor.

Thus, while the U.S. press has discussed the Guantanamo Uyghurs mainly as a domestic U.S. political and legal issue, their fate could have a great impact on U.S.-China relations at this critical time. The legacy of the Bush administration’s China policy is often treated as broadly positive, thanks to the role played by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and resultant stress on economic affairs. However, the Guantanamo Uyghurs are another huge mess Bush got us into. Thanks to Bush-era mistakes and the fuzzy but dangerous notion of “global war on terror,” the Obama administration faces yet another potential crisis—one in U.S.-China relations—right off the bat.

The U.S. should recognize that while resettling the seventeen Uyghurs here may be the only way to break the Guantanamo log-jam, to do so will mean asking China to swallow something extremely unpalatable. If a blow-up in U.S.-China relations can be averted, it will be because American diplomats handle the issue with the extreme sensitivity it merits, and because China chooses to overlook U.S. hypocrisy and place the greater interests of good Sino-U.S. ties over their entrenched rhetorical position on Xinjiang. In so doing they will help us put yet another Bush-era disaster behind us and move on.

James Millward teaches Chinese history at Georgetown University and is the author of, most recently, Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (2006).

[1] On the mistakes in the public US statement accompanying the U.S. listing of ETIM, see my “Violent Separatism in Xinjiang: a Critical Assessment,” East West Center policy studies #6, Washington D.C.: East West Center, 2004.

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James Hevia on Summer Palace Relics

With disputes relating to looted Chinese objects in the news, we asked Professor James Hevia of the University of Chicago, author of an important book called English Lessons, which includes analysis of foreign military actions in China from the 1860s through the post-Boxer occupation of 1900-1901 and was cited in our earlier post on the topic, if he had any thoughts on the subject to share with our readers. Already quoted briefly in a useful Christian Science Monitor article on the issue, here’s what he had wrote in response to our query:
The recent announcement by Christie’s of yet another auction including Summer Palace plunder continues the long tradition of corporate and national indifference to the depredations of European armies in Africa and Asia in the nineteenth century. Imperial and colonial warfare always resulted in plunder. This is not news, but does need to be remembered in a form other than the public sale of stolen artifacts. More importantly, no one has yet been able to arrive at a formula for addressing what are obviously understood by the descendents of victims of these events as ongoing forms of humiliation. It does not help the situation to read a Christie’s statement claiming that “for each and every item … there is clear legal title.” That is not simply preposterous, but Orwellian. How can there be clear legal title to looted objects? That bit of mendacity is further compounded by Christie’s claim that they also adhere to international law on cultural property. There was no international law in 1860 dealing with cultural property, which requires, I think, another way of thinking about the status and ownership of the objects in question. The same could be said for the museums like the Victoria and Albert, the British Museum, the Guimet in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and numerous military museums and officer’s messes in Europe and North America that hold objects taken in and around Beijing in 1860 and 1900-1901. Insofar as they are capable, the animal heads on sale at Christie’s stand in for this vast amount of plunder. Turning them into commodities only makes matters worse.

There is also a certain irony in all of this. Since 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to China, the Yuan Ming Gardens in Beijing was the site of the “Never Forget National Humiliation” memorial wall. There inscribed on numerous plaques was the sordid history of European and American incursions into China, of opium dealing, and the imposition of unequal treaties that made up the “century of humiliation.” For reasons that are unclear, the monument was taken down last year. Perhaps it had something to do with the Olympics. But given this recent reminder of the violent behavior of Westerners in nineteenth century China, I would not be too surprised to see a new monument, one that might be titled “Never ever forget national humiliation.”

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By Jeremiah Jenne

Passion of the Mao is the quirky documentary produced by Lee Feigon based on his book Mao: A Reinterpretation. There’s some things to like about the film. I appreciated the irreverence, and there were a number of chuckle-worthy jokes and sly references as well as several precipitous descents into banal toilet and body humor. (Some of which, for awhile, are also pretty chuckle-worthy.) Mao’s writings are referenced throughout the film, though Mr. Feigon’s choice to have them read using a voiceover that recalled the worst of the Fu Manchu films from early Hollywood is odd. Mr. Feigon also gives prominence to Mao’s fondness for scatological references and bawdy language. It’s funny and raunchy and, for the most part, unnecessary. Mao was the kind of guy who liked young girls, disliked bathing, and enjoyed the occasional fart joke. Okay, I got it. Next.

In terms of history, the first half of the film is quite good. The occasional surrealist cartoon or madcap aside doesn’t distract from a pretty solid narrative that hits the high points of Mao’s early career, a narrative which is interwoven nicely with the larger story of the Communist Revolution. But like that revolution, the movie starts to veer off course after we get to 1949. Mr. Feigon does well to reminds us that the early years of the 1950s were ones of economic growth and relative peace (though not so much if you were declared a landlord or a rightist). His treatment of elite politics in this era centers on a portrayal of Peng Dehuai as a “Judas” figure whose long-standing grudge against Mao led to an ill-fated showdown at Lushan. It’s an intriguing re-telling of the Mao-Peng dynamic, but to cast Peng as having sold out Mao for 30 pieces of Soviet silver in this CCP passion play comes off a bit disingenuous given that there is little (if any) mention of the downfall of Lin Biao.

And it is this decision to minimize events from the latter part of the 1960s and 1970s that is perhaps the film’s greatest flaw. For all the antics, animation, and toilet humor, Mr. Feigon has a serious point to make: Perhaps we’ve misunderstood the Cultural Revolution all along, that it wasn’t that bad, and that any evidence to the contrary is the result of the wrong people ending up in power following Mao’s death. Mr. Feigon dismisses Red Guard violence as an early setback in the movement, and chooses instead to focus on statistics which suggest increased educational access, economic growth, and industrial output during the 1966-1976 period. He doesn’t say where the numbers come from and if he’s using CCP figures from that era then obviously we must maintain a certain healthy skepticism.

The hypothesis that the political interests of Deng Xiaoping and his allies in the post-GPCR period have shaped the discussion and discourse about the Cultural Revolution is an intriguing one, and it is a not-so-subtle subtext of the movie that Mr. Feigon views the current government and the legacy of Deng Xiaoping with great disdain. In this way, he reminds me of protesters in China today who hold up pictures of The Chairman as a whip against the current government, one which is seen as more a product of Deng Xiaoping’s reformist policies than of Mao’s revolutionary vision.

In the end, while I enjoyed the beginning of Mr. Feigon’s movie, the casual glossing of the Cultural Revolution was disturbing to me. I have met and talked to too many people who still cannot shake terrible memories of that period. I know families still riven by animosity over events which occurred forty years earlier. I’m willing to accept that the collective and official memory of the Cultural Revolution and Mao was influenced by the political needs of Deng Xiaoping, but in this movie Mr. Feigon himself commits the error of “Leaning too far to one side” and is a bit too blasé about an event which caused great pain and suffering for many people. In the end, it will take more than fart jokes and film parodies to save Mao’s legacy.

In case you are interested in reading more from writers we’ve referenced recently or on topics we’ve been tracking lately, here are a few recommendations from this week.

The New York Times ran a set of commentaries yesterday on “what the Chinese want from Obama,” including commentaries by Michael Meyer and Daniel Bell (links to their previous pieces at China Beat).

Meyer writes about Clinton’s visit to China, and the power she has to shift discussions in China (and the U.S.) about China’s desire for an “American lifestyle”:

Yet as modernizing Chinese cities emulate America’s car-friendly designs — and often employ American architects, but not clean-energy firms to realize it — she could tie China’s urbanization into her broader agenda of engaging Beijing in a partnership to reduce emissions and increase energy efficiency, measures that would affect global health and the economy.

“If Chinese want to live the American way of life, then we need seven earths to support them,” the founder of China’s first environmental nongovernmental organization once told me. That impact is of less concern to a government funding large-scale urbanization in the service of economic growth. Planners and officials here often insist, with rightful indignation, that “we have every right to make the same development mistakes that America did.”

Mrs. Clinton could correct that perception with a visit to the hutong the way her husband galvanized AIDS awareness when he hugged an H.I.V.-positive girl at a Beijing speech in 2003.

Daniel Bell relays what his students think about Obama, emphasizing their resistance to “Obama mania”:

Of course, there is respect for Mr. Obama’s intellectual abilities and leadership skills. But even “liberal” students are given to skepticism. One of my graduate students told me that she was dismayed by the uncritical coverage of the inauguration, the kind of love-fest for a political leader that could only make the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party envious. We discussed, only half-jokingly, the possibility that China should adopt some form of constitutional monarchy, so that the public could project its emotions on a symbolic leader while evaluating the de facto political leader’s performance more rationally.

Of course, this “uncritical coverage” is rather debatable—since there was indeed a great deal of critical coverage of the inauguration and of Obama in the United States, but Bell’s point that the stories of Obama’s popularity in China have been hyped up is well taken.

We have mentioned James Hevia’s work on imperialism in China; he was quoted in a recent piece at The Christian Science Monitor on the Christie’s auction flap.

The “imperial objects are an absent presence in a tale of loss, humiliation, and the recovery of national sovereignty,” says James Hevia, a professor at the University of Chicago and expert in European military traditions of plunder.

Last month, we ran a short list from Claire Conceison on Chinese actor Ying Ruocheng, taken from her work on his autobiography, Voices Carry. This week, she did an interview about the book on NPR’s Here and Now. You can listen by making a jump to Here and Now’s website.

Clinton’s visit to China was much in the news lately—a piece from Reuters discusses her indication to Beijing that human rights will not be at the top of the U.S.’s Sino-American agenda:

Making her first trip abroad as secretary of state, Clinton said three of her top priorities in Beijing will be addressing the global economic crisis, climate change and security challenges such as the North Korean nuclear weapons programme.

“Now, that doesn’t mean that questions of Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, the whole range of challenges that we often engage on with the Chinese, are not part of the agenda,” Clinton told reporters in Seoul before flying to Beijing. “But we pretty much know what they are going to say.

“We have to continue to press them but our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crises,” she added. “We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those.”

The environment is at the top of Clinton’s agenda, but it is as yet unclear what U.S.-China collaboration on this issue will look like. At his blog, James Fallows provided links to a new report from the Asia Society and the Pew Center that makes specific proposals for cooperation on energy and climate change.

Last week, we also ran a commentary from Ken Pomeranz about water in China. For an additional viewpoint, those in the New Haven area may be interested in an upcoming talk (on February 25) by Chunmiao Zheng on “Will China Run Out of Water?

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