The Plank

How Will Obama Approach China?

With Obama having announced his national security team last week, we asked Perry Link, a China specialist and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching
Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside, to weigh in on
what challenges his administration will face in regards to China:

How will the Obama presidency approach China? Two especially big questions
stand out, and those two are related.

One question is whether an Obama administration can be the first in
more than 50 years to think of China
as a bigger, more complex thing than the Chinese government alone. The other is
whether it can get beyond the coterie of "China
policy managers" in and around Washington who have "educated" (their word)
every president since Jimmy Carter in why and how to be sensitive to China's

No one denies that China's
rulers are powerful men, and it would be folly to ignore them. But when the
words "China" and "Chinese"
come to refer only to the Beijing
super-elite and their policies--and Washington policy
lingo has long made this a habit--the result is boxed-in thinking and narrowly
based policy. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is reported to have been the
lead person on China
policy in the Bush administration since 2006. Paulson "engages China" frequently--by which he means holding
small meetings with representatives of China's rulers (in English, by the
way, since he doesn't know Chinese) on trade relations, currency regulation,
and WTO rules.

The issue matters because, without discounting the importance of what
goes on in those small meetings, the whole of China is much, much bigger. And
different, too. The cost of ignoring the differences can be immense.

The clearest example of this kind of mistake in recent decades happened
in the summer of 1989. To call the protest movement of that year a "Tiananmen
Movement" is really a misnomer. There were large demonstrations in all of China's provincial capitals in
spring, and in many other cities as well. Student protesters led the movement,
but workers and farmers far outnumbered them. And people who feared to protest,
but sympathized, were even more numerous, certainly in the tens of millions.
That movement was not elite; it was an upheaval from below.

If U.S. policymakers
had seen this fact clearly, much good--both for China
and for the U.S.--could
have come by dignified but firm public statements of principled support for the
protesters, both before and after the massacre on June 4. Instead, after the
repression, George H.W. Bush dispatched envoys Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence
Eagleburger secretly (it was later reported that the secrecy extended even to
arranging in-flight re-fueling of their jet over the Pacific) to Beijing
to assure China's
rulers of the continued wish of the American administration to "engage" with

Since then, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush went to Washington
with certain ideas about standing for human rights in China, but, after "steep learning
curves" under the tutelage of the professional China-policy managers, reverted
essentially to the Bush Sr. position.

The question of whether Barack Obama will follow the same path is
especially important not only because, once again, we have a new and
"untutored" president on the scene. It is also important because, inside China,
protests from below are again on the rise. Resentment of local officials is
growing more intense and a "rights movement" is spreading, as became
dramatically evident this week with the release in Beijing of "Charter
a call by more than 300 prominent Chinese for an end to authoritarian
government. A significant amount of good could be done by an American president
saying--just saying--to the Chinese people that yes, human rights, democracy,
and rule are law are fine ideals and we support you 100 percent if you want
them, too. But the China
policy managers will not recommend this. They normally refer to "China human rights issues" not as things that
are actually going on in China
but as domestic U.S.
political problems. ("Congress is fussing!") A smart policy manager has to
"manage" the problem, because the rulers in Beijing
are "very sensitive" to it.

I hope I am wrong, but I do not see anyone on President-elect Obama's
foreign policy team who has the knowledge and experience to help him get beyond
the entrenched Washington
principle that "China"
equals China's
rulers. The one prominent Democrat who could probably do this is Nancy Pelosi,
but she is not on the team.

--Perry Link

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