Ten days ago, the New York Times ran a pretty damning story on its front page: even as Mitt Romney was lambasting President Obama on the trail for being too soft on China's human rights abuses and trade violations, the company he used to run, Bain Capital, was profiting from its ownership of a company, Uniview Technologies, that sells surveillance technology to the Chinese government.
Somewhat lost amid the circus of the Republican primary has been Mitt Romney's decision to take a hard line against China's trade and currency practices. Tough talk on China has become almost de rigueur for presidential challengers (who typically then take a much softer line in office), but Romney's rhetoric is especially striking coming from the businessman candidate, and Romney's been chided for it both by Jon Huntsman, the former China ambassador, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
The most significant policy disagreement in last week’s Republican debate went almost unnoticed. The moderator asked Jon Huntsman, “What does Governor Romney not get about China?” After noting America’s economic weakness and the need to focus on our tasks here at home, Huntsman remarked, “I’d have to say, Mitt, now is not the time … to enter a trade war.” Behind this exchange lies a remarkable development. A few days before the debate, Romney’s campaign released “Believe in America,” a book-length economic plan. In most respects it summarized standard conservative positions.
This morning, news broke that social-networking giant Facebook has signed a deal with Chinese search engine Baidu to develop a Chinese social networking service. The deal is a winner for both sides: Facebook is currently blocked in China, while Baidu has been unable to translate its dominance of the search engine market into similar success in social networking.
Each year, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its affiliated organizations hold hundreds of meetings, at which officials from countries across Asia come together to issue bland, verbose communiqués about everything from agriculture management to the handling of spiny dogfish and to listen to interchangeable speeches by government officials. Along with an inevitable level of boredom, the meetings feature exaggerated, affected displays of courtesy that would not have been out of place at the Tudor Court.
Last week, on the same day that Hu Jintao was dining with Barbra Streisand and Jackie Chan at the White House, there was another piece of less welcome news about China: According to a statement issued by Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a network of activists, Hu’s government had recently disseminated a list of “requirements and prohibitions” for journalists during the coming year. The rules included a ban on the use of the phrase “civil society.” This revelation was not front-page news, of course—and, in the sense that it represented nothing out of the ordinary, it shouldn’t have been.
The Obama administration has condemned Wikileaks for its second release within a year of classified foreign policy documents. And some liberal commentators have backed up the administration’s complaints. And I am not going to argue that the administration doesn’t have a case. Governments rely on candid assessments from their diplomats; and if Americans in overseas embassies have to assume that they are writing for the general public and not for their superiors back home, they are not likely to be very candid. But there is also something to be said in defense of Wikileaks.
Compare and contrast: On the same day that the climate bill quietly dies in the Senate, the Chinese government announces plans to put a price on carbon in the next five years.
A couple of weeks ago, Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, complained indignantly about China’s current and bitter hostility toward multinational corporations. According to the Financial Times, Immelt groused at a private dinner in Rome that the Chinese government was becoming ever more protectionist. “I am not sure that in the end, they want any of us to win, or any of us to be successful,” he said. Immelt’s remarks point to a noteworthy shift in the dynamic that moves American policy toward China, one tinged with irony.