Author’s Note: I lived and worked in Shanghai, China for five years before returning to the United States two weeks ago. With the Beijing Olympics set to begin, and the eyes of the world focused on the Middle Kingdom, my posts over the next few weeks will focus on current issues in Chinaâ€”international politics, culture, human rights, and more.
In May 2007, President Hu Jintao invited President Bush to attend the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. This spring, in the heat of the primary election, presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and, eventually, Senator Obama called on the president to decline the invitation to protest the human rights situation and the recent Beijing crackdown in Tibet. Several human rights groups also issued calls for a boycott of the opening ceremonies, but ultimately, George Bush accepted the invention.
If the United States wants to maintain any influence in China, President Bush made the right decision. Declining the invitation may have earned President Bush the affection of human rights advocates, but it would have done nothing to help the Chinese people. Outside pressure is not going to change the human rights situation. Beijing is well that its trading partners are not willing to take any measures that put their own economies at risk. Change must come from within.
The Chinese people know that human rights is a problem in China. They are aware that the government censors the internetâ€”and many are able to get around it. They know that the Communist Party and the government it controls are corrupt. They also know that the media are controlled by the government. An empty gesture from the United States won’t inform the people of something they already know, nor will it encourage them to rise up and demand change from the government. What it will do is deeply insult the Chinese people, who are deeply suspicious of the west.
Long before the economic reforms that brought China and the West closer together, China suffered what is known in China as the Century of Humiliation. Western countries, beginning with the British smuggling opium in the 1830′s and 1840′s, and later Japan, used their superior militaries and advanced technology to force unfair treaties on Beijing. A series of Qing emperors were forced to open ports to foreign traders, create special economic zones for foreign powers, and open their borders to western missionaries and businessmen, who were given extraterritoriality, the right to live under the laws of their own country, rather than the laws of China. Sovereignty was not fully restored until the Communists won their civil war over the Nationalists (who fled to Taiwan) in 1949 and did what centuries of emperors could notâ€”unify the country. The chaos of that period may have long ago ended, but the memories and the bitterness remain.
Since the early 1980′s, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. A private sector has emerged and now accounts for 70% of GDP. At the height of central planning, as recently as 30 years ago, Chinese people were not even allowed to choose their own jobs. They were assigned by Beijing. So from the perspective of the majority of the Chinese people, Beijingâ€”and the Communist Partyâ€”have done a good job running the country. The horrors of the Cultural Revolution are blamed on Chairman Mao and a group of advisers known as the “Gang of Four”.
Our support for independence in Tibet and Taiwan and criticism of China’s human rights record is seenâ€”even by educated, middle class Chineseâ€”as attempts to again weaken China (by dividing her) and undermine the sovereignty of the government. It’s not lost on the Chinese people that the western powers continue to support the “renegade” government in Taiwan, even allowing the Republic of China to hold China’s seat on the UN Security Council until 1971. A coalition of developing countries friendly to Beijing forced the transfer of China’s seat to the People’s Republic of China.
This spring, when western governments criticized the military crackdown on protests in Tibet, government censors loosened restrictions on internet access. Access to BBC News was restored so the Chinese people could see the criticism of the government’s crackdown and get angry at the western media. Access to Youtube was briefly disrupted until the government realized that pro-Beijing users could post videos of Tibetans attacking Han Chinese residents of Lhasa and their businesses.
The result? The Chinese people I talked toâ€”including my Australian-educated, multi-lingual Taiwanese boyfriendâ€”said the western media was biased. The criticism of Beijing’s crackdown only intensified the nationalism of the Han Chinese and their support for the governments efforts to suppress the revolt by the Tibetan “terrorists.” Patriotic Chinese organized boycotts and held protests outside Carrefour supermarkets throughout China after it was learned that a minority shareholder of the French supermarket chain had donated money to a pro-Tibetan independence group.
Had President Bush declined the invitation, it would have been seen as an enormous insult, an attempt to embarrass the Chinese people, for whom the Olympics are a source of national pride. Boycotts of American imports and antipathy toward the thousands of Americans living and working in China may have followed and the relationship between China and America would forever have been tarnished. By attending the opening ceremonies, President Bush has given President Hu Jintao and the Chinese people face. In Asian culture, giving and saving face is central to preserving and enhancing relationships.
In the long run, the decision to honor the Chinese people during their moment under the sun will reap more benefits than cheap political theatrics.