China Has at Least Two Faces

The Washington Post has two pieces of news on the People’s Republic of China.

The first is a letter on the opinion page. This is what former Czech president Vaclav Havel attempted to deliver to the Chinese Embassy in Prague in support of Liu Xiaobo, the free speech activist who was sentenced to eleven years in prison.

[Liu Xiaobo advocated legal reforms, democracy and human rights in the open letter called Contract 08, and signed by three hundred Chinese intellectuals. He was found guilty of “inciting to subvert state power”]

The second story in WaPo concerns what The Weekly Standard calls the “Red Dawn in Washington”. That story chronicles China’s attempt to buy legitimacy on Capitol Hill and its environs.

First, read the open letter from Havel and other former Czech dissident leaders. It is quite moving, especially if you remember the heavy hand of the USSR against “dissenters”. Here is a part of their appeal:

His Excellency Hu Jintao
President of the People’s Republic of China
State Council
Beijing 100032
P.R. China

Prague, Jan. 6, 2010

Your Excellency,

On Dec. 23, the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court — after holding him for over a year without trial — sentenced respected intellectual and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”

Mr. President, we would like you to know that we do not consider this trial an independent judicial process in which neither you nor your government can interfere. In fact, it is just the opposite. Mr. Liu’s trial was the result of a political order for which you carry ultimate political responsibility. We are convinced that this trial and harsh sentence meted out to a respected, well-known and prominent citizen of your country merely for thinking and speaking critically about various political and social issues was chiefly meant as a stern warning to others not to follow his path.

Thirty-three years ago, on Jan. 6, 1977, we, playwright Vaclav Havel; actor Pavel Landovsky; and writer Ludvik Vaculik, were arrested by the police in our own country, then a one-party Communist state, for “committing” exactly the same “crime”: the drafting of Charter 77 and collection of signatures with the intent to call on our own government to respect our country’s constitution, its international obligations and basic civic and human rights. Later, some of us were also sentenced to long prison terms in politically ordained judicial proceedings, just as the court in Beijing shamefully sentenced Mr. Liu Xiaobo in December 2009.


The rest of the letter is on the WaPo site.

The embassy of the People’s Republic of China didn’t open the door, wouldn’t receive the letter. It’s seriously doubtful they thought this would end the matter. More likely, they didn’t want to give it further legitimacy by accepting Mr. Havel’s epistle.
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At the same time that it continues to harass and imprison dissidents, the PRC is anxious to buy some legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Thus they’re doing what everyone else does: mounting a lobbying assault on Capitol Hill. WaPo covers the story here, on the front page. However, Kelley Currie at The Weekly Standard fisks the story this way:

Today is one of those days that reminds me why I still have a subscription to the dead tree version of my local newspaper, the Washington Post. The reason: an interesting front-page story by long-time China hand John Pomfret on China’s increasingly effective lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill (the Pomfret piece, if anything underplays the growing Chinese presence — and effectiveness — on the Hill, especially because it does not get at the various “fronts“ the Chinese use as force multipliers), juxtaposed with a column on the op-ed page that reprinted the letter by Vaclav Havel and other former Czech dissident leaders to Chinese President Hu Jintao…

The powerful letter from the former Czech dissidents stands as a stunning rebuke not only to the kind of legitimacy that China has been trying to buy through fat lobbying contracts with the likes of Patton Boggs, but also to those US legislators who could be influenced to support China’s authoritarians.

For us outsiders, Patton Boggs is a white shoe law firm in Washington. Six hundred attorneys grind away, manufacturing lobby sausage for any country that can afford their hourly fees. China can afford them and is learning how to work the system to their benefit:

Ten years ago, U.S. lawmakers publicly accused the China Ocean Shipping Co. of being a front for espionage and blocked plans to expand its Long Beach, Calif., port terminal over fears that Chinese spies would use it to snoop on the United States.

By last year, Congress was seeing the state-owned Chinese behemoth in a far kinder light. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) authored a resolution applauding the company for employing thousands of Americans and helping keep the waters of Alaska clean. Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) hailed the firm on the House floor, calling its chief executive “a people’s ambassador” to the United States after it rescued Boston’s port – and thousands of jobs – when a European shipping line moved out.


Although many Americans still view China with deep suspicion because of its communist system and human rights record, the results of Beijing’s image-and-influence campaign are clear. Members of Congress “are starting to understand that the Chinese are not communist but that the Chinese are Chinese,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.). China is Oregon’s biggest export market after Canada.

“China is an overarching backdrop to almost everything that I am involved with,” said the seven-term congressman, adding that on matters as diverse as the U.S. economy, climate change and energy policy, “China is something that no one can ignore.”

A decade ago, U.S. politicians of all stripes routinely subjected China to attacks. Now acts of benevolence are more likely – such as a resolution commemorating the 2,560th birthday of Chinese philosopher Confucius, which the House overwhelmingly approved in October.

“There was originally this kind of anti-communist view of China,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who in 1979 became the first U.S. mayor to visit China when she ran San Francisco. “That’s changing. . . . China is a socialist country but one that is increasingly becoming capitalistic.”

The new openness toward China is often subtle and not shared by all. But an undeniable evolution is taking place, congressional staffers and analysts said, as members of Congress, many with increasing numbers of large and small businesses in their districts that depend on trade with China, are now far more likely to kill or water down measures opposed by Beijing.

The U.S. is tightly tied to this repressive regime. Given how much we owe them, these shackles won’t likely come loose any time soon. We are caught in a vise of our own making. However that doesn’t mean we don’t have room to maneuver. Ms. Currie provides an example of how we might move our next chess piece:

I understand that the George W. Bush Institute is planning a conference on cyber-dissidents this coming May. Wouldn’t it be amazing if, as part of this conference, President Bush and the other living former presidents got together and sent their own letter to Hu Jintao calling for the release of Liu Xiaobo? And if this came to pass, I wonder if the Chinese embassy would have the nerve to turn those guys away at the gate?

This is a good idea. The Chinese are inscrutable, right? (WAAAYCIST!) At least it would seem they have some sense of shame about their actions. Fort Liberty said, regarding the sentencing of Liu Xiaobo:

One positive sign is that the socialists at least have the decency to be embarrassed about this sort of behavior. The official state news agency, Xinhua, reported Liu’s sentence only in English.

Yes, that is a positive sign. It means they read the foreign press; there might be small cracks in the façade.

On the other hand, Ms. Currie’s suggestion, while an excellent idea, seems unlikely to happen. Can you imagine Jimmah from the Ummah or Bill Clinton being willing to sign on to any appeal to the Chinese? At the very least, Hillary would put her foot firmly down on Bill’s hand before he could pick up the pen. Such a show of solidarity sure is an entertaining thought, though.

By the way, did you know there was an entity called “The George W. Bush Institute”? I didn’t either. If anyone has information on it, please leave your tips in the comments.

5 thoughts on “China Has at Least Two Faces

  1. A neoliberal China would not be in the wests interests, Vaclav Havel should keep his concerns closer to home and capitol hill would do well to take down the for sale signs.

  2. By the way, did you know there was an entity called “The George W. Bush Institute”?

    Yep, I heard this mentioned about a year ago in an interview with President Bush where he compared himself to Harry Truman. Its mission is to promote the spread of freedom in the Middle East. I guess that’s now been extended to all unfree countries, incl. China.


    Here is Peter Hitchens on an underreported diplomatic compromise the British Foreign Office made with the PRC over Tibet:

    We fight to save drug-runners, yet sell a nation down the river

    It gets worse. It is not widely enough known that Britain also recently sold Tibet to the Chinese, while nobody was looking. How much did we get in return? This betrayal happened in late 2008, when Gordon Brown sought Peking’s help in propping up the International Monetary Fund – part of his efforts to stem the banking crisis.

    China saw our bankruptcy as its chance. For decades, it has resented the fact that Britain – having dealt with an independent Tibet in the days of Empire – insisted that Tibet’s position was special and different from the rest of China. This infuriated the Chinese leadership, who like to pretend that Tibet has always been part of their empire.

    We do not know exactly what happened, but a few weeks after the IMF approach, the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, slipped an announcement on to the Foreign Office website that Britain had finally – after 60 years of refusing to do so – recognised Tibet as ‘part of the People’s Republic of China’. This is a total and unmitigated diplomatic defeat, and a warning of worse to come as we learn to toady to the new superpower.

  3. @Sean O’Brian

    “It gets worse. It is not widely enough known that Britain also recently sold Tibet to the Chinese, while nobody was looking.”

    This was reported at the time, why the silence? The reason is that in modern times the support for Tibet was built on a neoliberal foundation.

    Distraction politics writ large, a form of politics that conservatives just can not get their heads around, the neoliberal as good cop – bad cop. They steal the political ground from beneath your feet rather than have a head to head confrontation.

  4. Liu Xiaobo received hundreds of thousands of US government funding via the NED in the past five years. Check NED’s China grants for Independent Chinese Pen Center and Zhongguo Minzhu magazine, which Liu heads.

    If Liu is American he’d be in violation of Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). Pray tell, why would we lament Chinese money corrupting our political process, while sending many folds more to China, to corrupt their political process?

    This is by no means a straight foward case of free speech. Liu took foreign money the Chinese government has every right to prohibit (as we do under FARA.)

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