Pomfret's China

April 2008 Archives

April 7, 2008 12:00 AM

About Pomfret's China

Is China going to take over the world? Will it ever really become a superpower? Will the Communist Party ever engage in political reform? What do Chinese think of us? What's hot in Beijing, Shanghai, Kunming? What are the Chinese reading? Is there hope for better relations between Beijing and Taipei? What's the best thing written this week about China?

This blog will attempt to provide the broadest take on things Chinese -- in politics, culture, art, society, foreign affairs, economics and business. And who I am to bloviate about these issues? As a young "foreign devil," to use the Chinese term for foreigner, I first went to the People's Republic in 1980 and lived in a 10x15 foot room with seven Chinese guys for a year, played hoops and traveled across the country in packed railroad cars and rickety buses.

After that it was 1988 and 1989 as a reporter for the AP, covering the student-led protests and the June 4 crackdown around Tiananmen Square. I returned in 1998 for another six years as the Post's bureau chief in Beijing. I bought a house in Beijing, wrote a book, "Chinese Lessons," and then decided to exile myself from my adopted "motherland" by moving back to Washington. My day-job? I edit the Washington Post’s Outlook section.

I’ve been asked to close by telling readers what I hope they’ll get from the blog. Actually, I’d like to spin that on its head because I very much want this to be a joint effort. I want reaction, fulmination, criticism and maybe an occasional pat on the head. This won’t be fun without you. China is an amazing place; there are many stories to tell. I hope we can tell them together.

April 7, 2008 5:00 AM

Don't Expect Protests to Hurt Chinese Regime

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This year was supposed to be China’s grand coming out party. A par-TEH for The Party. Instead, it’s turning out to be most serious challenge to China’s Communist leadership since the student-led demonstrations since 1989. This doesn’t mean China’s (fortune) cookie is anywhere near crumbling. And it actually could mean that China’s regime will emerge from this stronger than before.

Let’s review the events of the last few months.

Starting in mid-March, Tibetans in five provinces rioted and demonstrated against China’s rule. A whopping 800 people have been arrested in Lhasa alone. That’s the biggest anti-Chinese uprising (and I think we can call it that by now, given the tens of thousands of security personnel dispatched to quell it) since Tibetans rose up against Chinese rule in 1959 during which the Dalai Lama fled China to India.

The Tibetans aren’t alone. Now the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs, a mostly Muslim, ethnically Turkic minority) of Xinjiang province are restless, too. In recent weeks, they’ve demonstrated against Chinese rule in several cities in Xinjiang – most notably Hetian – famed for its carpets and stringy lamb stew.

It’s obvious that people with a bone to pick with China’s leadership think the impending Olympics in Beijing are creating political space to air their demands.

What’s next? Well, we haven’t heard much in recent months from Falun Gong, the Buddhist-inspired spiritual sect and the object of an ongoing brutal campaign of suppression by the Chinese state. No doubt they are going to pile on soon as well. Who knows, maybe smack in the middle of the Olympics opening ceremony.

What about us unruly foreigners? We’re screaming at them about Tibet. We’ve been screaming at them about Darfur – and that’s only going to get noisier. We want them to allow the Yuan to float higher against the dollar. We want them to solve the North Korean nuclear problem; push Burma into the modern world and help convince Iran to shelve its program to build a bomb. The only bright spot in that arena is in Taiwan where, in late March, the Taiwanese elected Ma Ying-jeou as the next president. No doubt he’ll improve relations with China and will do a better job than his ham-handed predecessor Chen Shui-bian.

So is this going to weaken China’s government? On the contrary. The more pressure the Chinese get from foreigners and barbarians – which are actually synonymous in ancient Chinese – the stronger the system becomes. Indeed, China’s system feeds off this kind of adversity. The Communist regime has a peculiar genius for turning these types of threats into opportunities.

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April 8, 2008 11:18 AM

Who Are the Guys in the Blue Track Suits?

Unidentified runners carrying the Olympic torch near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on April 7, 2008. (Jacky Naegelen - Reuters)

One of the most interesting things in the anti-Olympic demos in London and Paris is the group of Chinese guys in blue and white track suits protecting the Olympic flame. They’re pushing and shoving everybody from cops to protesters to participants in the ceremony. Who are these guys?

According to the Xinhua news agency, the squad is called the Protection Unit for the Beijing Olympic Games Sacred Flame Relay and consists of Armed Police Academy cadets, with ranks. So basically Chinese soon-to-be cops.

I wonder if they got law enforcement visas...

April 10, 2008 1:15 PM

Is China Really Working?

Wow. Thanks to all of you who took the time to write. I hope I can keep up with you in the coming months!

One question I had reading the comments is this: Has China succeeded in creating an alternative model to that of Western liberal democracy? Does China’s amalgam of 19th century capitalism and 20th century one-party government represent a significant systemic challenge to the United States and its buddies in Western Europe? Simply put, is China succeeding where the Soviets failed?

One of the responses got me thinking about this. It came from Alec Lin, who described himself as a participant in the student-led demonstrations in 1989 that led to the bloody crackdown on June 4th around Tiananmen Square.

Lin’s posting captured for me an extremely important point about Chinese today that often goes unnoticed in the West. Basically, many Chinese are fed-up with hectoring from the Westerners.

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April 11, 2008 8:32 PM

Australia to China: Let's Not Be Friends

Does the West have a new secret weapon in dealing with China in the person of Kevin Rudd, the new prime minister of Australia?

Rudd is the only Western leader who speaks Chinese, and his Chinese is pretty good at that. But deeper still is Rudd's understanding of China.

Australian China scholar Geremie Barme unpacks Rudd's marvelous speech, given at Beijing University last week, in which he bluntly called on China to recognize its human rights problems in Tibet.

Most Western leaders probably would have either punted or come on too strong. Rudd's tone, however, was pitch perfect.

Rudd's brilliance in the speech involves turning the Chinese term "friend" on its head. Friend (pengyou in Chinese) and frienship (youyi) are two of the most distorted concepts in modern China culture. In modern China, a friend is someone who will do you favors and who expects favors in return. A "foreign friend" is someone the Chinese party-state expects will carry water for them and NEVER criticize them.

Whenever a Chinese official called me "foreign friend" (waiguo pengyou), I knew some type of horrible deal would soon be asked or expected of me.

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April 15, 2008 10:09 AM

Tibet Won't Move China -- But Taiwan Might

A lot of ink has been spilled, and rightly so, on Tibet. But is it possible that the bigger story happening in Asia right now is what's going on between China and its other unruly relative - Taiwan? Is it also possible that the troubles in Tibet could be setting the scene for faster breakthroughs vis-a-vis Taiwan? I think so.

Here's why.

Over the weekend China's president, the purposely boring Hu Jintao, met with the purposely boring vice-president elect of Taiwan, Vincent "Smiling" Siew, in the purposely sleazy resort province of Hainan in southern China. The meeting amounted to the highest-level contact between officials from Taipei and Beijing, which claims that Taiwan is part of China, since 1949 - the year when China's Communists won a civil war and the defeated Nationalists scurried to Taiwan. More recently, the two sides have had no substantial talks in eight years.

The Post briefed the meeting in our Sunday paper. The Times filed something on its website today in a piece that argued the planned dialogue won't amount to much because the Tibet situation would constrain China's leaders on any openings with Taiwan. Just the opposite, I think.

The election last month of Siew and Ma Ying-jeou, the Nationalist candidate for president, in Taiwan means that after eight years of failed leadership by President Chen Shui-bian, who bungled the island's security and its economy, relations between Taipei and Beijing are likely to improve. Leaders from the two sides are finally talking about establishing direct flights. (It takes a day to get from Taipei to Shanghai, home to 250,000 businessmen, right now. If the flights were direct, it'd take an hour.) Pres-elect Ma has said he wants to end most restrictions on Taiwanese investment in China. (A recognition of reality considering Taiwan's businessmen have already sunk $100 billion or so in mainland factories.)

This is good news, but not just for the economy of the region. It's also good news for those who care about the preservation of the world's only majority-Chinese democracy (Taiwan) and the prospect of political change in China.


For eight years, outgoing President Chen basically advocated that Taiwan declare independence from China. He couldn't say it openly because 1) China threatened to fire missiles at Taiwan if Taiwan took such an act (...not fun) and 2) the United States, which is obligated to (kind of) defend Taiwan under the very ambiguously worded Taiwan Relations Act, has told Taiwan that if it declared independence we probably wouldn't be overly eager to run to its defense. So Chen resorted to a policy of what the Chinese liked to call "creeping independence" which basically meant seizing every opportunity to enrage Beijing. In the end, however, Chen - and Taiwan -- didn't get bupkis. Taiwan failed to improve its security. And China had a strong argument against any kind of democratization. Look at Taiwan, Beijing's mandarins would say, they have democracy and they want to split the motherland! That's a powerful argument over there.

So enter Ma, the Harvard-educated pretty boy of the National Party. He turned his strategy 180 degrees from Chen's. Needlessly antagonizing China, he's said, makes no sense. The keys to Taiwan's security and - critically - to the preservation of its full-throated democracy, he argued, are good relations with Beijing, not the constant tension Chen seemed to crave. This type of thinking upset some in Washington who frame dealing with China in a smart (and somewhat complex) way with Panda-hugging or collaboration with the godless Commies. But I think that Ma is right.

The reason is that as long as Taiwan stops purposely pissing off China, most of the Communist leadership will be happy to let the whole issue of Taiwan's sovereignty float for decades as long as everybody is making money. That will boost Taiwan's economy, grant China time to change and decrease the possibility that the US will have to go to war to defend Taiwan. This peaceful interim will also give Taiwan time to push China's political system in the right direction.

And that's a key here. The only territory in the world with the capability to teach China about democracy is Taiwan. It won't be Hong Kong, which was, is and will always be just a glitzy colony - whether to the old rulers, the Brits, or the new ones, the Chinese. It's definitely not the West. If there's anything the Tibet situation has shown it's that the gap in understanding between us and China is vast and growing bigger.

But once China's propaganda czars can no longer paint Taiwan's democracy with the tar brush of "splittism" or "treason" (which they gleefully did while Chen was president), its political system will become a lot more attractive to the Chinese.

Now, how does Tibet play into this?

China's president Hu has already pretty much ruled out any major breakthroughs with the Dalai Lama. China's state-run media have reverted to propaganda from the Cultural Revolution with a 9/11 twist, describing Tibet's spiritual leader as a "jackal" in a monk's habit and a "terrorist."

But Beijing is desperate for some type of international breakthrough to show the world in this, its Olympic, year. Why not Taiwan? Arguments that flexibility on Taiwan would be impossible because it'd be inconsistent with toughness on Tibet don't wash. When the chips are down (and they are down for China right now), expediency wins. Taiwan could be the beneficiary. And that'd be good news.

April 17, 2008 7:00 AM

China Bashing: It's Back

For better or worse, it's safe to say that we're at the doorstep of a new era of China bashing in the West. The post-Tiananmen Square crackdown honeymoon where the zeitgeist was "we can all get rich together" is over. It's been replaced by China = bad guy.

Across the Western democracies - from the U.S. to Britain, France, Italy, Germany, a fear of China is rising and shows no signs of abating. A new poll by Harris, released Wednesday by the Financial Times, indicates that China has overtaken the U.S. as the biggest threat to global stability in the eyes of Europeans.

“The story of the last five years has been about economic opportunities," said Mark Leonard, executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and author of What Does China Think? told the FT. "The story of the last six months has been about China as a threat in Darfur and in Tibet."

That story is pretty much the same in the U.S. Last month, Gallup reported that after three years of relatively mixed views toward China, Americans have turned sharply negative against the Middle Kingdom. In that poll, China replaced North Korea (anyone remember the Axis of Evil?) as one of the top three U.S. enemies - after Iran and Iraq. And that poll was taken before Tibet was engulfed in protests and the Olympic torch relay morphed into a circus.

But it's not just in polls where you sense the shifting zeitgeist. Even a casual peruser of the editorial pages of leading American newspapers - or shows such as CNN's The Situation Room where Jack Cafferty recently described Chinese products as "junk" and called China's government "a bunch of goons and thugs" -- can figure out that it's open season on China. Same holds true in a new crop of thrillers where Chinese villains have replaced old Soviets, those feline French and wild-eyed terrorists as the rogues du jour. Check out NY Times reporter Alex Berenson's "The Ghost War" or Colin Harrison's "The Finder," both published this year. It's not quite Yellow Peril time, but ....

A few years ago, China's sizzling economy was viewed as an opportunity. Now, perhaps because we're flirting with a recession, it's a threat. In terms of a challenge from Asia, China circa 2008 is the new Japan circa 1980.

On the military side, China is the new Soviet Union. A few years ago analysts generally pooh-poohed China's modernization. "The Million Man Swim" was how one analyst described a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan. Not any longer. China's military (which has been rewarded with double-digit budget increases every year except one since 1989) can now shoot satellites out of the sky and has begun to roam the high seas.

When it comes to human rights, again, China is the new USSR.

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April 23, 2008 1:52 PM

Chinese Nationalism Threatens Beijing

Just how scary is Chinese nationalism? Just how serious are the thousands of Chinese about boycotting Carrefour - France's version of a big box store with more than 100 outlets in China?

On May 8, 1999, hours after US missiles slammed into the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, I was out on the streets of Beijing near the US embassy as a line of buses disgorged hundreds, if not thousands of students. A Chinese researcher rode up to me on his bike. It's the Boxers, he said, referring to the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century. The Boxers killed their share of foreigners and believed that bodies hardened by lotsa kung-fu fighting could stop bullets. I laughed. Then a brick whizzed past my head.

Still, I've never really been able to take China nationalism that seriously. It's like some of the comments on my blog. There's no shortage of passion but it's also curiously skin deep. It's often a foil for anti-government feelings, employed by Chinese who are actually fed up with Communist Party rule but aren't allowed to say it. Finally, it often masks deeper divisions in Chinese society. Whenever I read a Chinese blogger urging an anti-foreign boycott or some other type of joint action, I'm reminded of the telling saying that Chinese have about themselves. "A Chinese alone equals the power of a dragon, but three Chinese, nothing but an insect."

Militant nationalism is a loaded term; it raises the specter of 1930s Germany and Japan. Scholars and pundits on all sides of the political divide in America like to toss it around when speaking about China. On the panda hugging side of the aisle, they invoke "militant nationalism" when they argue that we shouldn't be tough on China. "Don't push those Chinese because they might get ultra-nationalist on you," they warn, taking their talking points almost directly from friends in China's party-state. The right, too, loves to fan the flames of our fears. China's ultra-nationalists are coming, it warns, so we need to bolster our military forces, arm Taiwan, harden Guam, snuggle up even closer to Japan.... Both lines of reasoning are flawed, I think. Here's why.

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April 25, 2008 1:07 PM

Chinese Respond to Pressure, But Will the Dalai Lama?

Two events in the last day show a lot about how to and how not to deal with China.

First, according to the official Xinhua News Agency on Thursday, China will be resuming talks with representatives of the Dalai Lama. Good news. And a smart move on China’s part that was taken, no doubt, because of substantial Western pressure. I’m doubtful it’s going to go anywhere; partially because of the Dalai Lama (more on that below), but the move shows something important to the “Chinese never respond to pressure” school of diplomacy, popular among some China buffs in Washington or around the globe.

China does respond to pressure; obviously, it needs to be consistent, rationale, not shrill and focused. But China does respond. (For another example, look at China’s exchange rate. The greenback dropped below 7 yuan for the first time since the ‘90s earlier this month. The Chinese have quietly revalued their currency – again due to Western pressure. Now why wasn’t pressure supposed to work again?)

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May 2008 »

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