Talks with China’s Leaders

“No,” said the General.  “If they declare independence, even if they don’t do anything, we invade.” We were talking about Taiwan in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People.  I was there in late June with a military delegation.  It’s not generally realized, but there are many levels of official contact between countries besides diplomatic: cultural, treasury, legal, and one of the most important, military, called in the lingo mil. to mil.

The Pentagon essentially has its own direct diplomatic life, much encouraged by the White House, to maintain close contact with the military in all friendly countries.  We have hundreds of foreign cadets in our military academies and ours attend theirs; staff officers go to each other‘s war colleges, we observe each other’s army and navy exercises, and so on.

Anyway, here we were last June in a big horseshoe of overstuffed chairs, the two lead figures from each side – both four-stars – across the top together with an interpreter in the middle, hidden behind a vase of flowers; and the respective delegations down each side.  Five of the Chinese took notes.  Afterwards, the group reconvened – nationalities interspersed, this time – around a table about ten feet across with an immense bouquet in the middle, for a twenty-course banquet.  (My week in China never involved less than a dozen courses for every lunch and dinner.)

I had just raised the point that Taiwan was growing steadily closer to the mainland, with hundreds of thousands of businessmen living there and conducting a huge volume of trade.  Furthermore, at one time Taiwan had been vastly richer than mainland China, so that unification could have cost it dearly, like West Germany paying for East Germany, whereas today conditions are much more comparable. Back then, the mainland really was Communist, while now it is pursuing free enterprise with frantic energy.  Finally, the U.S. has always held to the “One China” principle, and has said we would withdraw our defense umbrella in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence.  Absent our navy, Taiwan will not be able to resist being grabbed back by the mainland.  Sooner or later, therefore, reunion should come about of itself.  So why the continuous Chinese sabre-rattling; why seven hundred missiles pointed at Taiwan across the straits?  What’s all the fuss, including this issue always coming up first in discussions with the Chinese?

One answer is that they are irritated that we are denying them many advanced weapons that we do give Taiwan.  This looks two-faced, since it encourages Taiwanese separatist aspirations.  So the Chinese instead get fancy weapons from the Russians, including a 400-kilometer-an-hour torpedo and a carrier-busting cruise missile.  Not much fun for our fleet!  This torpedo, called the “Squall,” exudes a film of gas as it tears along, which means that water resistance to the hull is minimal.  We don’t have one like it.  Thus, not only does our embargo against selling some arms to the Chinese while providing them to Taiwan give a bad signal to Taiwan, it may be counterproductive as to China.

Our policy, which seems irrational, may be as a result of congressional pressure.  We no longer really have a dog in that fight, but the Taiwan Lobby has always, like the Israel Lobby and the Cuban émigré lobby, been immensely strong (perhaps against our national interest) since their causes mean so much to them. Mainland China should make more of an effort to be understood here, instead of letting itself be demonized. It alarms us by virtue of its huge size, amazing growth (its big cities are splendid), double-digit annual buildup in military spending (which they greatly understate), and for those familiar with that problem, their vast industrial espionage effort here.  On the other hand, China follows a rational and restrained foreign policy, and unless you count absorbing Tibet, has almost alone among large countries embarked on no foreign adventures for generations.  Even the Dalai Lama does not seek independence for Tibet (just a better deal), unlike some Hollywood enthusiasts for fashionable causes.  China needs to double its GDP several times between now and 2050 to reach the middle rank of developed countries, and says it can’t afford an expensive conflict.

Talking to the top Chinese – ministers, foreign affairs officials, party leaders – is quite a singular business.  First, contrary to my expectations, they were much more different one from another than our people were.  Most American generals and admirals are something of a type, while the Chinese varied from unmoving, oracular Buddhas to wild comedians; from tough guys to genial, charming, polished types speaking perfect English.  (Lots of young Chinese officials, including mayors, have studied in the U.S., by the way.)  The real bosses of everything in China are the Communist Party: an elite of 74 million, picked early in life, carefully developed, and sent to run every institution in the country – central and regional governments, state  companies, the military – the works.  That’s an advantage that China has over India.  India has a deep tradition of spirituality and doubt about the virtue of riches, whereas China has no such hesitation.  Napoleon said that in the knapsack of every soldier in the Grande Armée lay the baton of a field marshal – whom he brought along from the ranks – and certainly in the pockets of most Chinese is the calculator of an entrepreneur.  When Chairman Deng announced that they were all free marketers now, the Communist Party suddenly changed gears and the deed was done.  Mao, incidentally, although much revered for historical reasons, is also recognized as a monster, who killed tens of millions uselessly in his Cultural Revolution, and whose Great Leap Forward set back development for decades.

We should not belabor the Chinese about moving more rapidly toward “democracy.”  Like the U.S., China is a republic, meaning rule delegated to elected representatives, not government by poll.  They have before their eyes the example of the Soviet Union, which simply collapsed (along with the Soviet Empire), and want above all to avoid that fate.  That requires a lot of control.  They have hundreds of violent demonstrations a year, often about corruption.

Nor can we be surprised that in their scramble for energy sources, they buy a lot of their oil from countries we don’t like, such as Iran, Angola and Sudan.  China detaches business from politics, and feels that it does not enjoy the luxury of relating its urgent energy requirements to its political preferences.  (We cultivated a lot of stinkers ourselves during the Cold War.)

In most foreign policy matters the Chinese leaders profess to share America’s objectives: in Afghanistan (where they’ve been helpful), in opposing terrorism (which they have too, and think should be cured by fixing its causes), and in not wanting a nuclear North Korea or Iran.  If Kim Jong Il (who they profess to consider a wise, popular statesman, incidentally) goes nuclear, South Korea and Japan will follow suit, and there goes the neighborhood. However, the Chinese also claim to think that coping with North Korea, Iran, and terrorists is best done through “soft power,” as do many Europeans, rather than our willingness to brandish the big stick.  The Chinese are devoted to the Confucian idea of harmony, which they seek to follow in all matters, meaning avoiding violence.  On the one hand this may be sincere, and it’s certainly less costly; on the other hand it may be a desire to shove us out in front as the bad cop.  China has its own interests, and unlike Americans, who like to bash ahead, they follow the maxim of their favorite strategist Sun Tze: “Be subtle, be subtle.”

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On August 26th and 27th I was agreeably surprised to receive a two-day visit in Dark Harbor, Maine, where I spend the summer, from Zhang Zhijung, China’s Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs.  He was accompanied by their Counsellor of Embassy in Washington, but without any security arrangements.  I had neglected to invite him: he just decided to return my visit.

Zhang is an alert, likeable, well-informed man of 53 who speaks excellent English, having spent two years learning the language in England early in his career.  He seems to be typical of the new generation of Chinese leaders: entirely different from the old.  I understand that the next generation in their thirties is even more westernized and sophisticated.

I introduced Zhang to the town of Dark Harbor – winter pop. 600 – the town office, the head selectman and town manager, the school, health center, churches, the Masons, three clubs, the old folks’ home, the Historical Society, the Islesboro Forum, and the other dozen or so civil society institutions there.  This proliferation of local self-government organizations, which means that the island requires next to nothing from the mainland, and wants as little interference as possible, is typical of smaller towns all across America.  Things are really managed by “associations,” as Tocqueville, who found this characteristic extremely striking, called them.

At a dinner for our local notables, Zhang underlined that China is a poor country, and certainly cannot afford any major conflicts, at least for the present.  I observed that I agreed with him that attempts at foreign regime changes were often counterproductive, whereas supporting a benign new regime when it arrived could be very useful.  China, Vietnam and elsewhere had become benign without a regime change.  So patience was needed.

The next day we sped out for a picnic on Eagle Island in Penobscot Bay (pop. 12) where we linked up with former Ambassador Nicholas Platt, who had helped open our China office, and with whose family I have a traditional summer island picnic.  He had much to talk about with Zhang, who observed that he had collected some exceptional insights to describe in the Council of Ministers! ■