THE US PEACE Institute on March 7* held a full day of activities celebrating the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to the People’s Republic of China. The discussions were stimulating, as far as they went—but the main problem, of course, is that they didn’t go far enough.
After welcome remarks by dignitaries, the PRC foreign minister Yang Jiechi—the guy who said “there is no such thing
” as Gao Zhisheng being tortured—was brought in by video link. He said nothing about the actual subject of the day, the 40th anniversary of Nixon's visit, but instead gave the standard warnings to the U.S. not to say things the PRC doesn’t like about Tibet and Taiwan, and emphasized the importance of cooperation between the PRC and the United States. This was a theme that would be repeated, mantra-like, throughout the day.
The crowd in the morning.
The event was organized as a series of successive and concurrent panel discussions and keynote speeches. Following Yang was a panel moderated by David Ignatius of The Washington Post, where Robert Kagan, Stapleton Roy, General Brent Snowcroft spoke.
They engaged in a free-wheeling discussion on the fundamental basis of America’s China policy since Nixon’s rapprochement policy.
Stapleton Roy made two key observations: firstly, that Nixon’s trip was to a large degree driven by domestic concerns and being able to play the PRC off the Soviet Union. “It gave us an enormous card to play,” he said. To put it another way, decisions were made on the basis of the perceived interest of American foreign policy, rather than being driven by considerations of what would be best for the people of China. That’s natural, of course, but also important to clarify in case anyone wanted to argue otherwise.
Roy also made the point that if Nixon had not made the trip in 1972, the factions in the Communist Party who were pro-engagement with the US would not have gained the upper hand. In this view, America’s open arms were a necessary condition for the reform and development that came in the late 1970s led by Deng Xiaoping. The other faction was the Gang of Four types, “who spoke an ideological language that meant there would be no cooperation with the United States,” according to Roy. These hardcore communist ideologues would have had the rule of the roost if not for the U.S., Roy indicated.
It’s difficult to say which path would have led to the least misery for the Chinese people—the current situation where the Party remains in power, or a scenario where ideologues eventually drove the country into the ground, probably in the end destroying the Party’s own grip on power and allowing an actual new China to be built. Let's put that question in the historical 'what if' basket.
Roy said that America’s China policy “is the most successful American foreign policy in the last fifty years. Presidents of both parties have come to the notion that broadening and deepening our relationship with China is in the national interest,” he said. It’s hard to know how to evaluate statements like that—what is the criteria for judgment? How was success defined? What were the alternatives, and what have been the opportunity costs of the current arrangements?
In fact, the question of alternatives to the current doxa was not addressed even once throughout the entire day, and this goes to the heart of what it was about: back-slapping among the small group who conceived of U.S. China policy, and whose ideas and approaches, 40 years on, still hold sway. The systemic exclusion of viewpoints and individuals who take a different tack on the China question is my biggest complaint with the way this event was executed (It's true that Mr. Kagan's inclusion, and a few other speakers on the panels throughout the day, added a degree of diversity to the viewpoints presented.) Why not invite people who would have offered a critical assessment of U.S. China policy, then and now, rather than the usual suspects who only say the same, happy things?
In the middle of the morning Zbigniew Brzezinski addressed a sitting audience in the Grand Hall. The sound system was not working and he was impossible to hear until one of the staff members shepherded a small group downstairs. He made jokes about the Chinese dictatorship that seemed in poor taste. Lunch was served.
Tom Brokaw resting his hand on his chin, chewing the fat with Henry Kissinger.
Kissinger spoke while people were eating. He reminisced wistfully on the awe, mystery and magic of the Chinese communist leadership, the quirks and sagacity of Mao, and the shrewdness of Zhou Enlai. From his discussion, one would not have had any idea that the former was a paranoid tyrant, a mass murderer responsible for the violent deaths of tens of millions of innocent people, and that the latter was for decades his pusillanimous right-hand-man. In that context, Kissinger reminiscences can only be rejected as amoral and repugnant. But lunch was good.
Following Kissinger were three simultaneous panels, giving the event a university-type feel. Which one are you going to? The one on the economy, the one about domestic transformation from Mao to Deng, or the one about changing perceptions of China? (I went to the first.) There was nothing particularly groundbreaking in this discussion. It produced useful insights, but was also host to many of the weary old platitudes about an ineffable Chinese “5,000-year-old society,” and comments like “never lecture the Chinese.” We get it. We’ve been hearing this stuff for years.
The basic point of the day’s event was this: China and the U.S. need to emphasize their mutual interests; fundamentally, they share many interests; they need to not misunderstand each other; and through dialogue and efforts at cooperation, both sides will work everything out.
The panel on the economy in the afternoon.
The fundamental assumption underpinning this—unspoken, definitely unspoken—is that the interests of the Chinese Communist Party are aligned with the interests of China as a country and a people, and as a consequence, that the CCP’s interests are fundamentally reconcilable and aligned with the interests of the United States. But this is a highly questionable assumption. The fact that it is left unstated, undefended, and unjustified, and yet it is the implicit basis for the entire current approach to China–though one must tip one's hat to Obama's "pivot" and recent willingness to do something about trade issues–seems rather troubling.
Perhaps when the U.S. and the world sees that the interests of the CCP diverge often markedly from the interests of China and its people, and of the interests of the United States, we will see a more robust and mature China policy–and events like this will have more of a questioning air, rather than simple short-sighted self-congratulation.
*Readers are owed an apology for the delay. And also, perhaps, for the slightly polemical tone, which I usually do not appreciate in other writers, and will attempt to avoid in future.
Photos by Matthew Robertson/The Epoch Times.