In the spring of 1994 I visited a Chinese village in Shandong Province, the guest of one of my students from Qingdao University where I was teaching. On the first evening of my visit, a group of prominent village men came to join me and my host for dinner and, just as we sat down to eat, one of the men asked me, “Why is America always attacking China?”
I was thrown for a loop by his question since all my previous Chinese hosts and dinner guests had been routinely polite and indirect. Besides, U.S.-China relations didn’t seem particularly hostile at that time, so I was surprised to be plunged into a conversation via an accusation of international aggression.
I don’t remember my precise answer, but, as well as I can recall, I put together a broad explanation that probably churned out phrases like “long-term common interests between China and the U.S.,” blah blah blah, “shared interest in peaceful and mutually respectful relations,” yadda yadda “occasional disagreements,” etc. You know: diplomacy talk.
But in a way I had been prepared for my feisty friend’s accusation. By then I had spent half a year teaching Chinese university students and learning from them as they learned from me. One thing I definitely did learn from them was that they did not trust the United States government and they considered American criticism of China’s human rights record a morally empty power play aimed at “keeping China down” (their words).
Lunch with Chinese Peasant Family (2008)
Chinese Village Ladies (2008)
Before I arrived in Qingdao, I had taken for granted the idea that most Chinese appreciated American efforts to get the Chinese government to allow more personal freedom to its citizens in the areas of speech, religion and political activities. After all, who doesn’t want more freedom?
My mistake was in thinking that the average Chinese considered brave and tireless human rights advocates like Wei Jingsheng to be patriotic heroes and the United States, in supporting such heroes, to be a champion of the righteous and valiant “little guy.”
But no. Governmental control over the media was such that most Chinese considered human rights advocates to be troublemakers or even agents of foreign powers (like the U.S.) whose real goal was to “keep China down.” The argument of the average Chinese might have gone something like this: “America has always tried to keep China weak so as to take advantage of us. Today, the so-called interest in ‘human rights’ is just a cynical device to continue interfering in China’s affairs, and undermine China’s growing strength.”
Of course, the more educated Chinese – university professors, journalists, etc. – were more likely to sympathize with American human rights policies as were those Chinese who lived in cities like Shanghai and Beijing who had more contact with foreigners and, in the case of Beijing, had witnessed firsthand the brutality of governmental repression during the 1989 Democracy Movement. But these Chinese, sympathetic to America’s pro-human rights policies, represented a very small minority of China’s population.
Once I understood this, I shifted my own position. I had supported American economic pressure on China in the name of human rights, but I decided that such efforts were futile as long as most Chinese saw them as “anti-Chinese.” It seemed to me that it was important to encourage as much interaction between ordinary Americans and ordinary Chinese as possible over the long term with the idea that eventually more and more Chinese would come to see how freedom of speech and the free press work in the U.S. and would, of their own accord, begin to press for similar human rights in large numbers. The heroic struggle of a few brave individuals like Wei Jingsheng would turn into a tidal wave of demands by thousands of knowledgeable Chinese, many of whom would have spent time in countries where such freedoms are taken for granted.
Because of my change of mind, I took the time to write a letter to Winston Lord, who was then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, arguing that our government should make China’s most-favored-nation status permanent, and not have it hinge on human rights issues. This, I thought, would promote the robust economic and intellectual exchange between China and America that would help cultivate a generation of pro-human rights Chinese. I was glad when Congress and the Clinton administration did grant permanent MFN status to China and, some years later, when I had a chance to talk to Secretary Lord, he told me that a number of letters like mine that came from people with experience in China were one factor behind the administration’s switch to a pro-MFN policy.
Mr. Wei, in an op-ed in today’s New York Times, argues that America did the wrong thing in delinking human rights from the MFN issue. He believes that only by applying constant economic pressure on the Chinese government could the United States hope to see an improvement in the human rights situation in China.
While respecting Mr. Wei’s opinion, and, by the way, admiring his extraordinary courage, I am going to disagree with him. I continue to believe, as I came to in 1994, that China’s human rights policies will improve not by virtue of economic pressure from the U.S. or other outsiders, but only by virtue of a widespread transformation in the attitudes of the Chinese people themselves. And yes, I do see signs of such a transformation taking place among those hundreds of Chinese with whom I have talked and shared shots of baijiu over the past two decades.
Though the leaders of the Communist Party of China, like political leaders everywhere, will not willingly give up the absolute power they now wield, there are forces afoot that I don’t believe they will be able to withstand in the long run.
First of all, every new generation of educated Chinese is more liberal in its thinking than the one before it, and more aware of how things are done in other countries. The essential benefits of a more transparent governing structure and a more independent press are becoming increasingly obvious – and pressure from the United States is not the reason for this Chinese awakening.
Secondly, young Chinese are, above all, patriotic. They want to see their country grow prosperous and influential, taking its place among the leading nations of the world. And so it should. But, if it continues to be ruled by a secretive inner core of self-serving cadres who resort to terrorism against individuals like Chen Guangcheng to maintain their authority, it faces a real danger. China, as it takes its prominent place on the world stage is in danger of looking like a rough-mannered thug in an otherwise civilized gathering, a prospect that is best expressed in that old Chinese phrase diulian or loss of face. I don’t believe the bright young Chinese that I meet every day would feel comfortable at the prospect of this unflattering contrast.
Finally, the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 is on the horizon. This movement, launched by idealistic young Chinese was aimed ultimately at bringing about a modern, democratic society for China. Many of the May Fourth Movement’s goals have been achieved, but in the realm of democracy, the final goal remains elusive, as all the world knows, and more and more Chinese are coming to know every year.
What if the hard reality of economic pressure from the U.S. was not the answer to China’s lack of human rights? What if the upcoming generation of Chinese decided on their own to bring about the change that their great grandparents dreamed of back in 1919? This may seem like nothing more than a dream, but I suggest we be like Martin Luther King and not underestimate the power of an inspiring dream. I’m with Leonard Cohen who wrote these memorable lines:
The dreamers ride against the men of action,
Oh, see the men of action falling back.
I do have a dream, and I believe an ever-growing number of young Chinese in countries and communities around the world share it. As May 4, 2019, approaches, the power of this dream can only grow. The world will tremble when the millennial generation of Chinese fulfills the promise of this dream, and I believe the world will be a better place for having been so deeply shaken.