Sunday, July 25, 2010

The long view from China

One disturbing moment that resonates now in Taylor Branch's The Clinton Tapes is Clinton's short-range reminiscence about his first meeting in 1993 with Chinese president Jiang Zemin. The stage is set with an account of the lack of personal connection or real dialogue (quite unusual for Clinton):
What stuck with him from Seattle was a tough private talk with the Chinese president, Jiang Zemin. Clinton said he and Jiang had sat across from each other at a small table about the size of the card table between us now, with only a translator on each side, as Jiang read a speech to him about the glorious history of China and the folly of attempts to influence her internal affairs. It went on so long that Clinton said he finally felt obliged to interrupt. Speaking in direct sentences, with all the charm he could muster, he invited the Chinese leader to get down to business. He told Jiang he didn't want to change China's political institutions. Nor did he object to prisons. In fact, America had lots of people in prison, and Clinton wanted to put away even more. But he did care about basic human rights, and, even if he didn't, he had a Congress that did. To improve relations, Jiang needed only to do a few things already permissible within Chinese standards and law. Clinton named four, including an effective ban on export goods made by prison labor. When he finished, however, Jiang simply resumed his speech.
The president said he and Jiang talked persistently past one another in disconnected monologues, and stiff formality further inhibited conversation  (87-88).
Then, recalling a later session, Branch tacks back to the upshot of Jiang's long-range view and its sobering effect on Clinton.  The passage segues from discussion of Russia:
"I think this is what the twenty-first century is going to be about," the president concluded. "How freedom will survive all these pressures where it's never really been tested."
These historical forebodings reminded me of President Clinton's somber mood about China in an earlier session. He said his reactions were similar but distinct. As opposed to inward dangers to Russia, and within Russia, he was more preoccupied with outward projections of Chinese power. When I asked if he could elaborate on anything Jiang Zemin might have said along these lines, the president vividly recalled their private meeting. He said Jiang was well aware that mammoth size and rapid growth destined his economy to become the largest on earth. Jiang's rhetoric in Seattle had invoked this future so lucidly that Clinton conceded to him the possibility that of a very different summit in fifty years, when some leader might try to cajole a U.S. president to "reform" our Constitution and laws along Chinese lines. Jiang declared that Chinese rulers believed in discipline for their people, not from them, and he bluntly diminished American self-government as a small and dubious blip on the Chinese calendar, not a monument of world history. In my notes, dictated moments later on the way home, I said I could only approximate the eloquent force of President Clinton's relayed quotation. "Look," Jiang told him. "It's wonderful that you have all this freedom, and all this money, but what do you do with it? You have 33,000 homicides by guns. Your cities are uninhabitable. Your schools don't work. You have rampant drug use, and you can't control your population. Who is to say that your freedom is worth it? (p. 109)
"Chinese rulers believed in discipline for their people, not from them."  One can only hope that hundreds of millions of newly affluent Chinese -- and hundreds millions of angry left-behinds -- will prove Jiang wrong.  At some moment when a bubble bursts and growth contracts or inflation runs rampant, something in China will blow.  Here's hoping that the destruction is creative, and controlled, and incremental, and that the Chinese, like the Asian tigers before them, adapt democracy to their culture.

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