Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Goldblog embellishes Clinton

N.B. This post was temporarily vaporized in the 24-hour Blogger outage last week.

I imagine that lots of people sucked in their breath when they read Hillary Clinton's comments about China as reported by Jeffrey Goldberg, who interviewed her at length for a cover story about U.S. response to the Arab Spring, and first presented the interview on his blog.

What Clinton said was startling enough -- far beyond the pale, as China close-watcher James Fallows points out, of the usual range of U.S. criticism of China, in that it questioned China's overall strategy for coping with internal unrest, rather than just specific actions. But I suspect that reception of her words will be strongly colored by Goldberg's gloss of them, which he offered rather breathlessly in a pull-out introduction to the edited interview transcript.

Here is what Clinton said (unglossed) in response to a statement-question from Goldberg:
JG: And (the Chinese) are acting very scared right now, in fact.

HRC: Well, they are. They're worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand. They cannot do it. But they're going to hold it off as long as possible.
"Trying to stop history" and "hold it off" could mean a lot of things. It could mean failing to foster gradual reform and an evolution of the current system.  Compare, for example, Clinton's expressed (semi-past) hopes for Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad:
And what we have tried to do with him is to give him an alternative vision of himself and Syria's future. So when a number of the members of Congress who have gone over to Syria come back and say both publicly and privately, "We think he really wants to reform, but he's trying to put together the political pieces to be able to do that," I think it's worth reminding him of that. And since I'm not going to be on a phone conversation with him, and I'm not going to fly to Damascus, I think that's one way of communicating with him. He's got to make the decisions, and thus far, it doesn't look like it's heading in the right direction. But there was certainly a lot of hope that he would begin to introduce the kinds of reforms that would help Syria get ahead of the curve.  
Now look at how Goldberg framed Clinton's China comments in his introduction:
It was during this part of the conversation, when the subject of China, and its frightened reaction to the Arab Spring, came up, that she took an almost-Reaganesque turn, calling into question not just Beijing's dismal human rights record, but the future of the Chinese regime itself. The Obama Administration has been ratcheting-up the rhetoric on China's human rights record lately, especially since the arrest of the dissident Ai Weiwei, but Secretary Clinton, in our interview, went much further, questioning the long-term viability of the one-party system. After she referred to China's human rights record as "deplorable" (itself a ratcheting-up of the rhetoric), I noted that the Chinese government seemed scared of the Arab rising. To which she responded: "Well, they are. They're worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand. They cannot do it. But they're going to hold it off as long as possible."

Clinton's assertion that the repressive Chinese system will eventually collapse brought to mind nothing so much as Reagan's statement, made to Richard V. Allen in 1977, about America's goal in the Cold War: "My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic," Reagan said. "It is this: We win and they lose."
Granted that Clinton did call into question "the future of the Chinese regime itself." She did not assert that the repressive Chinese system will eventually collapse. There are many countries that have made peaceful transitions from dictatorship or one-party rule to democracy. China's transition may be very rocky and it may be very slow.  But who expects it to fit the "we win/they lose" frame? Not, I think, Clinton.

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