Many Chinese place the United States on a pedestal that looms even higher from the capital of a nation facing a deep crisis in belief. The Chinese vest the United States with a moral authority that Americans are flattered by but are often loath to accept. For its part, the United States, in need of a hand around the globe, wants China to start acting like a superpower. But the Chinese — for tactical reasons or otherwise — reject the responsibilities inherent in big-power status even as they, too, are beguiled by the attention.
Ever since aggressive young U.S. merchants first washed up on China’s shores and earned the sobriquet “the new people,” the two sides have expected great things from each other. But over the 229 years that Americans and Chinese have interacted, they have rarely been satisfied. And yet irrationally, almost magnetically, they keep coming back to each other for more.
The current cycle began in February, when the first of two very different Chinese men sought shelter in a U.S. diplomatic outpost. The first one, Wang Lijun, is a policeman famed for his brutality but also known as someone who had run afoul of his political godfather — once one of the most powerful men in China, Bo Xilai. On Feb. 6, Wang left Chongqing, where he had overseen a reign of terror against Bo’s enemies, and drove 200 miles to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. There, Wang requested protection because he feared for his life. He apparently had been investigating Bo’s wife in connection with the murder of a British businessman. The upshot of Wang’s day-long stay in the consulate sent shock waves through China’s political hierarchy. Bo was purged from the party. His wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested. And the Americans handed Wang back to the Chinese.
Why did Wang seek U.S. help after laboring for years in the belly of a system that, according to its internal documents and even some public speeches, views the United States as an “enemy”? For the same reason that many of China’s leaders park their children in U.S. universities and their money in U.S. real estate. Political correctness in China disallows expressions of admiration, affection, respect and unity of purpose with the United States; officials make them at their peril. But these constraints mask a more complicated reality. Chinese remain moved by America. So while apparatchiks toe the party line, privately they still want their children at Harvard, cluck at an American-born grandson (as did China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping) or run — when there’s no place to hide — to the U.S. Consulate.
Predictably, Wang was not granted any form of protection. But his gambit might have saved his life, and it definitely altered the course of China’s upcoming political transition. When U.S. officials handed Wang back, they gave him to an official of the Ministry of State Security from Beijing. If Wang had stayed in Chongqing, chances are he would have died with his story.