Schooling China in the American Way

Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) spoke to university students and faculty in Beijing.
Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) spoke to university students and faculty in Beijing. (By Claro Cortes Iv -- Reuters)
By Peter S. Goodman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 23, 2006

BEIJING, March 22 -- Three United States senators came to one of China's most prestigious universities on Wednesday, ostensibly to talk about trade. What they delivered was an expansive, almost evangelical campaign for American values -- one that received pushback from their audience of students and faculty.

The senators talked about an unfair advantage they say Chinese exporters enjoy over American firms because of the low-value currency. They implored China to adopt the norms of global trade. In strikingly moral tones, they pledged Washington's resolve to pressure China to liberalize not only its currency regime but also its political culture, using trade as a wedge for broader reform.

Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told the Tsinghua University audience that his model of leadership is "a man by the name of Jesus." He later quoted Martin Luther King Jr. as he urged China to do "the right thing" on trade policy.

Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told the students that, post-9/11, Americans are committed to taking on whatever battles seem imperative -- China's cheap currency, along with al-Qaeda.

"In my country, we're very arrogant, and I admit to it," Graham said. "You have to understand that Americans have for 200 years fought and died not just for our freedom, but for other people's freedoms."

Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat who has led the drive to force China to raise the value of its currency, the yuan, said economic reform leads toward a free society. "I believe it is inevitable that China will have much more freedom," he said.

But when the time came for questions, the reaction from students and faculty -- though polite and reserved -- revealed how the American campaign for a free-floating Chinese currency has backfired in some quarters. Many here resent the specter of the world's lone superpower seemingly attempting to dictate how Beijing should manage its economy and the values that should govern Chinese society.

A 21-year-old architecture student who gave his name as Albert rejected the idea that the civil liberties the senators suggested have universal appeal.

"Have you ever thought that it is probably the freedom of speech that you guys promote that finally resulted in this terrorist attack," he said, calling 9/11 an act of "revenge" for American offenses against Islam. "In China, we have promoted the harmony that would have prevented this kind of attack."

Schumer leapt from his chair. "I don't think you understand the concept of freedom of speech," he said. "It is our American understanding that freedom leads to stability."

Economist Li Daokui, a member of Tsinghua's faculty, told the senators that he lived in the United States for more than 15 years and "loves the country." But he warned them that the senators' pressure for change was provoking a defensive response from those who might otherwise be friendly to reform.

"Democracy, personal liberties and freedom of speech: These are ideals," Li said. "My worry is that if some people press things too quickly, you will undermine the whole process."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company