My colleague Eugene Robinson is in China and wrote a column Wednesday that reads a little like Walter Duranty in the USSR. He says this is his first visit to the country but then plunges into an attack on those who take issue with China’s trade and human rights policies, calling such critics’ arguments “wrong” and imploring us simply to “cheer” China’s progress.
His first bit of “evidence”that China isn’t so different from the good old U.S.A? He’s in a really nice hotel. “My hotel is in the chic, yuppified Chaoyang District, just up the street from an Apple store, a Starbucks, a Calvin Klein boutique and just about every luxury retailer you could possibly name. An hour’s drive away, at the visitors center for the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, the first restaurant you see is a Subway. High-status automobile brands in China include not just Porsche, Audi and Mercedes, but also Buick.” Umm, so??
He concedes that doesn’t justify China’s unfair trading practices. But then what’s the point of raising it?
He says, “But when you walk the streets of Beijing, you see a huge, rapidly growing consumer society that in many ways looks much like our own. I know this is an oversimplification.” Actually, it’s horrible, tragically wrong.
I asked Daniel Blumenthal, an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, for his opinion. (He has spoken regularly with Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign about Asia but was speaking here purely for himself.) He was a bit dumbfounded by the column. He said that he would “suggest a visit by Robinson to the many women in China who have been forced to abort their second child thanks to the One Child Policy.” Blumenthal was just getting warmed up: “Or perhaps an orphanage where he can find untold numbers of abandoned baby girls. How about Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo in his jail cell? Or some Tibetan monks who have taken to burning themselves to protest religious repression. If he does have time to leave Beijing he can visit some of the villages where people’s homes have been taken from them without compensation to make way for some pet project of a favored Communist Party crony.”
A former Bush administration official, now at a think-tank specializing in China, was nonplussed, e-mailing me: “The bit about communism ‘self-immolating,’ in addition to not being factual, is in unbelievably bad taste when Tibetan monks actually are self-immolating under very communist, Cultural Revolution-style, Chinese rule in Tibet. Beyond tacky.”
Robinson does, in cursory fashion, recognize “the shameful human rights violations that the Chinese government commits every day — and of the government’s selfish, corrupt insistence on maintaining a monopoly of power.” So maybe China isn’t much like the U.S. after all? A Starbucks doesn’t make you pro-Western or just like America. It says nothing about your political system, to be honest. (It reminds me of the euphoria that greeted each new Soviet dictator. He drinks Scotch — just like us!)
But perhaps most troubling is Robinson’s attack on Perry, who expressed the hope that “the Communist Chinese government will end up on the ash heap of history.” Robinson has a problem with the sort of outbreak of freedom that swept Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s? He writes: “Yes, China is governed — in an authoritarian, repressive, at times shockingly brutal manner — by a regime that calls itself communist. But communism self-immolated two decades ago. Walk down any commercial street in Beijing and you see storefronts, venders and hawkers selling anything under the sun. Communism is no longer a system in China. It’s just a brand name that officials haven’t figured out how to ditch.” So perhaps Perry should have said he hopes “the government masquerading as a Communist government but really ‘just’ brutally oppressive will end up on the ash heap of history”?
Actually, China’s rulers very much cling quite cynically to their ideology, which it uses, as all totalitarian ideologues do, to crush dissent, brutalize its people and murder minorities. It’s very appropriate to hope for such a system’s decline, just as Ronald Reagan rooted for the rotting, corrupt Communist Soviet government to fall. But not to worry, Robinson is confident “the burgeoning middle class will find a way to cast off these shackles.” He wants us to cheer that, and we should. But cheering suggests that we do little or nothing about the regime itself. Blumenthal argues, “Yes, we should cheer the reformers on. Maybe Robinson can come home and visit with Obama. He can tell him to meet with just one of these dissidents and reformers. To my knowledge, our president has not yet done so.”
Perry and Mitt Romney, whom Robinson also dismisses as a hothead, see what Robinson does not: oppression, military aggression and economic criminality (especially with regard to theft of intellectual property). Blumenthal reminds us, “China has undertaken the largest military build-up since the end of the Cold War. Yet no nation threatens China. President Obama has responded by cutting our defense forces across the board, and make no mistake, our Pacific forces will be profoundly affected. Robinson should visit Taiwan, Japan, Australia, India, the Philippines. All have been intimidated by the Chinese military. They are the ones calling for a tougher China policy. Australia pushed Obama to place Marines in Darwin. They are frightened, as they should be. China’s military grows and we retreat.” He adds: “Obama is now pounding his chest with his ‘we are back in Asia’ rhetoric, but there is much less firepower to back up our supposed ‘return.’ ”
I hope Robinson’s column was the result of jet lag, and not the first in a series of Tom Friedman-like apologies for the brutal regime. I look forward to his accounts of meetings with monks, Christian minorities, mourning mothers, human rights activists and the rest.