Extended Interview: Former Ambassador Wu Jianmin

May 30, 2008 at 12:50 PM EDT

WU JIANMIN, professor at China Foreign Affairs University and former ambassador to France: I think in the final analysis what we have to do is to improve, you need to improve mutual understanding between China and the outside world. You know I was the Chinese ambassador in Europe for nine years. We constantly faced off with these big problems. Reality versus the perception. If you read Chinese press, I mean, it’s a different story. If you read international press you get a different image of China. So this, this gap between reality and perception that hurts everybody. That hurts Chinese, that hurts outside world. You know I think that in a way we are, we, we are in the same boat.

MARGARET WARNER: But what is it about China that the West doesn’t understand?

WU JIANMIN: First, they don’t like our system. They say look your system’s not democratic, you don’t respect human rights. You know why Chinese started the revolution? For human rights. Before 1949 Chinese population (was) 500 million people. Four hundred million people were hungry. And they couldn’t go on like that.

Today we are engaged in this huge modernization and undertaking — what for? For human rights, to make Chinese, every Chinese better. You know Western people, they look at China with Western eyes. They believe — some of them — we have to behave like them. It’s impossible. You are American and I’m Chinese.

Look, we have a lot of admiration for America, no doubt. You’ve got independence in 1776. When you elect your first president — 1789. How many people did vote? Only 4 percent of American people. Women didn’t vote. Black and slave didn’t vote. Those who didn’t pay taxes didn’t vote. And when the women got the right to vote, 1920. Black people got civil rights, 1964. I remember that speech of Martin Luther King, “I Have a Dream.” I was so moved when I heard this speech. Yes you, you are where you are after more than two centuries of revolution. How can you expect others to do the same thing as you? It’s impossible.

Same thing apply to France. I was the Chinese ambassador there. I say look, when you start revolution in 1789 — “liberte, egalite, fraternite” — fine. But when French women get the right to vote? Only 1945. I say, I would say that, this is a factual statement. I don’t want to embarrass you. Means what? Democracy is evolving in each and every country in the conditions of these countries. Outside forces can’t impose any model. There’s no universal model of democracy. Every country has to move on in the condition of their country. This is case for China.

You know a man of my age — I’m 69 — when the People’s Republic was proclaimed a state, I went through all these events. Today in terms of the freedom of expression (it’s) much, much better. In the so-called Cultural Revolution, Mao said he advocates democracy. You can blame anybody but Mao. If you blame Mao you would be in big trouble. Today, I think you’ll come to China, there’s no many taboos.

MARGARET WARNER: But there are taboos. I mean people are still afraid, they can talk about a lot of things but they cannot speak about issues in a way that seems to challenge the wisdom of the leadership. At least that’s what we find. People are afraid to do that still and they look at the people who do it, selectively are still put in prison.

WU JIANMIN: I think that what you say is not quite accurate. I’m in China. I’m academic. While you listen to these academic discussions, it’s eye-opening. They discuss everything. They express their views. How leadership looks at that kind of expression. I mean, I was in the Chinese political conservative conference. You know, I attended a debate, big discussion, certainly they say some good things about what’s going on. They say a lot of things about what, what goes wrong. Environment, etc. They voice their views, certainly. You use “afraid”, and I don’t believe and this is word that you use, “afraid”. People are expressing themselves. Maybe not in the way you, you have in U.S., but as I said earlier you are where you are after more than centuries of evolution.

China is China. We’re used to strong central authorities. More than 2,000 years. So we need a strong central authority to take the countries together, you know, rescue operations, you need a strong leadership. That’s why the prime minister was there to guide the rescue operation. I think what’s wrong means in terms of the communication between Western countries and China. I think people, this is what I say earlier, you tend to, you do expect China to behave exactly like you. It’s impossible.

Factors of modernization

WU JIANMIN: I'd like to make two points. First you've got to understand the philosophy of China's modernization. There are three key factors: stability, development, reform. We are striking a delicate balance between three. Stability, is seen as known condition for development. Development is the aim. We are facing many problems. I believe that only development can provide solution. Reform is a driving force. We can't afford to go too fast. Too fast will disturb stability.

You know, I went through so-called Cultural Revolution. Mao advocated democracy. Tell me ... how many parties, political parties did we have in China? More than a million. I was in Foreign Ministry. There are five so-called totalitarian rebel organizations. They didn't do anything about diplomacy. They were fighting each other every day. Through posters, through even with a fist. Now China was in chaos. That China being 1970 after Mao, when Mao passed away Chinese economy was on bank of collapse. Everybody suffered. Culture varies from one country to another. People have different cultures. We've got used to this concept of authority. We needed law and order. We need discipline. I mean, the way the Cultural Revolution would come back. Free speech, you can blame anybody but Mao. Then so what? Big chaos. This is why people hate the chaos. Why people tasted the first fruits of the reform and modernization. People want it to go on.

MARGARET WARNER: Is the bottom line, though, if China is, aspires to be a rising global power, that criticism of Chinese government policies internationally and also internally comes with the package? That is, the rest of the world now cares what happens inside China and what China does.

WU JIANMIN: Yes that will happen. The Chinese will get used to it. You see we, we would, I mean, we'll listen to that kind of criticism. Suddenly maybe they have some good evidence. We try to accept it. Maybe some things we can't accept. Yes. You know when you have growing cooperation with the rest of world, you have lots of benefits but the coin has two sides. You have to live with it.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Wu, thank you.

WU JIANMIN: Thank you, Margaret. Pleasure to talk to you.