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The United States and China
The Nixons in China
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August 22, 2008

When Beijing was chosen to host the 2008 Olympic games, China pledged to improve its human rights records. And before the games, the government announced that Beijing would have three designated "protest zones" where citizens would be allowed to gather and seek public redress — after filing the proper paperwork.

But, as the Olympics progressed, the protest zones remained empty. According to the government, of the 77 requests received, 74 were withdrawn after the grievances were redressed through the proper channels, and the remainder were rejected as incomplete or against the law. Eyewitnesses, though, report that several of the applicants were taken away by plainclothes police and many are still missing.

In the interview with Bill Moyers, journalist Philip Pan explains that the Communist Party has more than international acceptance on its agenda:

Oh yes, they're worried about what the westerners will think of China. But primarily, they're worried about what the Chinese people think of the Party. They don't want the Chinese people to know that there are other voices. They want to present a united front, that this is an effective government, that everyone is happy with it, that this political system, a one-party political system married with capitalism, can be just as effective as a democratic system in the west. And they want their people to believe that.
Influence through engagement

Since Nixon famously opened relations between China and the U.S., it has been a foreign affairs commonplace that engagement is the only way to promote democracy and human rights in China. In the engagement theory, the west, lead by the United States, would engage China economically, culturally, politically, and our influence and example would in turn bring change in those areas to China.

In international eyes, China's embrace of economic freedom has not been accompanied by prerequisite political freedoms. Orville Schell, author of numerous books and articles on China, explained to FRONTLINE in the documentary, TANK MAN that after the uprisings of 1989 the party made a tacit agreement with the Chinese people:

After the massacre of 1989, [Deng Xiaoping], in effect, said, "We will not stop economic reform. We will, in effect, halt political reform." What he basically said to people was, "Folks, you're in a room. There are two doors. One door says politics, one door says economics. If you open the economic door, you're on your own. You can go the full distance, do basically whatever you want, get wealthy, help your family, have a bright future, move forward into a glorious future. If you open the political door, you're going to run right into one obstruction after another, and you're going to run into the state."
Philip Pan explained to Bill Moyers why even though they are criticized by much of the world — and many Chinese — for their human rights record, the Party may remain legitimate to many Chinese citizens:
What is the purpose of government, we have to ask? Isn't it to improve people's lives? And this is the argument that the communist government would make, that we have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. We do have one the strongest economies in the world. People are freer and they have more income. They're doing better. They're healthier. They're more educated than ever before. And isn't that enough to justify our authoritarian system? That's what they would say.
Pan, whose new book, OUT OF MAO'S SHADOW, documents the lives of many who have stood up to the regime, suggests that protestors themselves have to make a tough dilemma: "The dilemma facing all these individuals who are pushing for change in China, in different ways. They have to decide how much can they confront the state, and how much should they try to compromise. And it's not an easy process."

A Two-Way Engagement

Thirty years of engagement have had profound economic effects on both nations. The U.S. is now bound to China not only by diplomacy or how much it imports, but by a vast debt. The Chinese government saves roughly 50% of the money it produces — the highest rate in the world — and the overwhelming majority of that money is invested in United States dollars: $1.4 trillion.

Writing in THE ATLANTIC, James Fallows analyzes what it means that the richest country in the world is so indebted to one country:

Through the quarter-century in which China has been opening to world trade, Chinese leaders have deliberately held down living standards for their own people and propped them up in the United States. This is the real meaning of the vast trade surplus — $1.4 trillion and counting, going up by about $1 billion per day — that the Chinese government has mostly parked in U.S. Treasury notes. In effect, every person in the (rich) United States has over the past 10 years or so borrowed about $4,000 from someone in the (poor) People's Republic of China. Like so many imbalances in economics, this one can't go on indefinitely, and therefore won't. But the way it ends — suddenly versus gradually, for predictable reasons versus during a panic — will make an enormous difference to the U.S. and Chinese economies over the next few years, to say nothing of bystanders in Europe and elsewhere.

This is a situation without historical precedent. Some China watchers have argued that China now enjoys an additional amount of leverage in negotiations with the United States since they possess the ability to plunge the U.S. economy into chaos.

Speaking on China, Democrat Sen. Evan Bayh worried that the U.S. debt to China weakens the U.S.:

"There is no question that our indebtedness to China weakens America's hand," Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., told ABC News. "Our negotiating leverage with China on trade issues and Iran is severely limited by the amount of debt they hold."
But would China do it? James Fallows suggests it is not in China's interest to wield debt as a weapon:
Would the Chinese use that weapon? The reasonable answer is no, because they would wound themselves grievously, too. Their years of national savings are held in the same dollars that would be ruined; in a panic, they'd get only a small share out before the value fell. Besides, their factories depend on customers with dollars to spend.

But that "reassuring" answer is to others frightening. Lawrence Summers calls today's arrangement "the balance of financial terror," and says that it is flawed in the same way that the "mutually assured destruction" of the Cold War era was. That doctrine held that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would dare use its nuclear weapons against the other, since it would be destroyed in return. With allowances for hyperbole, something similar applies to the dollar standoff. China can't afford to stop feeding dollars to Americans, because China's own dollar holdings would be devastated if it did. As long as that logic holds, the system works. As soon as it doesn't, we have a big problem.

The time to debate whether or not to engage China at all may be past. But Philip Pan believes that the United States still has a lot of influence with China:

I think one of the disappointing things about President Bush's performance is that he hasn't been focused so much on individual cases....Now, some people say, "Oh, individuals. That's just individual cases. That's not going to have a long term effect on the country." But I think that these are the individuals who are changing the country. For example, you have evidence of this in other countries as well. If we hadn't pushed for Nelson Mandela's release from prison in South Africa, maybe events would have turned out differently there as well. So these individuals can make a difference if we help them.

>Find out more about the individual lives portrayed in Philip Pan's OUT OF MAO'S SHADOW.

Related Media:
FBI Domestic Spy PosterFRONTLINE: Young and Restless in China
An intimate look into the lives of nine young Chinese, coming of age in a society that's changing at breathtaking speed. (June 17, 2008)

FBI Domestic Spy PosterFRONTLINE: tank man
After all others had been silenced, his lonely act of defiance against the Chinese regime amazed the world. What became of him? And 17 years later, has China succeeded in erasing this event from its history? (April 11, 2006)
References and Reading:
China and The United States
"The $1.4 Question,"
by James Fallows, THE ATLANTICN MONTHLY, January/February 2008.

"In Yuan We Trust,"
by James Surowiecki, THE NEW YORKER, April 18, 2005.

"A Strategic Economic Engagement,"
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry M. Paulson, FOREIGN AFFAIRS, September/October 2008

General Information

Council on Foreign Relations Backgrounder: China and the Olympics

Human Rights Groups in China
China Labour Bulletin
"Founded in 1994 by labour activist Han Dongfang, China Labour Bulletin has grown from a small monitoring and research group into a proactive outreach organization that seeks to defend and promote workers rights in the People’s Republic of China. We are a non-governmental organization based in Hong Kong and have extensive links and cooperation with labour groups and law firms within China, as well as with the international labour movement."

"Our aim is to present news and comment on how labor unions, worker organizations, and their allies are confronting globalization."

Human Rights Watch: China
Founded as "Helsinki Watch" to support and protect individual dissidents and independent citizen groups in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Human Rights Watch has become an influential global human rights group.

PEN AMERICA: China Campaign
"Together with its Members and supporters, PEN calls for the release of all currently imprisoned writers, for complete media freedom, and for the end of internet censorship and a drastic reform of laws used to jail writers and suppress freedom of expression."

Amnesty International: The China Debate
"While the world focuses its attention on the spectacle of the Games and its celebration of human sporting achievement, Amnesty International will keep you up to date with news, information and debate on human rights developments in China. We will mobilize people worldwide to ask the Chinese authorities to make sure the Beijing Olympics truly deliver a positive legacy for the people of China."

Human Rights in China
"Founded by Chinese students and scholars in March 1989, Human Rights in China (HRIC) is an international, Chinese, non-governmental organization with a mission to promote international human rights and advance the institutional protection of these rights in the People’s Republic of China (China). HRIC’s board and staff include Chinese, North American, and European individuals devoted to fostering greater space for democratic reforms and social justice."

Committee to Protect Journalists: China
"A group of U.S. foreign correspondents created CPJ in response to the often brutal treatment of their foreign colleagues by authoritarian governments and other enemies of independent journalism."

Reporters Without Borders: Asia
International organization to defend the rights of journalists.

China Labor Watch
"China Labor Watch plays an important role in the promotion of labor rights in China . Through press releases, frequent updates of labor news on its website, in-depth labor reports, and communications with the media and other labor and human rights organizations, CLW presents the international community with an accurate picture of the labor situation in China."

Published August 22, 2008

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