Could there be anything
worse than being the leader of a nation in decline meeting the
leaders of the nation that will soon displace your country as the
world’s pre-eminent power? That must be the sense with which US
President Barack Obama met with his counterpart Hu Jintao and other
political leaders in China this week. It explains why, in large part,
the leader of the free world chose to tread softly on key issues on
which he should have taken a much firmer stand.
And time is running out for
that stand to be made.
China now looks set to soon
rival the US’s hegemony, certainly in Asia, but possibly much
further afield too.
The pity is that while
America has considerable life and potential left in it, President
Obama seems to have given up. He came to China not only cap-in-hand
but also on bended knee. Americans who have been concerned at seeing
their President bow before Saudi royalty and the Japanese Emperor
should be more concerned about seeing him kowtow to China’s
Even before his visit signs
were that Mr Obama might act deferentially towards China. He declined
a meeting with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader,
in June to avoid offending Beijing ahead of the visit. While
President Obama might have thought he was giving face (gei mianzi)
to China’s government by deferring the meeting, it could be
construed by many in China as a backdown -– something that would
entail significant loss of face (diu mianzi) for America –-
a sure sign of its weakness.
This visit made comparisons
of him with President Kennedy finally ring hollow. No “ich bin ein
Beijinger” speech was heard on this trip, not even when President
Obama told university students in Shanghai that China should make the
Indeed, President Obama lost
more than just face by not raising a number of key issues, or not
raising them loudly enough, during his visit. He squandered an
opportunity to speak truth to power -– as John F. Kennedy and other
presidents have done.
Too much left unsaid
What are some of the issues
that the leader of the free world should have raised more forcefully
The Tibetan issue is one.
The plight of the minority Turkic-speaking Uyghur people in the
Western Xinjiang region is another. Both Tibet and Xinjiang with
their very different and very religious ethnic groups sit uneasily in
China which has had in place an unofficial policy to drown their
cultures through migration of majority Han Chinese into their regions
since the 1950s. Dissidents from both regions have termed this
Tibetans and Uyghurs were
not looking for President Obama to support independence in either
region; most of their leaders are realists. But they probably
expected him to speak more strongly in support of better treatment
and more autonomy for them within China; to stand up for their rights
as fellow human beings; to speak out against indiscriminate arrests,
imprisonment and even the death penalty used against those who dare
to question Beijing’s rule. But he didn’t.
To his credit Mr Obama did
call on Beijing to resume talks with the Dalai Lama on the future of
Tibet. However that request was almost hollow as China has little
intention of holding serious talks with the Tibetan leader, having
opted instead to bide time until he dies and Beijing can declare its
own candidate as the next Dalai Lama.
As is standard practice in
China in the lead-up to visits by heads of state or major events in
the country, such as last year’s Olympics, high profile dissidents
were placed under house arrest or had their movements severely
curtailed. And many other dissidents, including religious leaders,
primarily Christians and Muslims — considered too “dangerous” for
the State, languish in the Chinese gulag. What did President Obama say
in their defence?
These issues are probably
lower on the President’s agenda than they were during the primaries
when he and chief rival and now Secretary of State Hilary Clinton
were talking tough about China. Or maybe that was just campaign
rhetoric; something conveniently forgotten now that America needs
Chinese support on so many other issues from climate change to
nuclear proliferation, and not least of all to shore up its own
Is this a case of real world
politics before the high minded principles necessary to win
And then what of the issues
not raised at all-– China’s one child family policy and forced
abortions? These are probably very low on the list of US priorities
in relation to China. But they are significant matters in a country
where a couple can lose its freedoms and rights to social services if
they have a second or third child. Is not the right to choose how
many children you want important enough for the leader of the free
world to raise? What about when the punishment for making that choice
infringes the basic human rights of the parents and families
It’s ironic that Mr Obama
was visiting China on the 20th anniversary of the fall of
the Berlin Wall. Most importantly it gave us an opportunity to
contrast Mr Obama’s leadership with the leaders of the free world
at that time –- Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Had they
chosen to bow to dictators, Communism would still be reigning in
Eastern Europe and Russia.
Not quite the silk road
While the US might be in the
economic doldrums at present, it still commands political and moral
leadership because of the merits of the system that made it great. It
has and should stand on its moral authority. But time is running out.
Tinpot despots in Africa are now looking to the Chinese system as a
viable alternative. If they want to hold on to power while
simultaneously achieving economic success, they must be thinking, why
not take the Chinese Road. The stronger China’s economic rise makes
it, the harder it will be for the West to dissuade other countries
from the route of political repression.
The West has a small window
of opportunity to challenge the China Road. But it is a window that
is fast closing as China’s economic power grows. At stake are the
rights of billions of people in Asia and Africa. Dissuading others
from the China Option requires strong leadership now.
It’s also necessary if
America is going to regain face in China.
Constance Kong is the pen name of a Shanghai-based