Thursday, November 12, 1998

Bill Clinton, Pat Robertson and Fan Shidong: Their Impact on U.S.-China Relations

Based on a presentation given before the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, November 9, 1998

I was first invited to speak at the Commonwealth Club over two years ago. The invitation came from Dr. Gloria Duffy, Chief Executive Officer of this organization, and it was to engage in a debate with Harry Wu about human rights conditions in China. Mr. Wu's response was that he would gladly speak about the subject but would not participate in any debate. Thus, that invitation came to naught.

Naturally I was disappointed, because this country has had a terribly distorted view of China causing a severe case of jaundice on the entire bilateral relationship. In my view, Mr. Wu along with certain members of Congress and the mainstream media have created an image of China that is coming straight from the funhouse mirror.

Henry Rowen, a former senior official in the Bush adminstration and now a senior fellow at Hoover Institution found that in the first half of the '90s, the mainstream media ran articles on China with a ratio of 12:1 on the negative side. In other words, for every positive or objective article on China, there were 12 criticizing and/or castigating China. Prof Rowen defined mainstream media as consisting of New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Time and Newsweek.

With that kind of tilt in the press, it is almost impossible for the American public to develop a balanced view of China. Yet it is in our interest, as well in the interest of the entire world, that the U.S. and China remain engaged in a positive and rational manner. Thus, for the sake of my children and grandchildren, I was then and I am eager now to participate in forums where I have an opportunity to help clarify some issues. Just so there is absolutely no confusion, I want to say at the outset that I am an American, my children are Americans and my grandchildren are Americans. I am speaking from an American's perspective in the interest of all Americans.

Thanks to President Clinton's trip to China with the massive media in tow, to the sobering after effects of the Asian financial crisis, to the bankruptcy of the Russian economy, to Bosnia, Kosovo and most recently to the Israeli-Palestinian accord, bashing China is for now not a favorite pastime. I welcome this opportunity to talk about China during the interval of calm before the next storm. The seismic changes taking place in Washington stemming from the recent election may keep the storm clouds from gathering on China for a while, but I would hardly think that the bilateral relationship will always be sunny from here on.

Some of you may have noticed that the title of my talk emcompasses a curious collection of names from President Bill Clinton to Pat Robertson to Fan Shidong. No doubt, many of you are assuming that I selected this title to be titillating. Maybe so, but it is no more scandalous than to see Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi in the same political bed with Senator Jesse Helms lashing out at the Beijing regime for real or imagined offenses.

Aside from drawing up a title to attract an audience, the three gentlemen do have something in common. They have all made a historic trip across the Pacific, and have in my view some important things to say to China or about China, and if we listen--more importantly, if Congress will listen-- they will help put the bilateral relationship on a new track. Let me explain by first reviewing each person's trip, then I will attempt to pull it all together.

President Clinton's Historic Visit to China

First the easy one. When Bill Clinton decided to move his trip to China up to late June, he had to withstand a firestorm of criticisms ranging from his attempting to duck the Monica scandal--which if that was his intention, he didn't succeed-- to coddling with dictators. He also got unsolicited and malicious advice.

He was advised not to go near Tiananmen Square. Can you imagine the President on arrival in Beijing saying "Excuse me, I know that the Great Hall of the People is where you receive heads of state, but in my case please go ahead with the 21 gun salute without me?"

It was also suggested that Hillary Clinton wear white as a sign of mourning in memory of the students that died in June of 1989. If you remember the pomp and ceremony as the Clintons entered the Hall, you would realize her wearing white would've been unnoticed or if noticed, would have made her look mighty silly.

Instead, President Clinton became the first foreign head of state to address the Chinese people live, not once or twice but three times. First time at the Great Hall alongside President Jiang, second time at Beijing University in front of an audience of mainly students, both of these were televised to national audience, and third time on a radio talk show in Shanghai.

I believe as a result of this trip, Jiang and Clinton finally developed the rapport and mutual respect needed to maintain a dialog between two major heads of state. The Chinese people got a sense of the Western concept of democracy. Just as important, if not more so, President Clinton and his entourage including the media, may finally begin to realize that democracy, Western style, isn't the red hot issue among the younger generation in China that they may have presupposed.

Instead of fomenting dissent and espousing democracy, expected from the cradle of agitation that led to the 1989 Tiananmen protest, the student questioners at Beijing University addressing the President were pointedly more interested in knowing about U.S. attitudes and plans for the bilateral relationship. One student asked if U.S. has any human rights problems and what has been done about them. None showed any inclination to take up the U.S. point of view in the friendly debate about human rights and personal freedom.

What the students at Beijing University and later the people of Shanghai that participated in the radio talk demonstrated is that the people of China know a lot more about America than Americans know about China. This should be a strange conclusion considering that they are supposed to live in a closed society and we in an open society. Probably says something about the way our media covers China and about our interest in international relations (vs. domestic relations).

The Chinese respondents also showed that their concern about the future of China is just not the same as America's concern. President Clinton stressed the importance of individual freedom to the future of China and argued that China's long term stability will depend on the granting of personal freedom. The Chinese people politely disagreed. One of the students said, "I don't think the individual freedom and the collective freedom will contradict each other. For instance, in China, the prosperous development of the nation is actually the free choice of our people.... And I also think that only those who can really respect the freedom of others, they can really say that they understand what freedom means."

The last sentence is a pointed reminder to the President and the people of the U.S. that we Americans do not own the definition of freedom.

Of course it's hard for me to say whether the media have really learned anything from this trip and recognize that tremendous changes are taking place in China and whether they have yet to take off the blinders of pre-conceived notions and truly see what's going on.

For example, as a background piece, Dan Rather of CBS interviewed a former activist on Tiananmen who landed in prison for two years for his role. He is now a successful entrepreneur operating a number of book stores in Beijing. When asked about his thoughts on Tiananmen, he said that was the past, he would rather look forward to making a good life for himself and his live-in fiancee, also a Tiananman participant.

This probably was not the response Dan Rather had in mind. But it didn't keep him from this straight into the camera conclusion: "Isn't it terrible that China is suffering from lack of democracy." Rather is not the exception. Sam Donaldson strayed the farthest by reprising an exposé on organ sales that was shown on Primetime Live about 8 months earlier. In that program, Harry Wu help snare a young couple caught on TV for taking downpayments for kidney transplants.

Other than having the Shanghai Bund as the background, there was no new information given when Donaldson re-ran the Primetime piece. Questions raised after the first airing of the program included: What happened to the young Chinese couple, the Dai's, caught on video taking the advance deposit money for transplant reservation? Why weren't they arrested and prosecuted? Where did they go? According an article Harry Wu wrote for World Journal of ethnic Chinese press, he secretly let them go. Could that be true? Where did he get authority to take law into his hands? None were answered this time around.

Pat Robertson Meets Zhu Rongji

Pat Robertson went to China and met with Zhu Rongji almost exactly two months after Clinton's summit. Dr. Robertson is the Chairman of the Christian Broadcast Network (CBN) and a founder of the Christian Coalition. He was invited to China to see for himself the practice of religion in China. This summit was initiated and arranged by the Committee of 100.

The Committee of 100 is an organization of Chinese Americans. The mission of the organization is to speak up on Chinese American issues in America and to promote an U.S.-China relationship based on the principle of "seeking common grounds while respecting differences." Some of the more prominent members include Architect I.M. Pei, Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, and Governor Gary Locke.

In 1997, the Committee organized a group to Asia to meet with government leaders in Taipei, Hong Kong and Beijing. The purpose of the trip was to observe the return of Hong Kong to China and to discuss their concerns over the then existing tensions between the U.S. and China and between Taiwan and the mainland.

Just before this group arrived in Beijing in July 1997, Time magazine had reported on the vitriolic bashing of China from the religious right in the U.S. Sensitive to the power of the religious right in American politics, Liu Huaqiu, head of Foreign Affairs of the State Council, asked the visiting group for advice on how to best respond to the bitter attacks.

One member of the group, Dr. Richard Cheng, Chairman and C.E.O. of ECI Systems Engineering in Virginia Beach, who knows Pat Robertson personally, suggested that he could approach Robertson about a possible visit to China. This was warmly endorsed by others in the group. Thus, Cheng with the support of the Committee became the intermediary between Robertson's organization and the leaders in Beijing.

When he came back from China, Robertson said, "China's society has already made tremendous strides. The people have taken a great step towards freedom. China is in midst of building an economic miracle. Furthermore, the people of China are enjoying religious freedom to a degree far greater than has been described by the American media." Imagine that!

Robertson's remarks about China clearly put him on a collision course with many members of the religious right. When asked, he said people like Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council is hard to influence. "He does what he likes, but he does not speak for conservative Christians. I do," he said. "I don't believe he has ever been to China."

Robertson first went to China in 1979. Walking around Beijing's Summer Palace on this trip, he saw throngs of people relaxed and at play. He observed that there was no way that this could happen in a police state. "The change in China over the last 20 years is just breathtaking," he added.

Zhu told Robertson that according to official statistics, there are about 10 million Christians in China out of about 100 million that are registered with a religious affiliation. Buddhism was introduced into China nearly 2000 years ago. The Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci brought Catholicism with him in 1602 while the Protestant faith was not introduced until 1807. The relatively short history of Christianity in China is Zhu's explanation for the relatively smaller following.

Robertson congratulated Zhu on China's economic achievements. He also pointed out that China will need more than ever the moral and spiritual values from religion as the standard of living increases. "Religion such as Christianity is not a threat to your government," Robertson went on to tell Zhu. "Religion was not a threat to the former Soviet Union. Their problem was not having a visionary leader like Deng Xiaoping."

The meeting lasted 75 minutes, well beyond the allotted time and kept Zhu's next batch of visitors waiting.

Robertson's entourage had made a number of requests upon their arrival in Beijing. After the meeting with Zhu, doors opened. Robertson and his delegation visited churches and talked to scholars and religious leaders of all the major faiths.

Dr. Robertson and his TV crew even got to interview Alan Yuan, an 84 year old pastor who spent 22 years in Chinese prisons. He simply walked into the hotel where they were staying. This interview was later broadcast on Christian Broadcast Network. Yuan was originally sentenced to life imprisonment for preaching and running a home church without registering with the government.

According to Robertson, people like Pastor Yuan from China's underground churches do not trust the government offices in control of religion because they are all communists. However, in his official meetings and conversations, he met many "fine religious leaders." "The line is beginning to blur and underground churches are beginning to register with the government," he said.

On the eve of his departure from Beijing, Robertson hosted a press conference. He said, "China compared to before is wide open. The live telecast of the exchanges between Jiang Zemin and President Clinton is a historic milestone. I am delighted to see a new era of warmth and cooperation in relations between the United States and China."

Robertson's parting observation was that while some members of Congress are sincere about their concerns on human rights, they have not been to China to see the progress there. Others, unfortunately, have turned China and U.S.-China relationship into hostages of domestic politics.

The successful outcome of this visit is, in no small part, due to Robertson's understanding of Chinese history and culture. Throughout his meeting with Zhu, he liberally sprinkled his conversation with references not only to Deng Xiaoping but Confucianism and even Sun Zi's "Art of War."

I wrote a commentary about Robertson's trip to China and drew an analogy with Matteo Ricci. The Jesuit priest and a Vatican emissary entered China toward the waning years of the Ming Dynasty. He studied Chinese classics, spoke fluent Chinese, taught the sons of influential families and incorporated Western knowledge into his lessons.

Ricci represented himself as a scholar rather than as a priest. He adapted Catholic rites so that they were easier to understand by the Chinese. He did not ask converts to renounce ancestor worship and he acknowledged the influence of Confucius. He successfully weathered the transition in rulers and served as a respected advisor to Kangxi, the first Qing emperor, in a capacity similar to his role at the preceding Ming court.

The decline of the influence of Catholicism in China began when the Pope disagreed with Ricci's approach. He specifically prohibited missionaries that followed Ricci from allowing converts to retain traditional Chinese practices. Completely turned off by this show of intolerance, the emperor then expelled the priests from China.

A Dissident Refutes Harry Wu

Now let me tell you about Fan Shidong, someone most of you have not heard of. Fan is a dissident who was arrrested in 1983 and spent the next 11 years in Chinese prisons. He was seen in frequent company of an American official from their Consulate in Shanghai and he was accused of selling secrets to the U.S.

He spent the last 8.5 years in a Xinjiang labor camp before he was released in 1994 and slipped into Hong Kong in 1995. Harry Wu heard of him and contacted him. Wu offered Fan money in exchange for his testimony before U.S. Congress. At the time--early in 1996, Wu was on a campaign to stop World Bank financing in Xinjiang

Wanting to build a case to halt World Bank investments in Xinjiang, China's eastern most autonomous region, Wu tracked down Fan and flew to Hong Kong to meet him. Wu needed someone like Fan, more recently released from a Xinjiang prison camp than himself, to authenticate his case before Congress. Fan turn him down even though he had shown up in Hong Kong penniless and certainly could have used the money.

Fan's principle was stronger than his financial need and he refused because he felt that World Bank financing of irrigation projects in Xinjiang could only ameliorate the harsh conditions of that region. It would be good for the civilians and good for prisoners also as it would facilitate their growing their own food to supplement the meager budget allocated by the government and not pocketed by corrupt officials.

Wu told him that World Bank's charter does not permit financing projects related to the prison camps and to the military. Since there were prison camps in Xinjiang and the camps were under the military's management, that should be sufficient grounds to bar the investments, Wu explained to Fan. Fan did not agree with this loose interpretation of the World Bank mandate.

Xinjiang laogai prisoners not having enough to eat and suffering from beatings were not noteworthy, because Americans don't want to hear about that, Wu told Fan. Laogai is an abbreviation for the part of China's prison system that stands for reform through labor. "No one can call himself a human rights activist, if he actually doesn't care a hoot about the lives of prisoners and their living conditions," Fan declares to his audience on his first visit to the Bay Area.

Fan's view is that even though prison conditions in today's China have improved compared to the 1980's, violation of the prisoners' human rights remains a problem. Wu has succeeded in diverting the world's attention to such issues as prison made goods, organ sales, World Bank financing, and planned parenthood and thus taken the pressure off the Chinese government to improve the treatment of prisoners.

Fan also found out that Wu is capable of making many doubtful statements. For example, in his Congressional testimony on November 5, 1997, Wu claimed that he was thrown in prison because of his family background with a banker for a father. "Even during Mao's darkest rule, during the cultural revolution, I didn't hear of anyone being sent to prison just for having the wrong family background," Fan says.

By equating China's laogai to the former Soviet's gulag under Stalin, Wu is equating China current regime with Stalin's reign of terror, Fan points out. When Harry Wu was in prison in the 1960's, approximately 10% of the laogai inmates were political prisoners. By the time, Fan was arrested, political prisoners make up only 1% of the prison population and today, Fan believes, political prisoners comprised of only about 0.1% of the inmates in China. No where, he feels, are there any indications of China's prison system being comparable to Stalinist days in Soviet Union.

In presenting his disagreements with Wu, Fan cites liberally from "New Ghosts, Old Ghosts," a recently released definitive study of China's prison system by James Seymour with co-author Richard Anderson. Fan wrote the forward to this book and gave Seymour his collection of data and materials on China's laogai. Wu had sought to buy the same collection from Fan during that four-hour long meeting in Hong Kong.

For example, Wu makes a big deal about prison made goods from China flooding the U.S. market. Last Christmas, he even paraded in front of K-Mart to exhort shoppers from buying imported goods from China. Seymour's analysis showed that even during the years when prison made goods had the biggest impact, it could account for no more than 0.2% of China's GDP. With the economic boom that has been taking place, prison made goods account for even less and in most cases just goes to supplement the underfed prisoners.

Dr. Seymour is a professor at Columbia and a well known human rights activist including being a member of the board of the New York based Human Rights in China. His reason for writing this book is his belief that criticism on China, in order to be effective, must come from higher moral grounds with a ring of validity derived from facts and truths.

"Everything Harry Wu does is aimed towards destroying the U.S. China relationship," Fan says, "And I am in favor of strengthening the U.S. China relationship." Hadn't been for the moderating influence of America, his own conviction as an anti-revolutionary would have meant execution, Fan observes.

Fan and his wife came to the U.S. as UN refugees in 1997 now lives in the Seattle area. He works in a grocery store and spends his spare time studying and writing about China's prison system. Fan says that he feels he has an obligation to help improve the prison conditions by persuading the Chinese government to take necessary rectification steps. The government bears responsibility for the dismal conditions, but they are also the body most able to correct the problems, he concludes.

In late June this year, Fan wrote an extensive piece entitled, "Shattering Harry Wu's Western Funhouse Mirror," which appeared in Sing Tao Daily. A translated version of this article is posted on the web page,

Seeing China Clearly

So what can we conclude from these three disparate transpacific sojourns? First of all, I need to assume that you are interested in a sound bilateral relations between the U.S. and China; in constructive engagement where differences can be aired objectively; in supporting criticisms but not demonizing China for the sake of domestic politics; and lastly but not least, you recognize that there is no profit in making China an enemy of the United States.

I believe the three gentlemen have revealed a China far different from how it has been portrayed by the mainstream media, and different from the perception of the general public in America. The next time you read about China from the media, be sure to distinguish between a pundit and a journalist. A pundit opines, he/she doesn't have to deal with facts. A journalist, at least, has to try to be objective, fair and provide balance. The New York Times is a prime example. Reading their editorials on China, one would have to conclude that those columnists are oblivious to the despatches from even their own reporters based in China.

The next time the US-China relationship comes under Washington scrutiny and Congressional debate, I urge you, the American public to listen carefully and ask them some questions. To start with: Have the critics been to China? What axes are they grinding if any? Hopefully with increasing exposure of people of integrity that can bear reliable witness to the real situation in China, we will see a decrease in people of questionable conduct, ethics and veracity appearing as the only witnesses before Congress.
1 Henry Rowen, "The Short March, China's Road to Democracy," The National Interest, Fall, 1996, p67
2 See for example a discussion in "U.S. Media Coverage of China," National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, Inc., Policy Series Report No. 14, June 1998
3 Originally aired on October 15, 1997 by ABC.
4 Wu's article appeared in the Sunday magazine section of World Journal entitled "Xuexing Shiye" (Bloody Enterprise), early 1998
5 For more information on this organization, visit their website at
6 "Pat Robertson -- A Modern Day 'Matteo Ricci' Fosters Ties Between Religious Right and China," Pacific News Service commentary, October 12, 1998
7 See for example, A. A. Quong, "A Quiet Dissident from China Sees Hope for Reform in Prison Labor Camps," Pacific News Service commentary, October 8, 1998. Other description of Fan's visit to Stanford and U.C. Berkeley appeared in October 18, 1998 issue of San Francisco Examiner and November 12, 1998 issue of Far Eastern Economic Review.
8 "New Ghosts, Old Ghosts," M.E. Sharpe, $39.95, was published early in 1998 and most recently reviewed in November 9, 1998 issue of Wall Street Journal. Earlier reviews of this book had appeared in South China Morning Post and Far Eastern Economic Review. All the reviewers agree that the conclusions of this book "strike at the credibility of Harry Wu."

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