Thursday, September 20, 2001

Dichotomy in Perceptions of the U.S.-China Relations

Based on a speech given at the Commonwealth Club, San Francisco, on September 13, 2001.

When I was first asked to speak at the Commonwealth Club, the spy plane incident was still fresh on my mind and I had been pondering for a long while over the toughening of stances the U.S. and China were each showing to the other side. How much was substance and how much was due to differences in style, I wondered. Since that time, both sides have found ways to soften their positions. Secretary Colin Powell’s visit to Beijing, which took place just shortly before Congressman Mike Honda and his delegation went to China, was widely regarded by the Chinese leaders to be hugely successful—more favorably regarded, I would venture to guess, than his trip might be regarded in Washington.

The theme of my talk is to differentiate and contrast the views of China as proposed by its critics in America’s mainstream and mine, a Chinese American. I hope to at least point out that some of the criticisms suffer from ignorance and lack of knowledge of China’s culture and attitudes.

The spy plane incident

The mid-air collision between an U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese jet took place on April 1, certainly a cruel April Fool’s hoax if there ever was one, and the initial response from the Bush Administration was to demand the immediate return of the plane and the personnel and China’s reply was to demand an official apology from the U.S. It took days before Secretary Powell and President Bush expressed concern and regret over the possible loss of the life of the Chinese pilot. The crew and rest of the surveillance team came back to the U.S. to a heroes welcome some 11 days after the accident. Eleven days do not seem like too big a deal now in retrospect, but at the time every daily delay was a bid deal in the media and with the folks in Washington.

The spy plane incident is just one example of how the perspective can be so different between that of the Bush Administration and me, a Chinese American. The initial tone of the Bush Administration was strictly a legalistic one, a position based on international law. To wit, we were over international waters, we did no wrong, we are entitled to fly over there and we are entitled to have our plane and crew back. My reaction was hey wait a minute how about some words of regret over the loss of a life? I had the opportunity to go on CNN on the following Saturday, a week later, and I tried to offer some “shoe-on-the-other-foot” perspective. What if the plane that went down was ours and the Chinese surveillance had to force land in New Jersey? Are they entitled to leave right way or wouldn’t we want to detain them long enough to really find out what happened? While in detention would we serve them hamburgers or would we serve them steak? The Americans, I understand, were treated to the best the Chinese had to offer and got their big Mac only after they got back to the US of A.

There are those in the Bush Administration where human relationships do not enter their thinking. Didn’t matter if our crew was treated with the best under the circumstances. Didn’t matter, as we found out later on, that apparently the other Chinese pilot actually guide the stricken American plane to the airstrip and thus avoided having to ditch at sea. As far as these people are concerned, China is going to be the next evil empire whether China likes it or not.

Debate over WTO and Olympics 2008

With that attitude, there were resistance on China entering WTO and same parties questioned whether China “ deserved” to host the Olympics. The resistance to China entering the WTO melted away when the economic implications were made clear to the nay Sayers. Let me simply raise the question, namely how can we have a world trade organization if the largest country and the 6th largest economy—and the only trillion dollar economy expected to double in ten years—is excluded?

Those opposed to China hosting the Olympics followed similar line of reasoning. Namely, why should a country with such a “horrible human rights record” be rewarded with the hosting of this event? Whether China has such an unimagined human rights policy and whether such criticism is steeped with a heavy dose of hypocrisy is a subject for another day, though I have written a chapter on this subject for a book Prof. Ling-chi Wang is putting together. Let me simply point out that to even raise the question on whether China deserves to host the Olympics is to put this issue on a certain presumption that in itself deserves examination. Who do the Olympics belong to? Is it just to member nations of the West or is the most populous nation in the world entitled to a fair stake? Should the right to host be based on human rights? If so, on whose criteria of human rights? Thank goodness, Beijing has been given the right to host Olympics 2008, thus freeing us of years of rancor and bitterness and this discussion is now moot.

Multilateralism vs. unilateralism

Perhaps this is the place to pause and take a look at unilateralism vs. multilateralism. The recent despicable terrorist attack on New York and Washington suggests that there is a price to be paid for being the most powerful nation in the world and this cost is dear. Furthermore, the attack confirms the notion that not even the most powerful nation can stop those bent on destruction and terrorism. All of this should suggest that unilateralism (i.e., we are the most powerful nation and we can call the shots) is not a workable approach. Only by working with all other nations of like mind, will we have any chance of stopping and heading off future acts of terrorism. We can’t possibly exist as a fortress standing alone; we need to be part of the worldwide community. We need the sympathy and empathy and cooperation of everybody in the world if we are to have any hope of stopping this kind of horror. And, it probably doesn’t take a genius to conclude that a missile defense system of any kind is irrelevant to preventing this kind of disaster in the future.

Changing to unilateralism of a different kind, I would like to contrast how American mainstream look at Taiwan and how differently most Chinese Americans look at the same subject. The U.S. foreign policy rests on the premise that democracy is good, any country that practices democracy has to be on the right. Thus Taiwan becomes America’s Asian model of democracy. Chinese Americans look at Taiwan more closely and sees a different picture.

A Chinese American view of Taiwan

We see tradeoffs as price of democracy. Public security in Taiwan has perceptibly suffered when Taiwan became a many-voiced society rather than one under martial law. Open accusations of corruption in the form of black gold politics help brought down the KMT, the party that had been in power for over 50 years. Gangsters ran openly for office and assassinate other public figures that got in their way.

One item of good news was the orderly transition of government, after the most recent presidential election, from the KMT to the DPP, but that was almost the end of good news. While the previous administration demonstrated their ineptitude in dealing with a debilitating earthquake, the new one treated the people to live TV where they watch with horror while four workers stranded by rising flood water were eventually swept away to their death as contending agencies bickered over who should go to their rescue. The stock market has plunged to less than half of its high. Unemployment rose to new high and for 2001 Taiwan faced its first economic contraction in 26 years.

In the meantime, it became increasingly obvious that Taiwan’s economy is intricately and irreversibly tied to the mainland. Anywhere between 500,000 to 1 million Taiwanese now live and work on the mainland. Young professionals in Taiwan now believe their career path runs through Shanghai. In fact the hottest selling books in Taipei all dealt with living and working in Shanghai. According to most recent polls, about one-third of the population are now in favor of reunification with the mainland, which represents a tripling of the favorable sentiment compare to when Chen Shui-bian first assume power. All of this should be telling our political leaders that the sentiment towards independence on the island is nowhere as fervent as it might imply if we only listen to the noises from the Chinese American communities in New York, or Cupertino or Orange County.

I am a member of the committee in the Committee of 100 preparing a white paper for President George Bush to brief him on his October trip to China. My particular contribution is to argue that it is in our American interest to get the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to sit down and talk rather than supplying Taiwan with weapons. Because by talking about defending Taiwan, we are guilty of misleading them into a false sense of the extent of American commitment.

Reprehensible role of Lee Teng-hui

Of courses, thanks to Singapore’s role as an intermediary, government representatives of Taipei and Beijing sat down to talk as early as 1992. They even came to agreement on some issues and by 1993, it really look like they were making good progress towards resolution. Then Lee Teng-hui, then president of Taiwan stepped in. To this day, I am not sure the American public or politicians fully appreciate the sabotage job he did on the developing relationship.

American mainstream think of Lee Teng-hui as Chinese or perhaps as a Taiwan Chinese. Actually we Chinese Americans have come to know him as a true Japanese. His first language, the one he speaks with his wife at home, is Japanese. His older brother was killed during the war fighting for the Japanese and his name is in fact posted in the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The same controversial shrine that house the names of known war criminals. Given his Japanese roots, then his action becomes understandable. He has publicly pooh-poohed the occurrence of Rape of Nanjing and does not feel that Japan should apologize for their conduct of World War II atrocities. He has written a book on the merits of dividing China into roughly seven equal parts, Taiwan being one of the parts. He has privately admitted in one-on-one interviews to Japanese journalists that his love and loyalty is to Japan.

It has become increasingly clear to Chinese Americans, at least, that Lee Teng-hui does not have Taiwan’s best interest at heart. Not only has he sabotaged the budding cross strait relationship but also he has cleverly splintered the heretofore-dominant KMT into many factions and so weakened the control that the opposition party was able to gain control and succeed him as president with less than 40% of the popular vote. How much of this is known and familiar to Washington? What do you think?

Contrasting celebrations of the U.S Japanese Friendship Treaty

Last weekend in San Francisco, we saw a happening that closely mirrors the dichotomy of views between mainstream American and those of Chinese Americans. I am referring to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Japanese Friendship Treaty. Our government to this day is quite willing to forget and overlook the many atrocities committed by the Japanese soldiers during World War II--the massacres, rapes, looting and arson, the brutalization of women, the live dissection and amputation of innocent civilians as experiments without anesthetics and the slavery of POWs, including American POWs. Our government justified the cover-up 50 years ago on the basis that we do not want Japan to go communist, a tenuous thesis at best. What can be the cause for our government’s complicity today? Why is it so difficult for our government to point out to Japan’s government that until they formally apologize and atone for their past, Japan can never be fully trusted and accepted by their neighbors in Asia?

The one remarkable sight I saw Saturday was that while Colin Powell and foreign minister Tanaka and other high ranking officials from both sides were celebrating the anniversary inside the War Memorial Opera House, noisy demonstrations were being held across the streets flanking the building. Young old, male female, Asian and non-Asian former American POWs stood shoulder to shoulder loudly demanding that Japan apologize. There were flags from Korea and the Philippines mixed with the PRC flag and Taiwan flag. This is the first time I have seen Chinese Americans holding aloft and waving both the Taiwan flag and the PRC flag. Except for Lee Teng-hui, all Chinese stand together on this issue.

Hours in front of the TV watching the replay of the collapsing World Trade Towers until the incredulous brain finally accepts the horror as grim reality makes it a challenge to think deeply about this or any other issue. However, in the ensuing counter offensive against terrorism, the bilateral U.S.-China relationship will be important and will inevitably be transformed. Hopefully we will see enlightened leadership from both countries working together to forge a united front against the terrorists. For those seeking the next evil empire, we have found it and it is not China.

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