Saturday, November 14, 2009

Obama's Visit to China

U.S. president Barack Obama has begun his one week, four-country visit to Asia. That about half of that time will be spent in China is a measure of the importance of this bilateral relationship.

From the outset of his office, Obama dispensed with the customary China-bashing and immediately declared the need for a strong bilateral relation with China in order to tackle the many problems that confront the world, not least the economic downturn, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and counterterrorism.

The actions of his administration followed his rhetoric. His two Chinese American cabinet secretaries, Steven Chu (Energy) and Gary Locke (Commerce), were among the first high ranking officials to visit Beijing and began the dialogue on collaboration. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s first trip after taking office was to China, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has also made an official visit and Treasury Secretary Tom Geithner has been to China more than once.

Obama’s actions have brought results. China’s premier Wen Jiabao went to North Korea and came back to report that Pyongyang was ready to re-enter the six party talks, subject to the U.S. being willing to conduct direct bilateral discussions. In response the White House has announced the intention to send special envoy Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang. This is a refreshing change from the unilateral approach of the previous Bush administration.

Recently Xu Caihou, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission visited the U.S. hosted by Secretary Gates. As part of his 11-day visit, Xu was taken to sensitive military sites including the Strategic Command Headquarter in a show of desire for closer cooperation. The result was seven points of consensus that will serve as a blueprint for closer military cooperation and exchanges.

Beijing has been making a fuss over recent remarks by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg relating to “strategic reassurance” between the parties as part of the road to closer partnership. China views this development as an elevation of the importance of the relationship. Zhou Wenzhong, China’s ambassador to Washington remarked that he has witnessed the bilateral tie evolving from one of frequent tensions to one of extensive cooperation.

In light of the warming bilateral relations, what can we expect out of Obama’s meetings with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in Beijing? They certainly have a lot to talk about. China would love to hear Obama declare unequivocally that Taiwan and Tibet are part of China. Obama probably would ask for more assurances on arms control and non-proliferation and more military transparency and cooperation.

While both sides profess to be against protectionism, China would want Obama’s assurance that he would not yield to the domestic protectionist pressures despite his declarations to the contrary. Obama would like China to strengthen the value of the Renminbi against the dollar. China might ask about the granting market economy status which China has received from over 90 countries; the status lessens trade disputes.

The most likely agreement to come out of Beijing, I believe, is some kind of declaration on climate change that would allow both nations to attend the December climate summit in Copenhagen with some appearance of a united front.

Most specific agreements take many working level bilateral meetings to hammer out the details. Unless these meetings have already been taking place, more specific announcements are unlikely to come from Obama’s visit. The most would be agreement on a working framework that would allow negotiations to proceed. Indeed, declaration for a framework for closer cooperation was the result of an April meeting between Obama and Hu Jintao which led to the subsequent series of positive developments.

The young people in Shanghai are excited by Obama’s plan to begin his China visit with an open town hall Q&A with them in the audience. Obama has been accorded rock star appeal among the youth of China “because he embodies the personality and character of a leader to whom young people feel they can relate to as opposed to some stern-faced Chinese officials they have learned to dread”—a quote from one of the Chinese commentators.

Bill Clinton made his greatest impact on China when he visited China after his presidency. On national TV, he put his arms around a young man afflicted with AIDS. This image changed China’s attitude about AIDS victims and Wen Jiabao was later seen shaking hands with AIDS patients.

Perhaps the greatest legacy from Obama’s visit is to turn the stern faces of Chinese officials into friendlier demeanors. The Chinese people would remember Obama for a long time if that change is to come about.

See edited version of this commentary in New America Media.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Uyghurs and China

Mr. Kasim Tuman, Council Member, Uyghur Association of America was one of the speakers at a seminar on "Ethnicity and Identity in Xinjiang" held at Stanford. My wife and I have been to Xinjiang, in particular to Kashgar where Mr. Tuman came from, and naturally we were interested in what he had to say.

I was struck by some of Mr. Tuman's statements. Since the forum did not offer an opportunity for a real dialogue and discussion, I thought I would offer some counterpoints and observations in response to what I heard.

Tuman said: The Uyghurs are not interested in mixing with the Chinese for fear of losing their cultural identity. They fear being assimilated by the Chinese culture.

My response would have been: Cultures are not static but dynamic and are subject to influences and stimulus especially from other neighboring cultures. Cultures that do not evolve and remain static become endangered and face extinction with time. The Xianbeis, one of many forefathers of the Uyghurs, used to rule northern China, known in Chinese history as the Northern Wei dynasty. They admired the Han Chinese culture so much that they adopted Chinese customs, language and many social and political practices. Indeed the Xianbeis did get assimilated and their own culture became lost to history. But I do not see anything unnatural about this outcome. If people no longer accept or willing to adopt certain cultural values and practices, that culture will fade away.

Cultures can also disappear on the point of the sword. Genghis Khan so thoroughly decimated the Tangut kingdom (Xixia in Chinese), another contributor to the Uyghur gene pool, that there is no trace of the Tangut culture remain. The meaning of their writing is lost as is their historical records. The propagation of Islam was also accomplished by military conquest as the religion spread from the Middle East westward to Spain and eastward to the Indonesian archipelago imposing the Islamic religion on the local people and replacing the previous ways of worship.

But use of force has not been how the Chinese culture has proliferated. Non-Chinese people adopted certain aspects of the Chinese culture that they found more appealing than their own. One can see evidence of the influence of Chinese culture in South Asia, Southeast Asia as well as Korea and Japan. These people were not forced to adopt Chinese manners and practices; they willingly did so.

In an attempt to distinguish the Chinese culture from the Uyghur, Mr. Tuman said that it is very much in the Chinese culture for the young people to study hard and strive to attend the best school and best university and to work hard and make a lot of money. This is not part of the Uyghur culture, he said, as the Uyghurs like to take life as it comes. He used a map from Wikipedia as a platform for his talk. I noticed from the same Wiki article, one of the characteristics attributed ancestors of Uyghurs was "they showed greed without restraint, for they often made their living by looting." Perhaps given that heritage, it is understandable why Mr. Tuman made that distinction between the Uyghur and the Chinese culture.

The map from Wikipedia showed a Uyghur Khaganate that at one moment in history spread from western part of today's Manchuria westward to nearly the Caspian Sea. Mr. Tuman seemed to imply that the Uyghur people has had a long continuous history since as early as 4th century AD. But a close reading of the Wiki article would reveal that there was no such continuity but the Uyghur state, when it existed at all, ebb and flowed with time. With mostly nomads as ancesters, it is understandable that continuity would have been difficult and any sort of ethnic purity and identity even more improbable.

On the one hand, Mr. Tumen assured the audience that the Uyghur culture is quite distinct and unique and no way related to the Chinese culture. On the other, he said that he has learned the value of cultural diversity since he came to the United States nine years ago. I believe China also recognized the value of diversity. Beijing government's policy is to allow the fifty plus ethnic minorities to teach their own language alongside putonghua in their schools and to enjoy certain levels of local autonomy in maintaining their daily lives and traditions. Of course, if the minority wish to succeed in a Chinese dominated economy, that person must also learn Chinese and understand how to operate in a Chinese society. This is no different from an ethnic minority living in America. That person can no more succeed in the U.S. if the person is unable or unwilling to communicate in English.

Mr. Tumen seemed to believe that in a democracy like the U.S., the Uyghur culture can thrive. Apparently he has not been in America long enough to understand what happened to the many different forms of native American cultures that have been obliterated by actual acts of genocide.

Mr. Tumen also stated that there are 20 million Uyghurs living outside China, implying that they were originally from China. This implication is most misleading. Uyghurs are not just native to the Xinjiang Automomous Region but also in nearby Central Asian countries. If there is a Uyghur diaspora of 20 million, somebody needs to clarify as to what portion have their roots in China and what portion from outside of China.

When we visited Xinjiang, we learned a little about the colorful Uyghur dress, beautifully crafted music instruments to accompany the Uyghur music and dance, Uyghur food and how Uyghur kids are raised. We were not there long enough to detect any racial tension or alienation. After visiting many parts of China with autonomous regions belonging to various enthinic minorities, we did get the impression that the Chinese government is trying hard to be a nation for all ethnicities. Go to here for further discussion of ethnic minorities in China.