Monday, August 27, 2007

Why We Can’t Afford to Boycott China

Angered over continued human rights abuses throughout China, a Congressman from California recently drafted a resolution recommending that the United States boycott the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing to send a message to the communist nation that the United States is “a country, not just an economy.”

What he means, of course, is that we shouldn’t let our precarious financial situation with China dictate our stance on issues that involve human livelihood. His is a noble and well-intentioned goal, and I agree that with great power comes great responsibility. Our nation shouldn’t be soft with those that show no regard for human rights, but I don’t believe the Congressman is seeing the whole picture.

In 2006 we had a trade deficit with China of a little over $232 billion, and while we spend our money like a drunken sailor, as my boss says, China has bought more and more of our currency and steadily depressed the real value of the yuan. For the past 10-15 years, American companies have increasingly moved manufacturing operations to China for the mounds of human capital and cheap labor. As a result, we have become inextricably intertwined with the most populous country on the planet, and maintaining good terms in that bi-lateral relationship will be important to the world’s stability and our livelihood. Last year, one of my professors told me that a sudden adjustment of the currency imbalance could severely harm our economy. Although China probably wouldn’t go that route—to hurt our economy would impact theirs significantly—it might be chance they are willing to take if relations deteriorate substantially.

A historical glance at 20th century China reveals another component that is possibly a more compelling reason to buddy up with China: Slowly but surely, China is opening, and with increased involvement on the world stage comes a greater demand for transparency in government dealings. When talking to the Chinese people, I’ve confirmed the stereotype that they are not known for their brazen openness. Unlike Americans, they’re very indirect in discussing their emotions, and it takes time to break down the wall and really get inside their heads. The government’s like that too, I think. It fears exposure, because exposure means vulnerability, and vulnerability threatens control.

It started in 1979, three years after Mao Zedong’s death and one year after the United States decided to recognize the People’s Republic over Taiwan as the one true China. The country was still recovering from Mao’s disastrous Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward campaigns when Deng Xiaoping first visited the U.S. to lay the international groundwork for what would become known as gaige kaifang: Reform and Opening. Since then, our relationship with the Asian juggernaut, though fraught with setbacks, has dramatically improved. Although egregious human rights violations continue, the fact that we know about them and actually care is a result of our active involvement in China’s development. At least on the surface, China is making changes to appease foreigners, a strange dynamic in the land where the Boxer Rebellion and Cultural Revolution (two bloody campaigns against all things foreign) took place. To boycott the Olympics now would be disastrous. It would be our “Great Leap Backward” and would all but nullify hard-fought progress we’ve made over the past 30 years.

Besides, maybe a crackdown on human rights isn’t so bad in the grand scheme of things. You’ll probably say I should tell that to the families of those who suffer. But maybe government repression is evidence that, like a cornered viper, a Party that once ruled with support from the people is lashing out as a last-ditch effort against encroaching capitalism.

Just the other day, I sat down with an expert from Beijing who is in charge of all English publications having to do with the Olympic games. A deputy editor at the state-funded China Daily newspaper, he will work for two years in all translating Chinese documents to English for the International Olympic Committee and English to Chinese for his government. This is his fourth trip to the U.S., a personal journey to visit his daughters who work in Atlanta and Los Angeles. Ironically, we met at Starbucks, and we talked about the fact that a franchise was recently removed from the Forbidden City because it was “too American” and “not harmonious” with the Chinese cultural relics surrounding it.

I found that statement interesting on a variety of levels. For one, the fact that he used the word “harmonious” showed that the Communist Party is still kicking. Building a “harmonious society” has been President Hu Jintao’s catch phrase for the past year or two, and the terminology has trickled down even to newspaper editors. Secondly, when I was in the Forbidden City last summer, I noticed that Coke is not too American to be prevalent inside in the emperor’s playground. I guess an imperialist franchise location is a bit more intrusive than a few plastic bottles that can be put out of sight after they’ve sucked in foreign money.

The way the conversation started, I was skeptical. I thought I had a seasoned communist propagandist on my hands, and I braced myself for a long and unproductive discussion. But as he sipped his grande-sized latte, he answered my questions with surprising openness. When I asked about China Daily’s ability to be unbiased in China, he looked tired and said this was a hard question to answer. “I gave this answer when I started 20 years ago: It’s an official newspaper,” he said. “Twenty years later I give you the same answer: It’s an official newspaper, but we try our best to be objective.” Because the newspaper is state-funded, it’s hard to be independent, in the same way that American publications are often limited by their advertisers, he told me.

With regard to human rights, he was even more vocal. I didn’t reveal that I on my four trips to China I have been detained at border stations, kicked out of towns and interrogated by the police on numerous occasions. I didn’t need that leverage to get a straight answer. He mentioned criticisms about Falun Gong, the crisis in Darfur and China’s investment in Sudan, the situation in Tibet and China’s punishment of democracy advocates. “I cannot say that all these criticisms are wrong, because they have their reasons,” he said. “But I can say that China is doing the best it can.”

While I have my doubts about that statement, and Congressman Rohrabacher would certainly disagree, the expert gave me indelible evidence of the improved relations between our countries as we walked outside to say our goodbyes. The asphalt was blacker than usual, wet from a flash thunderstorm that had soaked me as I came in. In the eastern sky toward my home, charcoal clouds threatened to drop more water on the drought-dried city. I jogged to the car to get a business card. Coming back, I handed it to the expert with both hands, thanking him for his time. I waved goodbye to his wife and the two Chinese-Americans that had arranged our meeting. When we locked hands, he looked at me with sincerity in his eyes. “When you come to Beijing, you are welcome to my home.” I thanked him. He grasped my hand tighter.

Beijing jian, he said. See you in Beijing.

Photo: Mountain in Guizhou province, by Trevor Williams

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