Impressions and Interviews From a Recent Trip

by John Holdridge

When I revisited China last October following a hiatus of three and a half years, I saw once again a nation that seems to be on fast-forward.  With the rise of Pudong, Shanghai appears to be a city of the future bursting at the seams, Beijing isn't far behind, and even the small oasis city of Dunhuang, in remote Gansu province, had obviously undergone a growth surge.  I was amazed by China's progress in infrastructure development and, as a frequent user of Chinese airlines, I was especially impressed by the advances in air transportation.

These outward manifestations provide only a small indication of how China is attempting to meet the people's needs.  Certainly in the centers that I visited the people seemed to be doing very well.  As a superficial manifestation of this fact, they were uniformly well-dressed and, as in so many Asian countries, every other person seemed to have a cellular telephone.  I did, however, get the impression that economic development had occurred at such a rapid pace that China's leadership is having problems controlling it.  During my visit Beijing announced that no new Special Economic Zones (SEZs) would be created for development of China's Western hinterland.  The SEZs had apparently gotten out of hand in places such as Guangdong, where the press has criticized some aspects of Beijing's policies, and Xiamen, where the top leadership of the Communist Party has apparently turned hopelessly corrupt.  Outside the capital city, the old Chinese proverb, "Tian Gao, Huang Di Yuan" ("Heaven is high, and the Emperor is distant"), is still valid, while in Beijing itself, the deputy mayor had recently been executed for corruption.

In addition to the execution of high–ranking party cadres for corruption, there are other signs that China's leaders now find it necessary to enforce policies that are much more difficult to justify in the West, such as the crackdown on the Falun Gong and suppression of "private" Christian churches.  There have also been peasant protests against illegal taxation, as well as rioting in a number of Chinese cities initiated by discontented or jobless workers.  To the leaders, who certainly know their Chinese history, these phenomena must point to a possible loss of the "Mandate of Heaven."

There are also foreign policy implications in the conditions I have described.  If the Chinese leaders feel weakened domestically, they may assume that China becomes more vulnerable to alleged efforts by the United States to "isolate" and "contain" their country.  Hence, the anti-U.S. rhetoric in a policy paper entitled "China's National Defense in 2000," issued by the State Council in October (a copy of which was handed to me by a senior PLA General, who may well have helped draft it).  This paper called the Taiwan Straits situation "complicated and grim" and partially blamed the United States for continuing to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan and even attempting to incorporate the island into the U.S. Theater Missile Defense System.
It was evident to me, however, that whatever China's foreign policy concerns may be, and however imperfect its internal structure may be, Beijing has no alternative but to continue to press for rapid economic development. And because the vast majority of China's people are far better off today than they were in earlier eras and any effort to turn the clock back would immensely heighten internal instability, China's present market economy cannot revert to a command economy

Meanwhile, China is preparing to enter the World Trade Organization (WTO), which will require even greater reform of its economy.  China also wants to host the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and to this end is already attempting to clean up Beijing's heavy pollution.  (My wife and I visited a factory where a joint Sino-South Korean effort is underway to replace the dirty, diesel-powered engines in Beijing's buses with battery-driven electric motors.)  This certainly does not sound as if China is preparing for war.  Even the national defense report, cited above, sets economic development ahead of military requirements, and its anti-U.S. rhetoric might well be considered an appeal to the United States not to pursue policies that the Chinese consider objectionable.  The early days of the new Bush administration will be a time of testing for both China and the United States, but if restraint is exercised by both, a U.S.-China conflict (predicted by some) can certainly be avoided.  A good start might be for both sides to tone down the rhetorical attacks on each other.

Below, I summarize some of the main points covered in my meetings with several senior Chinese officials.

With Wang Daohan, former mayor of Shanghai and head of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), China's "unofficial" organization for talks with Taiwan: Wang noted that the Taiwan issue was the major problem between China and the United States, but also stressed that President Jiang and he "strongly agreed" that the resolution of this issue must be accomplished by peaceful  means. Three considerations would force a change in this position: 1) If Taiwan declares its independence; 2) If Taiwan falls under the influence of a "foreign power" (which I took to mean Japan); and 3) If Taiwan, over an extended period of time, resists talks with China about its future.  What I found new in Wang's remarks was the heavy emphasis on the phrase "strongly agreed."  I left with a sense that talks between Beijing and Taipei could proceed once Taiwan and China agree on what the "One China" principle means.

With Major General Zhan Maohai, Director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Central Military Commission: General Zhan once again repeated the Chinese belief that a sophisticated world power such as the United States could not have bombed China's embassy in Belgrade by mistake.  I reached into my own institutional knowledge of the U.S. bureaucracy to point out where other major  instances of bureaucratic foul-ups had taken place.  We went on to discuss China's rhetoric against the United States.  I stressed the fact that China's rhetoric came from official Chinese sources, while the bulk of U.S. criticism of China came from non-official sources: Congress, the press, private organizations, and some "think tanks."  We agreed that reduction in rhetoric by both sides might be helpful to the cause of peace in the Asian-Pacific region.

With Zhou Mingwei, the Deputy Director of the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office:  China does not wish to see chaos on Taiwan stemming from the present contradictions between President Chen Shui-Bian, the leader of Taiwan's pro-independence party, and KMT leaders James Soong and Lien Chan, as well as the right-wing members of Chen's own DPP.  He said that Chen should "stiffen his spine" and "stand up to his critics."  This would suggest that China considers the leader of Taiwan's pro-independence party a more promising negotiator about Taiwan's future under the One-China principle—even if this principle remains undefined.  While 80 percent of Taiwan's people now favor the status quo, they should take into account what China will be like in five or ten years.  China is willing to resume talks with Taiwan under the One China principle, he said but he pointed to a recent statement by Chinese Vice Premier Qian Qichen that for some time Taiwan would not participate as a province, thus suggesting the appearance of flexibility in the One China policy.  Presently, however, China continues to remain steadfast in its position that Taiwan is part of China.

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