Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Who represents China from a diplomatic viewpoint?

An interview with Wang Jisi, the Dean of International Studies at Beijing University, published in Japan Focus (first published in Nanfeng Chuang), is quite interesting from a diplomatic relations standpoint. Look at this point he makes:

Society in the United States is even more powerful than the government. This is its primary unique feature, and it is also an important aspect of why many countries believe that the United States is not easy to deal with. In that sense, the relationship between China and the United States is essentially one between a country and a society. As far as the Chinese government is concerned, simply having dealings with the administrative authorities in the United States is far from sufficient. It is also necessary to emphasize contacts with its Congress, business circles, the media, think tanks, labor unions, and religious circles, etc., to get them to understand China, and this is a very arduous task.

This is an interesting point—I rarely think about the difficulties other countries have in dealing with the messiness that is the United States. What about the opposite direction—whom must American officials talk to when trying to get things done in China? Who represents “China”? And more specifically, what’s the relationship between the State Department and China’s civil society?

That relationship can probably be traced back to 1988, one year before the Tiananmen Square massacre. That June, American Ambassador to China Winston Lord addressed a gathering of students at Beijing University. It was the first time an important American official broke from the precedent Nixon and Kissinger set of dealing only with important Chinese officials. Lord, who was present during the 1972 meeting between Nixon, Kissinger, and Mao, believed that a primary task of the American presence in China should be to form a relationship with the country’s future leading figures, both in the government and out of it. However, that visit to Beijing University brought a warning from Deng Xiaoping that Lord shouldn’t have met with the students. At that time, any action by the US embassy outside of official channels was heavily frowned upon. (1)

Technically, American diplomats still may not meet important Chinese figures without government approval. But things have changed a lot. In Guangzhou, for example, the American consulate holds a weekly forum in which anyone is welcome to come and hear a presentation about an American topic, often given by a diplomat. American diplomats often meet with ordinary Chinese without getting approval from the Chinese government.

In the future, the amount of access foreign embassies and consulates have to important non-governmental figures in China might be a good way to gauge the freedom of China’s civil society (through how much access foreign journalists have to people they want to interview is probably a better indicator). At any rate, I wish the US would or could treat China’s civil society with the same seriousness that Wang Jisi says the Chinese government treats ours.

(1) See About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton, by James Mann.