US Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, former acolyte of pro-communist China guru Henry Kissinger, began talks in Beijing today, burdened with a number of concerns that cloud Sino-US relations. No doubt his Mandarin skills will be sorely needed to extract, from an increasingly hardball regime, concessions on the value of China’s currency, in an effort to add desperately required support of the US economy, Geithner’s will also be hoping to negotiate and consolidate Chinese co-operation for US sanctions on Iran, notably within the UN Security Council. Relations are at present somewhat strained, Washington looking with some anxiety at an increasingly assertive China, that is challenging some key areas of American geo-political and financial interest. Meanwhile, as the US economy, itself bankrolled by massive Chinese investment, struggles to find recovery, the Whitehouse is dependent upon securing economic movement from the Chinese leadership. Within the political establishment at Capitol Hill and the Pentagon there is a growing unease at the precarious and compromised position the US. Voices are calling for a more aggressive economic response to China, while recent announcements talk of a new military strategy aimed at containing the threat of China’s dominance.
Yet decades of so-called constructive engagement with China, oiled by the allure of a rising Chinese economy, has marginalised such views and dominated US policy on China, to the exclusion of any meaningful action in terms of human rights, and issues such as Tibet and Taiwan. The resultant compromises has produced a largely ineffectual and vacillating strategy, that at one time issues platitudes on human rights and freedom, while simultaneously appeasing the Chinese regime to maintain and secure economic interests.
At the heart of this policy rests a number of assumptions and perceptions, that owe their existence, in part to that curious laboratory of latent Orientalism that obscures a more objective analysis and understanding of China. On the evidence of State Department policy such thinking appears to dominate, in which a fossilized and unconscious certainty prevails as to what constitutes China, and its culture, This would have us accept that such factors are entirely static, arguing China’s eccentricity and separateness, a unique and different society that requires a specific and entirely different response. Such reasoning is of course advantageous to a communist Chinese regime which manipulates such thinking to deflect and dilute criticism from those who would urge greater progress on human rights and freedoms in China. Across the various foreign policy and academic institutions in the US it has become the ascendant orthodoxy, encouraged, financed and asserted by the politically influential pro-China lobby within Washington. Many of the current Administration’s leading lights, including Timothy Geithner, has been shaped by such thinking, in which China is presented as a complex and special case that demands indulgence, patience and compromise. No matter the atrocities, oppression, injustice and tyranny inflicted upon Tibetans, Uyghurs and the Chinese people themselves, this conformism of appeasement prevails, articulated by an unquestioning cabal of adherents, who promote an indulging and forgiving engagement with China’s intricate culture.
Another strand that informs such consideration is an historical fascination with China’s culture and civilization, that emerged first in Europe during the 19th Century. This, wrongly, has accorded China a special place in the world, portrayed as the originator of civilized culture and source of refined technology and philosophy. Such projection was very much part of a love affair with all things Chinese that afflicted European thinking and proved contagious and influential to American academic and political study on China. The brutal realities of communist China, the millions of dead, the terrifying insanity of the so-called Cultural Revolution, the invasion and occupation of Tibet, and the massacre of Tiananmen Square, may have shaken such Sinological illusions. Yet such romantic projection continues to blinker the view of politicians, academics and economists, who excuse China’s more odious realities. These individuals appear unable to detach themselves from such thinking, unwilling to consider that India has an equal, if not more impressive claim, as a supreme source of civilisation, advanced in sciences such as mathematics, the arts, and enriched with a profound philosophies including Buddhism and Hinduism.
It is troubling to observe just how forgiving the advocates of engagement with China are, blinded by a view that venerates China and its culture as requiring special understanding, seem able to accommodate even the most harrowing violations and injustices perpetrated by the communist regime. Of course all cultures are possessed of unique features, social, political and religious complexities, yet tyranny and oppression are expressed with a grim similarity wherever they dominate a people. China is no exception. Yet China’s traumatising human rights record, its brutal suppression of Tibetans Uyghurs, Mongolians and Manchu people are tolerated and excused, It is difficult to think of any other case where such tyranny is overlooked and accommodated by a thinking which reveres a culture’s history and invests it with a special status in terms of foreign policy. Imagine a similar policy being applied to Stalinist Russia, excusing the Gulag, forced labour, and mass starvations by viewing Stalin through the romantic lenses of cultural and economic achievements of Peter The Great. Think of the Secretary of State basing US Policy towards Pol Pot and his Khymer Rouge, on an admiration for the religious and cultural splendours of historic Khymer society, and arguing for engagement and understanding of Khymer culture.
Timothy Geithner and his team enter the so-called Great Hall of The People with a mindset predisposed to affording China special privilege, and desperate to maintain economic support and gain political cooperation from Beijing, He and colleagues at the Whitehouse and State Department have long ago abandoned principled and ethical foreign policy objectives, in favour of pragmatism, and are happy to pardon China’s dragon, no matter its behaviour.