You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Bush Wimps Out In China

As Beijing gears up to host this year's Olympic Games, we asked Perry Link, professor emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, to give us his perspective on how China is responding to the challenge. He will be guest-blogging for us over the next few weeks: 

Several reports say that President Bush will not speak publicly about human rights during his stay in Beijing. He will not visit a dissident or attend a non-state-controlled church. He will convey his views about freedom of belief and expression in private, to the leaders of the system that imposes the controls. He is like a man who, worried about the chicken coop, decides to seek out the fox for a hard-hitting, confidential talk. 

The mistake will be costly because most of the Chinese people will not know about any articulation of principle that he might make. Indeed, they will get essentially the opposite impression from China's Party-controlled media (i.e., all of the media except the uncontrollable fringes of the Internet). Those media outlets will spread the impression that Bush came to Beijing to pay American respects to Communist Party leaders.

The White House has cited several reasons for the Bush decision, none of which, in my view, reflects a very deep grasp of Chinese thinking or politics at either the popular or the elite level. I cannot address all of the White House reasons in a short blog entry, but would like to comment on one. 

The New York Times quotes "a senior administration official" as saying that the Chinese government itself will likely deter Mr. Bush from visiting its critics. "They're going to make it difficult for the meetings to take place," the official says.

I don't buy it. I am in touch with a number of Beijing dissidents and am well aware that they are being confined in their Beijing homes these days by detachments of plainclothes police officers who are stationed constantly at their doorways. The officers are trained to tell the dissidents that "we are here for your protection"--although both sides know that this is only official puffery. It is an interesting fact that, at a personal level, relations between the dissidents and the young cops who are assigned to watch them are often very cordial. 

But here's the point: The addresses and phone numbers of the dissidents are not secret. An American president could get into a car and go to see them. If he were blocked at their gates by police, whether in uniform or not, he could just bow and retreat. That would be enough of a statement.

Mr. Bush is free not to make the effort. But we must be clear that this decision will be out of political choice, not out of necessity. It is irresponsible to suggest that "it can't be done." 

--Perry Link

Click here for a dispatch from Beijing-based journalist Mara Hvistendahl about ordinary Chinese laborers trying to catch a glimpse of the opening ceremonies today. Click here for a dispatch from Beijing-based journalist Christina Larson about China's fruitless attempts to control pollution and the weather.