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How Will Obama Approach China?

With Obama having announced his national security team last week, we asked Perry Link, a China specialist and Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California at Riverside, to weigh in on what challenges his administration will face in regards to China:

How will the Obama presidency approach China? Two especially big questions stand out, and those two are related.

One question is whether an Obama administration can be the first in more than 50 years to think of China as a bigger, more complex thing than the Chinese government alone. The other is whether it can get beyond the coterie of "China policy managers" in and around Washington who have "educated" (their word) every president since Jimmy Carter in why and how to be sensitive to China's rulers.

No one denies that China's rulers are powerful men, and it would be folly to ignore them. But when the words "China" and "Chinese" come to refer only to the Beijing super-elite and their policies--and Washington policy lingo has long made this a habit--the result is boxed-in thinking and narrowly based policy. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is reported to have been the lead person on China policy in the Bush administration since 2006. Paulson "engages China" frequently--by which he means holding small meetings with representatives of China's rulers (in English, by the way, since he doesn't know Chinese) on trade relations, currency regulation, and WTO rules.

The issue matters because, without discounting the importance of what goes on in those small meetings, the whole of China is much, much bigger. And different, too. The cost of ignoring the differences can be immense.

The clearest example of this kind of mistake in recent decades happened in the summer of 1989. To call the protest movement of that year a "Tiananmen Movement" is really a misnomer. There were large demonstrations in all of China's provincial capitals in spring, and in many other cities as well. Student protesters led the movement, but workers and farmers far outnumbered them. And people who feared to protest, but sympathized, were even more numerous, certainly in the tens of millions. That movement was not elite; it was an upheaval from below.

If U.S. policymakers had seen this fact clearly, much good--both for China and for the U.S.--could have come by dignified but firm public statements of principled support for the protesters, both before and after the massacre on June 4. Instead, after the repression, George H.W. Bush dispatched envoys Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger secretly (it was later reported that the secrecy extended even to arranging in-flight re-fueling of their jet over the Pacific) to Beijing to assure China's rulers of the continued wish of the American administration to "engage" with them.

Since then, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush went to Washington with certain ideas about standing for human rights in China, but, after "steep learning curves" under the tutelage of the professional China-policy managers, reverted essentially to the Bush Sr. position.

The question of whether Barack Obama will follow the same path is especially important not only because, once again, we have a new and "untutored" president on the scene. It is also important because, inside China, protests from below are again on the rise. Resentment of local officials is growing more intense and a "rights movement" is spreading, as became dramatically evident this week with the release in Beijing of "Charter 08," a call by more than 300 prominent Chinese for an end to authoritarian government. A significant amount of good could be done by an American president saying--just saying--to the Chinese people that yes, human rights, democracy, and rule are law are fine ideals and we support you 100 percent if you want them, too. But the China policy managers will not recommend this. They normally refer to "China human rights issues" not as things that are actually going on in China but as domestic U.S. political problems. ("Congress is fussing!") A smart policy manager has to "manage" the problem, because the rulers in Beijing are "very sensitive" to it.

I hope I am wrong, but I do not see anyone on President-elect Obama's foreign policy team who has the knowledge and experience to help him get beyond the entrenched Washington principle that "China" equals China's rulers. The one prominent Democrat who could probably do this is Nancy Pelosi, but she is not on the team.

--Perry Link