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October 30, 1997

In a Different Light

If Jiang Zemin has any sense of irony, he must be wincing at the historical echoes hovering over this week's ceremonies in Washington. He might be reminded of the incident a little over two hundred years ago, in 1793,  when King George III of Great Britain dispatched an envoy, Lord Macartney, to visit the Qianlong emperor of China. George, who had just finished up a disappointing military encounter in North America, was hoping to shore up his country's finances by expanding its trade in Asia. Macartney and his retinue arrived in Peking laden with English luxury goods, which suddenly appeared quite modest in the sumptuous setting of the court. The emperor's response to the visit went something like this (I'm paraphrasing one of the imperial records compiled by Chinese historian J. Mason Gentzler):

"Even though you, Ruler of Britain, live far away across many seas, you have a strong urge to share in the benefits of our civilization. Your envoy has traveled here and paid his respects on the occasion of my birthday. As evidence of that respect, he has brought a selection of your country's products. Because he has traveled so far, I have allowed him and his companions into my presence. I have provided a banquet for them and presented them with gifts."

The emperor, secure in his prosperity, then turned down the British request and sent the group away without the new trade status they wanted. Because he was accustomed to welcoming clients bearing tribute, it never even entered his mind that George had approached him as an equal, monarch-to-monarch, seeking to work out an arrangement  between two world powers.

To his credit, President Clinton did not dismiss Jiang Zemin as a second-rate supplicant. He treated Jiang's visit with the gravity it deserved, seeing the occasion as one more step toward the creation of a working relationship but also reiterating the areas --- particularly with regard to human rights --- where China and the United States disagree. Other commentators, however, seem to have studied at the Qianlong School of International Relations.

Bob Herbert, for example, announced his horror that the Chinese prefer boys to girls, using the moment to revive old concerns about standards of care in Chinese orphanages. No matter that the Chinese have always found ways to get rid of unwanted girl babies and produce the boys they feel they need for survival (the argument is that girls get married and move away; boys will always be available to help support the family). No matter that many observers regard it as a sign of progress that girl babies are now being dropped off in orphanages or on hospital doorsteps, rather than down well shafts.
An editorial in the New York Times accused Jiang of "hollow if not cynical manipulations of American history" because of his enthusiastic visit to Colonial Williamsburg and his recitation of the opening to the Gettysburg Address. No matter that the Chinese leader, an self-avowed student of U.S. history, paid his hosts the compliment of speaking knowledgeably of their past. No matter that American officials didn't feel inspired to produce corresponding quotes from Confucius or Mao Zedong.

George Will characterized as "aggressively offensive" a statement by Jiang comparing China's treatment of Tibet with Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves. No matter that for many centuries Tibet and China had existed in a "teacher-patron" relationship where the lama contributed spiritual guidance and the emperor provided military and political security. No matter that, just as Lincoln's proclamation emerged as part of a strategy to defeat the Confederacy during the Civil War, China's actions unfolded as part of an attempt to undo British colonialism after World War II.

Beyond the construction of Chinese devils (a familiar form of scapegoating in the United States) lies a far more complex problem: as in the encounter between the emperor and Macartney, there are fundamental differences in the worldviews of Americans and the Chinese. This means that we have two choices. We can pursue petty victories, perhaps winning a few, but ultimately losing any possibility of real understanding. Or we can focus on our points of agreements, building a new common language on the foundation of small successes.

The obvious starting point is trade, or so it would seem. Yet even there, after the state dinners are over and the orders for airplanes and automobiles have been processed, the potential for disastrous misunderstandings is great. We Americans find it natural to urge the widening of Chinese markets so that we can close our $40 billion dollar trade gap. For China, however, such pressure can revive painful national memories of industrialized countries carving economic empires out of its sovereign space, of parks in the city of Shanghai posted with signs, "No Dogs! No Chinese!" And resentment is still understandably strong against a war fought long ago by Great Britain to force a reduction of its own trade deficit; as a result, at least 10 percent of all Chinese had become opium users by the end of the nineteenth century.

There is another danger. When commerce controls international relations, all other objectives soon disappear. Perhaps it's time to reissue Oil for the Lamps of China, written in 1933 by Alice Tisdale Hobart, and make it required reading for executives and government officials. This novel, with its remarkably perceptive depiction of China just before the revolution, sends a twofold message: first, in the end the Company will chew up and spit out anyone it doesn't need, despite their skill and training and good intentions; and second, if a company --- or a nation --- fails to use the skill and training and good intentions of its best representatives, all its efforts will turn out to be irrelevant. China will go its own way, in pursuit of its own goals, and we will be left clueless.


 -- Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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