The wolf and the lamb

Wei Jingsheng

November 19, 1993|By Wei Jingsheng

Beijing -- MOST Americans don't really understand China, just as most Chinese don't understand America.

This leads the two governments to make numerous miscalculations in their relations and leads the two peoples toward numerous misunderstandings of the opposing regime's conduct.

For example, the Chinese government holds that America cares nothing for the fate or future of the Chinese people; this means that raising human rights issues becomes nothing but a political tactic used in laying siege to the Communist Party or merely an economic bargaining tool. So China treats human rights as a problem of foreign relations.

And the primary pretext for refusing to bend under international pressure on human rights is that China "will not allow interference in its internal affairs."

Furthermore, there is a tendency on the part of China to view the detention and release of dissidents as a hostage transaction, in which freedom for the prisoner is just a bargaining chip in an economic poker game.

The reason the Chinese government is willing to make such unclean transactions is that it does not understand why the United States might be unwilling to continue lucrative trade relations if China's human rights environment does not improve.

China doesn't understand, because it thinks this way: Is it really likely that Americans would befriend a people they are not at all familiar with?

Is it really likely that Americans would abandon an opportunity to make money just to protect the human rights of those they have befriended?

Is it really likely that the American people's determinations of right and wrong could ever influence the judgment of the U.S. government?

It looks as if the Communist Party has answered these questions in the negative.

So even though it may have realized that its own conduct might have been in error, it still firmly pursues a strategy of brinksmanship, giving ground only when absolutely necessary and always in the last five minutes of negotiations.

For example, Chinese officials last week agreed to give "positive consideration" to allowing the International Committee of the Red Cross to inspect prisons. The party holds that in such ways it will save face, and in the end will debunk Yankee protestations of seriousness over human rights, which the party believes are just an affectation.

Pursuing this strategy, Beijing believes, will free it to deprive the people of their freedom. It also seems that the U.S. government has misunderstood the true mind-set of the Chinese government.

Washington evidently believes that the Communist Party resembles a bunch of slow-witted rulers of a backward culture and that China doesn't comprehend that violations of human rights are evil.

Therefore, the Clinton administration now plans to abandon policies of pressure in favor of a policy of persuasion and "enhanced engagement" -- a misguided shift to be symbolized in Seattle this week by the handshake between Presidents Clinton and Jiang Zemin.

Unfortunately, the reality is more like the Aesop's fable in which a lamb tries to reason with a wolf.

After the wolf accuses the lamb of fouling his drinking water, the lamb protests: "I could not have fouled your water because I live downstream from you." The wolf eats the lamb anyway.

I fear that no matter how much the two countries debate, the old wolf in China will still complain about its drinking water. China not only doesn't understand reason but also does not intend to reason.

I'm unclear about the American people's understanding of changes in China-U.S. relations, but the Chinese people's understanding of their own government is very precise.

The present leaders were the most outspoken group of men, shouting their support of human rights and democracy before they ascended to power. But their subsequent dictatorship made clear that they have no intention of making good on the promises they once made to the masses.

The Chinese people's understanding of the new direction of U.S. policy toward China leads them to believe that the party was right all these years in saying that the American government is controlled by rich capitalists.

All you have to do is offer them a chance to make money and anything goes. Their consciences never stopped them from making money.

I don't really believe in this kind of understanding -- or rather I'm not willing to believe in it.

Wei Jingsheng, China's most prominent political prisoner, was released in September after 14 years in prison. This is his first essay since his release. It was translated by the Beijing bureau of the New York Times.

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