Sunday, August 24, 2008


Grrrr.  There's a banner that sits, glowering on a few websites (see the photo above) that has a sort of online poll function on it.  In case the resolution on my screen capture is bad, I'll give a run-down: the text reads "Is it OK to Unconditionally Meet with Anti-American Foreign Leaders?" and has two buttons, "Yes" and "No."  The photos of Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sit side by side next to the text.

Though I've always noticed the little "Paid For by John McCain 2008" imprint in the lower right hand corner, I've repeatedly, naively, pressed "Yes" (as in, "yes, it is OK to meet with such leaders")--and have then been led to the McCain website, which asks me to donate to McCain, presumably on the assumption that I pressed "No."  There's no acknowledgment even that I voted!

What is really frustrating (beyond that the banner fails to define what an "Anti-American Foreign Leader" might be--does this description include Putin? Chirac?) is that it puts the question so plainly.  McCain is so serenely confident that I would be angered by the very idea of meeting with someone without preconditions that he doesn't even bother to embellish the question with swipes about "appeasement" or "inexperience."  

It's exactly because of this kind of stuff, this arrogant, bull-headed idiocy and meanness, that it'll good to have Biden around this fall.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

CAP report

As someone who cares about China and counts himself a "progressive" (for lack of a better label in the context of American politics) I was excited to hear about the release of the Center for American Progress' (CAP) report, "A Global Imperative: A Progressive Approach to U.S.-China Relations in the 21st Century." 

CAP is one of the many liberal (or should that be "progressive"?) institutions that sprang up following the disastrous 2000 U.S. presidential election with an eye toward building a new, Democratic-leaning Washington brain trust to counter the think tanks patiently built by the Right over the 1980s and 1990s.  

So what do these new, trail-blazing non-Rightists have to offer U.S.-China relations?

The authors of "A Global Imperative", who consulted an impressive list of academics, activists and former officials in preparing the report, rightly note at the start that American presidents tend to have a schizophrenic relationship with the PRC.  Bush, Clinton and Bush again have all swung awkwardly from confrontation with China at the beginning of their presidencies and back to accommodation at the end of their terms.  In the place of this waffling, the report reasonably proposes a consistent strategy from the start of the new president's time in office--be he Obama or McCain--one that focuses on both areas of cooperation and areas of respectful push and pull.  

CAP's key suggestions are hard to argue with: "embed China" in international institutions (though this has been happening for some time, largely on the PRC's initiative--not because of some grand U.S. plan, Zoellick's speeches notwithstanding); "manage potential downside and upside risk" (I'd hope so); "better understand China" (obviously a good thing); "collaborate with China" on certain issues, such as WMDs, diseases, and the environment; "cooperate with other nations to influence China:" "reestablish U.S. moral authority" on human rights issues; and "prepare to compete globally."

The devil is in the details. And the report is, unfortunately, sparse on specifics, except when it discusses two areas of potential collaboration between the U.S. and China. These two areas are combating global warming and achieving "win-win" economic relations.  I will focus on the latter.

CAP recommends making the establishment of a larger Chinese middle class (and thereby boosting Chinese consumption and lowering the trade deficit) a shared goal of U.S. and Chinese policymakers. This could be done, says CAP, through cooperation in the International Labour Organization (ILO) on the Decent Work Agenda for China, supporting Chinese labor law reforms that have been opposed by U.S. businesses in the past, and talking about China's social safety net as a part of the two countries' strategic economic dialog.   The U.S., meanwhile, should get its own house in order economically by fixing its finances, retraining workers, etc.

In principle, these are good suggestions.  But while the U.S. should engage the ILO more in general (starting with signing more of the organization's conventions), influencing China through a tripartite body isn't simple--you have to rally U.S. businesses and labor, along with the bureaucracy. I doubt that American companies would heed a mere moral exhortation to stop getting in the way of China's labor reforms, as CAP implies, without some legislation at home holding them to the fire, such as an International Right to Know law. And Chinese officials, moreover, like the leaders of any country, are unlikely to be crazy about talking about their internal social security and health care policies as a part of high-level economic meetings with foreigners... and so this item will likely be quietly dropped, if it is pushed by the new president at all.

The truth of the matter is that though measures such as those recommended in the report can help, there is a glaring hole.  It is civil and political rights.  

CAP deals with this issue by essentially saying that the U.S. should scrap Guantanamo and end torture--"reestablish U.S. moral authority"--before it lectures anyone.  But freedom of speech and freedom of association are integral to the improved labor conditions sought by the report's writers in the PRC. And even reining in Chinese pollution is related to jobs, which are related to potential protests by the unemployed, which are related to rights... just as reining in pollution is related to jobs and angry voters and rights in the U.S.

I usually feel a bit uneasy whenever human rights, especially civil and political rights, are brought up in the context of country-to-country relations.  No country, least of all the U.S., seems qualified to throw the first stone.  Equally importantly, the involvement of nation states in rights discussions can undermine the work of unions, NGOs and private individuals by allowing them to be painted as the tools of foreign powers.  

There is a danger, too, as Balakrishnan Rajagopal suggests, of bringing rights into development discussions in particular.  The rhetoric of development tends to colonize rights, elevating some rights and downplaying others (Rajagopal's example is how evictions for infrastructure projects are viewed as more understandable than evictions for purely political reasons).  

But when rights are nearly entirely ignored in elite policy--what Tibet protests?  what jailed petitioners?--it is hard not to worry that rights have dropped in importance and will begin a slow decline into obscurity.  

How should rights be addressed, then?  

Perhaps enhanced exchange is the solution.  China and the U.S. have an ongoing human rights dialog now, of course, but it is unproductive, at least judging from Assistant Secretary Kramer's recent trip to Beijing. He had talks and talks, while dissidents who might mar his visit were rounded up (America's human rights were also conspicuously not on the table--it was solely a discussion of China and its problems).  

A better model might be a public, joint run-down of mutual complaints, perhaps based on each country's human rights reports on the other (China periodically puts out a report on U.S. human rights, just as the U.S. State Department does on other countries). 

But I really don't know what would work.  This, along with cold-blooded interest, is at the core of any debate about the U.S. and China and it has no easy solutions.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Opening ceremony

Man, the opening ceremonies were incredible.  

I've had all these mixed feelings built up.  There'll be more back and forth about the mass choreography of Zhang Yimou, but at first viewing it was pretty cool---and open in spirit.  Seeing Jacques Rogge toward the end sorta put a damper on things, but I felt surprisingly affectionate toward Hu Jintao throughout.  All in all, it just made me incredibly proud of China.  Of all its been through and all it can be.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Jim Yardley's article in the New York Times yesterday strives to be a definitive account of what the Chinese Communist Party adds up to on the eve of the Olympics. He does a pretty good job on the whole---actually, a very good job---though I think his treatment of the issue of popular nationalism could do with a tad more nuance and he curiously omits the (slight) leftward turn of the Chinese leadership in recent years.

One thing that stands out is Yardley's assertion that "the party has absorbed entrepreneurs, urban professionals and university students into an elite class that is invested in the political status quo, if not necessarily enthralled with it." Bruce Dickson, quoted in the article, has done an especially good job of documenting this phenomenon, starting with his book Red Capitalists in China. David Brooks made a similar observation to Yardley's a while back in a column titled "The Dictatorship of Talent" and I, unusually, found myself roughly in agreement with him.

This party-as-technocratic-elite thing is hardly new, of course. Mao criticized Kruschev's U.S.S.R. for creating just that. And, on the right-wing side, Taiwan, Singapore and plenty of other places tried the same set-up, with the KMT or PAP subbing in for the CCP. But it is interesting as a place on a party's arc of development.

Now, to make a jump---I hope not too big of a jump---I am worried about the Democratic Party of the United States making the same transition. Don't get me wrong, in an election year I am happy for every Northern Virginia tech worker and anxious Wall Street type the Democrats can get. But I don't want those kids to come near to dominating the atmosphere of the party.

For now, the Democrats have a better advantage in the working class than you'd know from the news. Obama holds a 2-1 advantage over McCain among low-wage workers and leads McCain by 10 percent among working class white voters. I just hope they don't forget that after November.