Greed and admiration have muted western criticism of Beijing. They are both reasons why this author was not allowed to deliver this lecture to Volkswagen employees in Germanyby Ian Buruma / May 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Sometimes, without always intending to, television can capture an image which jumps at you. For me, two examples were especially striking. One was on the BBC news of 19th October 1999: a closed horse-drawn carriage clattering its way along the Mall, in London, towards Buckingham Palace. It contained the Queen of England and her official guest, Jiang Zemin, President of the People’s Republic of China. Honour guards flanked the royal carriage. The sky was a perfect blue, with flags fluttering in the autumn breeze: red for China; red, white and blue for Britain. The procession was watched by a few thousand people, mostly tourists, and a handful of Chinese waving paper flags handed out by Chinese embassy staff. Then, suddenly, a tiny commotion: a man who tried to unfurl a banner was grabbed by police officers. The banner read, in Chinese: “Free all political prisoners.” The man was Wei Jingsheng, the dissident who spent 18 years in Chinese prisons for advocating democracy. His arms were pinned behind him as he was bundled away from the eyesight of the smiling, plump, bespectacled figure who happens to preside over the world’s largest remaining dictatorship. It was a shocking picture. Why was this allowed to happen in a country which prides itself on being a bastion of democracy and free speech?
The second television image was broadcast a month earlier. It was only a fleeting moment in a documentary film about the restoration of Sino-US relations in 1972. Henry Kissinger, looking a bit like a cat which has just caught a mouse, explained how to deal with the Chinese. The Chinese, he said, “are probably smarter than we are” and so we must always be straightforward with them. This, from a man whose diplomatic and political moves were not always straightforward (he was deceiving his own country’s state department at the time), was a remarkable statement. But it was the first part of the sentence that was most arresting: “probably smarter than us.” Why? Why should this shrewd and arrogant Harvard academic have assumed such a thing?
Let us look first at the image illustrating official British policy of preventing any Chinese critics from spoiling Jiang’s day. Its main reason is not hard to figure out. Britain wants to expand its business with China. There is nothing wrong with this. Trade benefits not only British business; commercial interests might also help to open…