China at the Crossroads-View from a Hawaii Congressman

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I returned Aug. 9, 2005, from 10 days in the People’s Republic of China, one of a bipartisan delegation of twelve members of Congress led by my U.S. House Small Business Committee chair and friend, Donald Manzullo (R-IL).

Our direct purpose was to represent Congress and our country in Round VII of the U.S.-China Interparliamentary Exchange, a program established in 1999 under which members of Congress and our counterparts in the National People’s Congress (NPC) alternate meetings in the U.S. and China.


More broadly, I went to:

*(a) understand better the motivations and challenges of a country rapidly emerging into superpower status,

*(b) communicate our own country’s hopes and concerns with China’s emergence on a broad range of economic, political, human rights, military and other issues, and,

*(c) advance the great potential China’s rapid development holds for Hawaii.

Our travels took us from Beijing, the ancient and modern seat of government, to multiethnic Yunnan Province, industrial/rice bowl Chengdu, haunting roof-of the world Tibet, and go-go Shanghai. We spoke with senior leadership of the omnipresent Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (and thus of China itself) in the walled compound of Zhongnanhai, so well and ironically insulated from the people, as well as the NPC in the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square, and provincial leadership at each stop. We endured highly scripted statements reflecting government positions on hot-button issues like Taiwan, our growing trade imbalance, intellectual property piracy, Tibet autonomy and the lack of basic freedoms.

But beyond this formalistic officialdom, we had remarkably frank interchanges on what is really driving them and China. We also interacted candidly and without government interference with a broad range of grassroots citizens, from street vendors to university students, soldiers, Buddhist monks, farmers and large business owners and their workers. We benefited tremendously from the collective knowledge of our own in-country foreign and commercial service professionals, who push out beyond the confines of our embassy and consulates to find the pulse of the real China. And I had most productive meetings with Bo Wu, Hawaii’s representative in China, as well as our consuls general in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, on Hawaii-specific challenges like visa hurdles for local businesses.

What rises to the top from this incredible infusion of often-conflicting information and impressions? Certainly a better understanding of the rich complexity of China today with which to make educated decisions in Congress, but also some frustration in returning with more questions than answers. Here are some observations:

*There’s no doubt that the tiger is fully awake. This country of 1.3 billion in an area larger than the mainland U.S. has sustained an annual economic growth rate of 10%-plus for almost two decades and could well top the world inside of a generation. It has done so largely by offering what is by our standards cheap labor: skilled technicians on the floor of Intel’s Shanghai semiconductor plant, for example, earn around US$6,000/year.

*Yet there are tremendous internal challenges. While some are getting very rich and hundreds of millions are living much better, well over half of the population still lives in what we would regard as great poverty and beyond the patina of increasing prosperity. National infrastructure, especially outside of the mega-cities of the east, is undeveloped, there is an insatiable thirst for resources, and pollution is growing such that trace elements are now being picked up here in Hawaii.

*The Communist Chinese Party ultimately runs everything, but it is no longer a party of ideology, only of raw centralized power. It is also riding a bucking tiger, reaching “understandings” with places like Shanghai to trade increased capitalist freedom and limited autonomy for fealty to central government and no-dissent commitments, buying loyalty from underdeveloped provinces with infrastructure investment, and trying to control internal have/have not flare-ups.

*Our basic freedoms – religion, association, press – clearly do not exist in China, but it’s not that simple. In the incredible Potala Palace and Jokhang Temple in Lhasa or Ganden Monastery at 14,000 feet in rural Tibet, the people are clearly practicing religion, yet only state-recognized religion can be practiced and permission must be gained to become a monk. There are many papers and television shows, but the content is clearly government-influenced. People are certainly associating with each other, but formal, especially large-scale, associations are also subject to government approval. The basic deal: you can do what you want as long as it doesn’t threaten government control, and there is a very low threat tolerance.

*Chinese foreign policy goals are fourfold. First, maintain national unity, with a primary focus on absorbing Taiwan. Second, counter what it views as U.S. hegemony. Third, assure adequate resource sources to feed continued internal growth. Fourth, develop trade relationships that will advance its own growth. And do all of this without getting into any fights with the U.S, at least not yet.

*The Chinese military is expanding rapidly, especially its naval and ballistic missile capability. It professes to be doing so for purely “defensive” goals, but it clearly desires to at least gain the capability to occupy and hold Taiwan. Whether its longterm goals include further military expansion are unclear: China is quick to point out, accurately, that historically it does not have a record of expanding beyond its historic territory, but its thirst for resources could eventually lead it in the same direction as Japan in the first half of the last century.

*China’s people appear to have mixed feelings about all this. They appear uniformly proud of their country’s recent direction, both externally and internally. They know they don’t have the freedoms of the west, but appear to believe that’s the price to be paid for progress and are willing to take the long road to get there. They are intrigued by our country, viewing us as having many attractive attributes and puzzling shortcomings. They are not anti-American, but simply skeptical and open to having their minds changed.

What does this all add up to? Overall, China wants what China wants, and what it wants internally is prosperity, unity and stability, and externally to project its sphere of influence and take what it views as its rightful place as a world superpower. It is very deliberately trying to accomplish all of this, and is willing to take a longer road to get there.

How should we deal with China? We can start by balancing our own federal budget, for under today’s crushing deficits China is our fastest growing creditor, giving it unnecessary economic and political leverage over us. On trade, smart, fair trade should be our goal, drawing China into mutual international agreements and requiring intellectual property and other protections. On human rights and freedoms, we can’t “make” China do what we want overnight, but we should continue to highlight outright abuses and to facilitate information flow to China’s people that will lead them to their own conclusions. Militarily, President Reagan’s maxim, “trust but verify”, sums it up, and clearly we must maintain an adequate deterrent capability in the Asia-Pacific region, highlighting our Hawaii’s role. Overall, our actions and decisions must be fair, firm, realistic, duly respectful, consistent, and with the same longterm view as China follows.

China at the crossroads is a work in progress, the future of which is anything but predestined. As it emerges further, it will be either a constructive or destructive force for our world. The course China takes and its relationships abroad, predominantly with our own country, will be among the most vital determinants of our world condition for generations to come. Thus, the relationships we develop and decisions we make with respect to China must be among our highest national priorities.

”’Congressman Ed Case is a Democrat representing the second district in the state of Hawaii.”’

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