A Secret Letter from Beijing
What does a Chinese government official think about the Chinese and U.S. position on the global stage?
March 25, 2003
My Dear Lao Wong,
I have not written for some time. We have been very busy at the ministry. But I trust all is well, or as well as it can be in our troubled provinces.
Here in Beijing, of course, we have just seen our new government into office. We also cope as best we can with the America's amazing choice to assert unilateral power in the matter of Iraq.
It is worrisome, as Li Zhaoxing, our new foreign minister, told our French and Brazilian friends the other day, but it is not unexpected.
"The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities. So we will live up to ours." That is how President Bush put it when telling the world of his ultimatum for Iraq — just before he ordered the American invasion.
I don't think, Lao Wong, it would be possible for anyone to misread the moment more thoroughly. But again, we have seen this coming for some time now.
Americans now hope for a swift and dramatic victory in Iraq. They view the exercise as a great display of power that will be the beginning of a project to remake the Middle East in their own image.
It is breathtaking in its hubris, but it expresses the essence of the unilateral perspective as the Americans entertain it: To triumph over others — and then refashion them to conform to the American vision.
We in Beijing have another perspective — as you, my revered friend, with your many memories of China’s understanding of the world since the revolution, well know. The Americans are certain to win their battle in Iraq. No one doubts this — since there is no "war with Iraq" to be had. That country is simply too weak for it.
But setting aside the U.S. invasion and its consequences, we think a more far-reaching victory — and a greater defeat have already taken place. I am referring here to the UN Security Council, whether or not the Americans dismiss it as irrelevant.
Diplomacy did not fail at the United Nations, as the Bush Administration asserts. What failed at the United Nations was a sustained American effort to win acceptance of its world view among the community of nations.
It is a view predicated on the supremacy of American power as the defining characteristic of our time.
And so, with very few dedicated allies, the Americans went into Iraq alone. Yes, they will win, but in going it alone they have already lost. And the consequences of this defeat will weigh much more heavily on their long-term interests: The Americans are likely to live with them for many years.
You may have heard back home that China has frequently been accused of weakness on the Iraq question. Why couldn't we act more decisively?
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, why did we not attempt to build a compromise between the Americans and British on one side — and the French and Russians on the other?
Why have we been so unwilling to oppose the Americans in such a fashion — instead merely following the French lead in opposing the war? We have missed an opportunity, our critics say — a chance to prove that we are worthy of great-nation status, that "rightful" place we Chinese claim to be ours in world affairs.
It is all so much talk, Lao Wong. Our position has been clear on this matter from the first moment: The proper forum for a resolution of the Iraq problem is the United Nations and its weapons inspectors should have been permitted to continue their work.
This is not "following the French." Equally, we have urged the Americans to negotiate with the North Koreans to resolve the nuclear crisis there.
These are not reflections of weakness. Behind these positions lies a profound conviction among we Chinese.
No one here in Beijing questions the supremacy of American might. But we recognize America's status as a sole superpower as an interim.
It will be followed in the not-distant future by a world in which multilateralism is the basis of order — and where no one can act alone. That is the lesson the Americans have to learn to their great surprise.
It is true that we desire to preserve — and improve our relations with the Americans. Did you notice that Hu Jintao, our new president, made this clear during a telephone conversation with President Bush a matter of hours before Mr. Bush issued his ultimatum last week?
It is also true that our new government here in Beijing is taken up with many domestic tasks. We must maintain our economic growth rate — and do more to alleviate the poverty arising from our uneven development.
Our corruption problems are considerable — I need not tell you this, Lao Wong, given that you remain in our ancestral village.
Incidentally, whatever became of the case involving the provincial official and the Mercedes he suddenly began driving? I haven’t heard — though one hears of similar oddities every day here.
In any case, against that backdrop, perhaps it seems to the outside world that we are merely looking inward — and leaving the Middle East, where our interests are modest, to the Americans. This is a false distinction, in the end. Domestic tasks and international tasks are not so separate as we are accustomed to assuming.
I do not approve of the conduct of our politics in many respects — you know my true sentiments in matters such as democratic freedoms. But there is a difference between a strong nation — and one that is merely powerful. It is important to understand it.
China is not as powerful now as it one day will be. But it is making itself strong. America is now powerful, but it is making itself weak.
It is isolating itself internationally at precisely the moment it should be maturing as a world leader.
And — one cannot help but notice — it is neglecting its people's needs on the domestic side to such an extent that it is not even taking proper care of its soldiers' families.
Just a few days before the invasion, we heard senior leaders in Asia assert that the Americans had no choice but to invade Iraq. As they saw it, they would suffer a huge loss of face among Asians if they backed away after all that the administration in Washington has said.
One understands the argument, I suppose. But I still see it differently. The rush to war is a situation of the Americans' own making — and it reveals the incautious, uncomprehending nature of the present administration.
Apart from this, Lao Wong, in the matter of face one can look at it both ways: Have the Americans not lost much face by walking away from the United Nations when they could not get their way? It is too far-fetched to argue that by acting against the vast majority of nations, rather like a rogue nation itself.
I hope you will remember me to all in the village, Lao Wong and remind them I shall be home soon to help with the spring planting. In the meantime, know that, despite our many faults and mistakes, we in Beijing are trying to construct a better, more stable world. We are doing so according to an order we think will benefit all of us.
There are times when one need do little but watch and wait as those whom one opposes on one matter or another make even bigger mistakes. We Chinese have had many more centuries than the Americans to grasp this truth.
Your faithful friend,
Author, Columnist and Asia Editor, The Globalist Patrick Smith has been a correspondent, editor, critic, and essayist for more than three decades, chiefly in Asia. He has also lectured widely on journalism and foreign affairs. He served as the Hong Kong correspondent of the International Herald Tribune and later its Tokyo bureau chief. In 1985, […]