China and U.S. Diplomacy
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China and U.S. Diplomacy

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The Bo Xilai and Chen Guangcheng incidents have added some excitement to what would otherwise have been a dreary political atmosphere in China. China watchers have spent much time commenting on the likely impact the incidents will have on China’s future. But in the meantime, I’ve been following the response of the Chinese government and the people to these incidents.

Many on the left believe that the United States is becoming increasingly active in Chinese politics, especially since Wang Lijun’s meeting at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Wang was head of Chongqing’s Public Security Bureau, and met with U.S. officials in early February. They also see Bo’s fall and the Chen Guangcheng case as opportunities seized by the United States to try to influence Chinese thought.

How?

Commentators on the left note that the Wang incident occurred shortly before a visit to Washington by Xi Jinping, who is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as president. The Chen incident occurred as U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was visiting China for a dialogue. If the Wang timing was coincidental, in their minds, the Bo case affirmed to them the U.S. intention to try to influence Chinese thought.

It’s true of course that the U.S. media, especially the New York Times, has given a great deal of space to the Bo story, including breaking the wiretapping allegations. It has also been claimed that the United States assisted Chen’s escape to the U.S. embassy. The Americans, it’s argued, wanted to use the case to put pressure on the Chinese government to reform, especially in light of the brutal political taking down of Bo.

One flaw in this line of reasoning, though, is that the vast majority of Chinese simply have no part in these discussions, and those that have heard about the Bo case will likely gradually lose interest; even fewer will have heard about developments in the Chen case. The reason is simple – most Chinese are still unable to either read or get access to English-language media to find out about outsiders’ views. Chinese officials have said little publicly about the Bo and Chen cases, with discussion confined to a relatively small number of intellectuals, political watchers and microblogs.

The fact is that even microblogs, especially Weibo, are faced with increasingly tight controls and censorship, forcing users to use a variety of code words to trick the censors. Indeed, the Chinese internet has become something of a codeword wonderland.

A foreign friend told me that on the day news of Bo’s sacking appeared, messages containing “Bo Xilai” (in Chinese characters) couldn’t be sent out. Regular text message service resumed the next day.

Tight control by the Chinese government is meant to maintain social stability. And with only about five more months until the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress, where the transition to the fifth generation of leaders will take place, there’s a need to maintain stability.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s official media, including Beijing Daily, has been critical of the U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke. It appears that Locke is in the government’s bad books, meaning that it will be more difficult for the U.S. to work with the Chinese government moving forward.

My feeling, though, is that although many Americans have been concerned over the way events have unfolded in the Bo and Chen cases, the U.S. is wary about sounding as if it’s lecturing China even as it hopes that the Chinese people will gain a better awareness of democracy and the outside world.

Tara D. Sonenshine, the new U.S. Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs who took up her new post last month, made China the first country she visited. While here, she steered clear of politics and instead visited the Education Ministry and several universities. About 20 young Chinese, including myself, were invited for a dialogue session.

During the session, which lasted about an hour, I got the sense that the U.S. is very concerned about its image among Chinese young people. Chinese youths raised the Bo and Chen incidents, but she avoided commenting. Instead she talked about culture and other “soft” topics. It was smart of her to do so, but left Chinese with many questions as well as answers.

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