Features | Society | East Asia

Wen Jiabao vs Aung San Suu Kyi

Burma’s opposition leader may have achieved less than the Chinese premier. But Suu Kyi’s less is definitely more.

Britain welcomed two distinguished Asian guests at the end of last month. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited London as part of a European tour to sign trade agreements and help sandbag the leaking Eurozone. The following day, Aung San Suu Kyi took over the BBC’s airwaves from back home in Burma to deliver the first of two highly-anticipated lectures, entitled ‘Liberty’ and ‘Dissent’, about her pro-democracy campaign.

Both came armed with criticisms. Wen’s were for his British hosts. ‘On human rights, China and the UK should respect each other, respect the facts, treat each other as equals, engage more in co-operation and less in finger-pointing,’ Wen said in a public rebuke to his British counterpart, David Cameron. Clearly irritated by the UK’s patronising and moralising refrain (as he saw it) about China’s lax human rights record, Wen went in for some patronisation of his own. China has a 5,000 year history, he observed, which has taught the Chinese not to lecture other countries, but to respect them on an equal basis – an evident hint that this was a  lesson that the arriviste British might also eventually learn. Wen signed $2.25 billion in trade deals with Cameron, threw in two pandas for Edinburgh Zoo, and decamped to Germany.

Wen’s tetchy dismissal of British criticism raised the serious question of whether countries like Britain shouldn’t simply change the record. Lecturing China doesn’t seem to work – its human rights record has, if anything, deteriorated over the last year thanks to Beijing’s authoritarian reflex to the Arab Spring – and to raise the issue only appears detrimental to the country casting the aspersions. In Germany, which Beijing regards as being more permissive of Chinese policies, Wen concluded $15 billion in trade agreements, far more than he granted to the finger-pointing Brits.

Moreover, Wen arguably makes a strong case when he says that China has notched up impressive progress on many fronts, earning it other countries’ respect rather than this constant carping about human rights. His government stands, after all, for pragmatism over moralism: sticking to core socio-economic objectives that benefit the many, rather than dwelling on Western concepts of rights that suit the dissenting few – square conceptual pegs that don’t fit into the round holes of the Chinese context. Pragmatism, Wen would argue, is what still-developing China needs, not idealism.

Though Aung San Suu Kyi’s BBC Reith Lectures were in no way connected to Wen’s London lecture, a more complete or timelier rebuttal is hard to imagine. Suu Kyi lacks Wen’s pragmatic credentials, or his practical authority. Her record of changing the lives of ordinary people is much less impressive than his; in fact, one might argue that her material impact on Burma has been negligible, whereas Wen’s impact on China has been historic.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But in terms of moral authority, Suu Kyi outmatches Wen many times over. Wen’s pronouncements on human rights come from behind the parapet; hers are made beneath the walls, in the line of fire. Wen may talk of struggle in his Communist Party propaganda, but Suu Kyi lives it. The Burmese opposition leader, not the Chinese premier, is therefore the one best qualified to talk about human rights and whether countries are doing enough to uphold them.

The criticism in Suu Kyi’s lecture was mainly reserved for India, Burma’s democratic neighbour, which she accused of abandoning its principles in the international arena and ‘of putting trade and strategic interests in the forefront’ instead of showing solidarity with Burmese democrats. China has played the same game as India, she noted; but from Burma’s undemocratic neighbour she expected nothing more. India on the other hand has a moral imperative to stick to its democratic guns. Thus, turning Wen’s argument on its head, she told India that it had a clear duty to lecture other countries about their failings, and not, as Wen would have it, to keep quiet about them as a mark of self-serving respect.

Wen would probably retort that it’s easy for opposition figures to indulge in this kind of political idealism, and that serving leaders must instead make pragmatic and difficult choices. But what exactly are the facts about China’s human rights record that he told British Prime Minister David Cameron to respect? Repression in Tibet and Xinjiang; the detention of political activists; the curtailment of free speech: these must be the facts he was talking about. China’s government could walk tall on its practical record, if its total lack of moral authority didn’t have it constantly ducking for cover behind its repressive security apparatus at home and its financial power abroad.

At the Chinese Communist Party’s 90th anniversary celebrations last week, President Hu Jintao openly admitted that widespread corruption undermines the Party’s achievements; its cowardly approach to political reform does so, too. The administration of Hu and Wen has had China’s answer to Aung San Suu Kyi, fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, locked up, along with other pretty harmless characters, like Hu Jia and Ai Weiwei (both recently freed) and young women cracking satirical jokes on Twitter. These aren’t acts that command respect.

Asia needs pragmatic leaders like Wen if it’s to keep developing successfully. But as China’s societal problems demonstrate, this kind of leader can only take you so far. If you want your country to be fair as well as rich, open as well as powerful, and respected rather than feared, then you need moral leaders too. Foreign observers like Cameron, who must be wondering whether to heed Wen’s rebuke and bite his lip about human rights, should remember that on this particular subject, Wen can’t claim expertise. It’s the leaders of moral stature, like Suu Kyi, the ones who have suffered for people’s rights, who really know their value. So Cameron should respectfully ignore Wen’s call for respectful silence on China’s human rights record – and only shut up when that record genuinely improves.

Suu Kyi and her beleaguered National League for Democracy, meanwhile, are sometimes accused of irrelevance, in spite of their bravery, and of struggling to absolutely no avail. And indeed, what has their long campaign actually achieved? ‘We have done as much as I think any party could do under the circumstances,’ she said at the end of her BBC talk. She has succeeded only in keeping dissent alive for dissent’s own sake.

But in a place like Burma, that’s a truly great thing. Wen, for all China’s headline-grabbing progress, hasn’t done all he could; his government has often ducked the brave choices and lashed out at those calling for those choices to be made. That’s why history will remember Aung San Suu Kyi as a great leader, and Wen Jiabao as an able manager.