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