China Power

Does China Get Freedom?

Was Deng Xiaoping the last Chinese leader with the authority to ignore symbolic issues overseas?

As Nitin Gokhale noted at the weekend, China has put off plans to send state councilor Dai Bingguo to Delhi for a round of border negotiations this week, after India declined to prevent the Dalai Lama from appearing in the city at an international Buddhist conference.  Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil canceled plans to attend the same conference in deference to Chinese sensibilities.  The bulk of the 40 Chinese scholars expected to attend the conference also canceled, the Hindustan Times reports, although a few managed to come.

This kind of incident happens frequently to China, which reportedly asked the Indian government to force organizers to call off the entire conference.  China is now left looking like it can’t understand basic elements of democratic societies, such as the right to free speech.  Talking a few years ago about the Lai Changxing case, a Canadian official quoted in James MacGregor's One Billion Customers said that “They never, never, never got it that we could not force the outcome, right up to Zhu Rongji and the highest levels. It was beyond their comprehension. They just did not believe that we cannot tell our courts what to do.”  China has gone a bit farther with India, recently dismissing the country’s strategic concern with China as economic envy.

Incidents like this project an image of out-of-touch apparatchiks at the helm of the Middle Kingdom, but increasingly I’m beginning to think it misses something important – since Deng Xiaoping, China hasn’t had a leader with enough power in Beijing to be able to afford to ignore symbolic issues overseas. For China to ignore a potential slight like this coincidence would mean some specific person going out on a limb – and it’s a lot easier to reschedule a meeting that still looks likely to happen than to stick your neck out over respecting India’s freedom of expression.

Of course, as China gains power, it is also winning some fights like this too – Obama avoided meeting the Dalai Lama until he had had a chance to meet Hu Jintao.