Monday, August 20, 2001



Ancient attitudes
isolate China

China must abandon its cultural
arrogance and embrace human values
to achieve global respect and acceptance

HONG KONG >> For several millennia, China considered itself the only civilized country in the world, surrounded by barbarians on all sides: hu to the north, fan on the west, man to the south and yi towards the east.

A powerful, unified China with a sophisticated culture arose almost two centuries before the birth of Julius Caesar. It continued to flourish long after the fall of the Roman Empire.

It is ironic, therefore, that this ancient country, which thought of itself as "all under heaven," should now be lectured by that brash young upstart, the United States.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, during his recent trip to Asia, asserted that the Chinese "still have a long way to go before they would meet the standards that we consider appropriate. Not American standards, but standards of the civilized world and the world that believes in peace and freedom... standards that those nations believe are appropriate for all nations who want to be part of the international community."

The reproof was delivered matter-of-factly, without rancor. It would do well for China to listen. China's huge population, its vast domain and its self-sufficiency has rendered in Chinese minds for many generations the superiority of their Confucian culture, which emphasized values such as filial piety and authoritarianism. China believed that all other people were inferior and barbaric.

Now China is being told by the United States, which did not even exist during the millennia when the Chinese empire was at its zenith, that if China wants to be accepted as a member of the international community, it will have to change its be- havior.

Heeding that message would benefit China, whose image has been badly damaged in the last few months. Many Americans believe that China engages in hostage diplomacy, like any rogue state, arresting foreigners as well as its own citizens for political purposes.

During the 11 days when the damaged United States reconnaissance plane and its crew of 24 were held on the island of Hainan, yellow ribbons appeared in the hometowns of the crew members, much as they had when Americans were held hostage in Iran in 1979. Four days after the collision, Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi was questioned on television about the fate of the crew members.

"They're essentially prisoners of the Chinese government tonight, are they not?" Jim Lehrer asked. "They're not," Yang responded. "They're in China because an investigation is going on and they were on the plane and the plane caused the collision. So there's a right for us to investigate the case."

China did have a right to investigate. The problem was that China never emphasized the importance of such an investigation. It announced long before the release of the American crew and hence, presumably, long before the conclusion of its investigation, that the American plane was responsible for the collision. Therefore, it was logical to conclude that China was holding the American crew members solely to extract an apology from Washington.

The arrest and trial on espionage charges of several U.S.-linked scholars was also badly handled. In Washington, Ambassador Yang responded to calls for their release by asserting, unconvincingly, that China has an independent judiciary, and that the government cannot dictate to it.

In Hanoi, Vietnam, Powell announced after a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan that "several of these cases are now on the way to resolution on humanitarian grounds, and "you will see that in a quite obvious way within the next 24 hours or so."

Lo, the following day, two permanent U.S. residents sentenced to 10 years in prison for spying were released. That certainly didn't make the Chinese judiciary look too independent.

Their release was an attempt by China to clear the air before the Powell visit to Beijing.

Indeed, China frequently resorts to prisoner releases to gain international goodwill. Beijing released prominent dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan ahead of Sino-American summit meetings. The Chinese practice has become so ingrained that hints have been dropped that several dissidents will be released before President Bush's visit in October.

If China wants respect, it will have to expunge the notion that it behaves like an international outlaw. China will have to change its behavior radically. So long as China continues to subject individuals to arbitrary detention, such practices will be condemned by the United States and other Western nations. To appease them, China will continue to release selected dissidents from time to time.

China can no longer act according to standards of behavior set thousands of years ago. Behavior that may have been acceptable at the time of the First Emperor is no longer acceptable. It is time to humanize Chinese values, not just to modernize the Chinese economy.

Frank Ching is an American
writer in Hong Kong.

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