Monday, July 17, 2000China Demonizes
American critics of China's human rights record and belligerence toward Taiwan are sometimes admonished to tone down their rhetoric; it's counterproductive to "demonize" the People's Republic, many supporters of engagement say. We mustn't offend China lest it lash back. Thus, it was refreshing to hear Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen--himself a strong supporter of the Clinton administration's policy toward China--reminding the Chinese that demonization can be a two-way street.
Arriving in Beijing for sensitive talks about strategic weapons, Mr. Cohen was greeted with an editorial in the state-run China Daily headlined "U.S. a Threat to World Peace." Noting that the Chinese official media are replete with such portrayals of the United States as "a hegemonic nation, engaged in a campaign against the interests and aspirations of others, including China," Cohen unapologetically told an audience of military officers "the truth" that the U.S. presence in Asia stabilizes the region--to China's benefit.
Mr. Cohen vitiated this a bit by conceding, in response to an outburst by a member of the audience, that U.S. media distortions about China harm Sino-U.S. relations. Still, it's about time a senior U.S. official at least noted the anti-U.S. propaganda that permeates China's state-controlled media. Sometimes the rhetoric is merely tendentious, such as the China Daily editorial that welcomed Mr. Cohen. At other times, Chinese media exploit real flaws in U.S. society to advance the claim that China respects human rights more than the United States does: For example, the China Daily Web site's feature on shooting incidents in American schools and workplaces. But some stuff is just false and ugly. On June 22, 1999, the People's Daily fed a general anti-American campaign related to the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade with a long, hysterical piece accusing the United States of "acting like Nazi Germany" by leading the NATO campaign to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo.
One difference between the U.S. and Chinese media, of course, is that the former are independent, and therefore full of competing views of China, some upbeat, some grim. In China, however, the Communist Party permits only the official view--not to mention the regular blasts at U.S. foreign policy Chinese leaders deliver when addressing audiences in other countries. To some extent, the vilifications may be intended to fan nationalism within China or to puff up China's still modest international standing. China's rulers also may broadcast anti-Americanism because they really believe it. Either way, it shouldn't be taken lightly--or left unrebutted. Ideas have consequences.