Veteran diplomat Chas W. Freeman, Jr. first came to my attention last year when I heard a KQED broadcast of a talk on China to a foreign policy group in San Francisco. He was talking about China's oil policies, which he judged relatively enlightened, and about Saudi Arabia's plans to build a jointly-controled strategic oil reserve in China--first and last I've heard of that. I believe it was him, and not the other speaker--whose name, which was not as colorful and therefore not as memorable, now eludes me--who made a very clever crack at the Bush administration, contrasting China's resource-driven "value-free diplomacy" with Bush's "diplomacy-free foreign policy" in the Middle East.
Freeman, who speaks fluent Mandarin, was the official U.S.-side interpreter back when Richard Nixon visited China 35 years ago. He has served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, co-chairs the U.S. China Policy Foundation, and is now president of the Middle East Policy Council. He spoke on March 27 at the inauguration of the D.C.-based think-tank the CNA Corporation's new China Studies Center; his speech is here (h/t to China Digital Times for the link). He starts off by offering a little historical perspective--the historical reasons for American misperceptions about China, and some correctives. Some excerpts that resonated with me:
To deal effectively with China, Americans need to understand it in terms of its own complexities and authentic aspirations. This is unlikely to be achieved by officials engaged in writing narrowly focused and highly tendentious reports mandated by Congress to justify the single-issue agendas of our military-industrial complex or, for that matter, our humanitarian-industrial complex. Nor can it be accomplished by analysts stir-frying intelligence to suit the political appetites of those they work for. Government-friendly but politically independent study centers like the one we are inaugurating tonight have a vitally important role to play in keeping our country from developing the world’s first genuinely autistic national security establishment, if only in relation to China.
Predictions about China based on a priori reasoning, ideologically induced delusions, hearsay, conjecture, or mirror-imaging have been frequent and numerous. They have racked up a remarkable record of unreliability. To cite a few relevant examples: contrary to repeated forecasts, the many imperfections of China's legal system have neither prevented it from developing a vigorous market economy nor inhibited foreign investment — of which China continues to attract more than any other country, including our own. China's failure to democratize and its continuing censorship of its media, including the Internet, have not stifled its economic progress or capacity to innovate, which are increasingly impressive. China's perverse practices with respect to human rights have not cost China's Communist Party or its government their legitimacy. On the contrary, polling data suggests that Chinese have a very much higher regard for their political leaders and government than Americans currently do for ours.
Toward the end of his talk, this self-described optimist on China's future does a bit of crystal ball gazing, and though he recognizes that there are plenty of "darker scenarios," paints a picture of China circa 2025 that looks like this:
- The Chinese yuan may have long since joined the dollar and euro as one of the principal currencies in world trade and reserves and helped to bring into being a new and more flexible global financial system in a world more secure in its prosperity;
- Those here tonight who are into wealth management and still alive may be as heavily invested in the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchanges as in New York or London and private Chinese investment may play a significant, sometimes dominant, role in global markets, including our own;
- Thanks to continued economic growth and the appreciation of its currency, China may have the largest economy on the planet while we continue, by a considerable margin, to have its most formidable military;
- the nature of Taiwan's relationship to the rest of China may have been peacefully resolved, taking with it the only conceivable casus belli between the United States and China;
- China may have evolved a system in which rule by law, if not perhaps the rule of law, has brought about a high level of domestic predictability and tranquility;
- the habits of consultation, based on mutual respect, and the policy transparency that characterize democracy at its best may have become integral to Chinese politics, even as the Chinese Communist Party, whether by that or another more accurately descriptive name, continues in power;
- China and the United States may both be in the process of establishing a sustainable presence on Earth's moon;
- contributions to the advancement of science and technology by Chinese may once again be at least proportional to China's share of the world's population;
- China may have begun, with us, to lead the way: not in the destruction of the global environment but in its rehabilitation;
- the mounting attractiveness of China's political and economic success may have challenged us to rediscover and reassert the values and practices that for long made others see America as the last, best hope of humankind; and
- China may have joined a united Europe, India, Japan, Brazil, Russia, the United States, and other major powers in a concert of nations that can actually accomplish some of what President Roosevelt hoped the United Nations could do — bringing about a harmonious and largely peaceful world order, increasingly free of both want and fear, and respectful of individual and collective rights as well as of the cultural diversity of humankind.
Too rosy? Cynical as I can be, nothing here strikes me as preposterous. 2025 is 18 years out still, and when I look back 18 years--funny what year that lands you at--only a complete nutcase would have foreseen the China I live in today.