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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Paper Tiger President

The Moose is loose—in Texas again! He’s asked the Rough Writer/Rider to fill in for a few days.

This weekend our Texas president lands in Beijing and starts making nice with the Chinese. The problem is, he’s likely to be too nice. All deals, no pressure. The president’s promise to promote democracy and freedom in the world is running up against a little old $230 billion annual trading relationship with China.

The Washington Post on Sunday analyzed Bush’s problem with jawboning the Chinese over their non-human rights policies. For a moment, Rough Writer/Rider was sympathetic. After all, there was a time when even the Clinton administration favored a burgeoning commercial relationship over punishment for the Tiananmen Square massacre—to the general benefit of everyone, especially the Chinese. Prosperity, especially if it is widespread, does enhance freedom.

But economic progress buys only so much political progress. A lot has happened in the world in the past decade, and the time for political reform is high. The time for coddling is past. The bosses in Beijing have the march of progress in a political stranglehold. They need to be pressured on dissent, freedom of religion, police brutality—and the rights of Tibet. The crushing of civil society, besides being wrong by any democratic measure, only leads to dangerous mistakes like covering up the SARS outbreak a few years ago.

The president’s waffling on human rights in China is a doomed form of gradualism. His intention of raising human rights in a "constructive spirit" won't work. That reminds Rough Writer/Rider of his own pussy-footing days. It was 1960, the Rider was a sophomore in college, and the issue was civil rights. Rough Writer/Rider was implored by more courageous and far-seeing students to join picket lines in front of two movie houses and a café  that were, like all others in Chapel Hill, N.C., segregated. But since Rough Writer/Rider had grown up in this peaceful if racist university burg, he was disinclined to ruffle the local feathers.

“We can talk to people about this,” he said. “These are nice people. We shouldn’t do anything to upset them.”

This was the Rider’s idea of a constructive spirit. He was wrong.

The biggest political lesson Rough Writer/Rider ever learned is that nobody gives up anything they don’t have to. You have to upset people. Appropriate amounts of pain must be brought to bear, and sometimes the pain is shared by the one bringing it.

After joining the picketing and the marching, Rough Writer/Rider found himself ostracized for a while in his hometown. Others had it worse; they went to jail. But the town—and the nation—were of course better off for the civil rights movement’s success. And, with a few exceptions like the unreconstructed junior U.S. senator from Mississippi, all those to whom the pain was applied now agree that it was the right thing.

The Chinese need a little pain. They’ve huffed and rattled their sabers and played the culture card—how dare you Americans, only three or four centuries old, tell us, the millennial people, what to do at home?

That was also the attitude of the Russians when Rider traveled with Ronald Reagan to Moscow in 1988. Some of us cynics in the White House press corps thought it was foolish and stagey for the administration to insist that the president meet with Soviet dissidents at Spaso House, the U.S. ambassadorial residence. We doubted his freedom-promoting speech at Moscow University was anything but a stunt. Of course, after the fall of the Berlin wall and of Felix Dzerzhinsky’s statute in Moscow within the next couple years, we learned differently. Reagan’s speeches were tremendously important to the democracy movements inside the Soviet Union.

Admittedly, the weapons available to Bush in China are limited. But, as Reagan showed, the right words at the right time and place can be important. Bush’s promise, in his second inaugural address, to pressure "every ruler and every nation" to move toward democracy will have a hollow ring if he only tiptoes around China, the new Wal-Mart of international trade. If he does the talk-talk but not the diplomatic fight-fight, it will prove to the Chinese that when human rights come up against big business, the American president really is a paper tiger.

-- Posted at 6:09 AM | Link to this post | Email this post