In the Hutong
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In an excellent editorial in The New York Times, “Scolding China Won’t Help,” Beijing-based attorney James Zimmerman offers his prescription for anyone in the West interested in helping China transition to a more democratic form of government.
First, Western leaders should appreciate that open and frequent government-to-government dialogue and legal, cultural and commercial exchanges are the most effective tools. China came out of its shell three decades ago due to vigorous engagement with, not lectures from, Washington and Brussels.
Second, we should give Beijing credit where credit is due. Those that deserve credit are the moderate voices that have taken bold steps to lead China down a path of reform. Unfortunately, few elected officials in the United States would even consider giving the Communist leadership praise for its accomplishments. Acknowledging progress on problems like poverty helps build credibility on more contentious issues.
Third, it is important to keep in mind the internal struggle between moderate and conservative voices within China. The Chinese people continue to view with suspicion any attempt to impose Western values on China. Liberal institutions need to be nurtured, rather than thrust upon Beijing. Keeping this tension in mind serves as a framework for productive engagement.
Leaving aside the fraught matters of whether democracy is the right system for China, and if so what form it would take, Zimmerman makes some valid points that should be made to those behind every door of importance within the Beltway. There is no good reason to coddle or appease Beijing, but lecturing it on its national governance gives aid and comfort to the opponents of political progress in China, and paints every would-be reformer with a patina of American stoogedom.
Nonetheless, there is an important point that Mr. Zimmerman leaves out in this process: that is America’s role as an exemplar of the principles for which it stands in both its domestic and international conduct, and thus as an inspiration to those seeking a better model of government. We can debate what those principles are, but when we abandon them we cease to light the way forward for all of the nations and peoples seeking more representative and responsive forms of government.
We cannot lead when we preach clean government but tolerate the fig-leafed corruption of campaign financing, when we call for multilateralism but act unilaterally, when we argue for tolerance then show ourselves to be intolerant, or when we call for greater consumer spending even as we recover from the debilitating economic hangover of our last consumer spending spree.
The people of China see right through these contradictions and call us, not without justification, hypocrites. And along with their leaders, they laugh and shake their heads at our temerity, our chutzpah.
And our messages, our words, and our ideals go unheeded or, worse, are dismissed altogether.
No house is totally clean, no family ever bereft of dirty linen. But until we openly acknowledge and address the cracks in our own democratic edifice, the peoples of the world will look elsewhere for lights, even in places we wish they daren’t look.