Hillary Clinton and Chinese 'Doom': the Dave Chappelle Factor

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The new issue of the Atlantic is out -- yes, subscribe, it's very strong -- and among many great pieces is the cover story is by Jeffrey Goldberg, on what Arab countries might expect after the tyrants are gone.

Jeff's reporting for the piece included a long interview with Hillary Clinton, and today he releases a slightly condensed transcript of his discussion with her. Lots to read there, but let me highlight one part touches my own beat: her apparent "dustbin of history" reference to China. As Jeff Goldberg says in his item today, with emphasis added:

>>It was during this part of the conversation, when the subject of China, and its frightened reaction to the Arab Spring, came up, that she took an almost-Reaganesque turn, calling into question not just Beijing's dismal human rights record, but the future of the Chinese regime itself. The Obama Administration has been ratcheting-up the rhetoric on China's human rights record lately, especially since the arrest of the dissident Ai Weiwei, but Secretary Clinton, in our interview, went much further, questioning the long-term viability of the one-party system. After she referred to China's human rights record as "deplorable" (itself a ratcheting-up of the rhetoric), I noted that the Chinese government seemed scared of the Arab rising. To which she responded: "Well, they are. They're worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand. They cannot do it. But they're going to hold it off as long as possible."

Cliinton's assertion that the repressive Chinese system will eventually collapse brought to mind nothing so much as Reagan's statement, made to Richard V. Allen in 1977, about America's goal in the Cold War: "My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic," Reagan said. "It is this: We win and they lose."<<

Whoa! At the moment I have time simply to highlight this passage and note how unusual it is, and how the Chinese are very likely to be asking for "clarification" of these remarks today, in their high-level "Strategic and Economic" talks chaired by Secs. Clinton and Geithner. Reasons it's unusual:

- If you want to see how U.S. officials usually discuss our disagreements with China, check out Jon Huntsman's farewell address, as Ambassador to China, last month, which was seen as "blunt" and "tough" by Chinese and Americans alike. The bluntness usually comes through not in saying that China's overall record is "deplorable" but in objecting to specific arrests, detentions, and crackdowns -- like those Huntsman itemizes during the very severe Chinese government reaction to what it saw as the "Arab spring" threat. Here's a representative part of Huntsman's speech:

>>Long after I depart Beijing, future Ambassadors will continue to visit American citizens like Dr. Feng Xue, who was wrongfully convicted of stealing state secrets and is now serving an eight-year sentence in prison far from his family in the United States. They will continue to speak up in defense of social activists, like Liu Xiaobo, Chen Guangcheng and now Ai Weiwei, who challenge the Chinese government to serve the public in all cases and at all times.

The United States will never stop supporting human rights because we believe in the fundamental struggle for human dignity and justice wherever it may occur. We do so not because we oppose China but, on the contrary, because we value our relationship. President Hu and Premier Wen have both acknowledged the universality of human rights. By speaking out candidly, we hope eventually to narrow and bridge this critical gap and move our relationship forward.<<

That's all in line with the way U.S. presidents and diplomats have talked about human rights problems inside China.

- And if you want to note how unusual it is for senior U.S. officials to say that "history is working against the Chinese system" or anything of the sort, you need only consult virtually every utterance by President Obama, Secretary Geithner, and (if I'm remembering correctly), Secretary Clinton too during Hu Jintao's recent visit to America, or in the run-up to this week's high-level talks. Plus Geithner's comments in a Charlie Rose appearance last night with his Chinese counterpart Wang Qishan.

I don't have time to gather the cites now, but I promise you they all of them start with the assurance that the United States is not trying to contain, bottle up, thwart, or derail China's steady rise in the world. Au contraire! In fact it welcomes China's growth (etc etc, betterment of mankind, etc etc historic reduction of poverty etc etc expansion of human choice etc ). But -- the official line goes -- while welcoming this growth, the U.S. wants to ensure that values the United States cares about are defended too. These range from the expansion of human liberties to the health of the world trading system to the protection of the environment.

The Democracy ReportThe U.S. always says, as it should, that it's pushing for a steady increase in liberties within China. But that is different from, "time is running out for you, as it ran out for the corrupt Soviets." If it doesn't sound so different to you, trust me that it does to the Chinese leadership. (Yes, I recognize the potential distinction between the long-term success of China as a whole and the long-term survival of its current government. More on that another time.) The usual U.S. tone -- we are your friends, but good enough friends to be frank about where we disagree -- has been chosen by presidents from Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama precisely because Chinese governments are so very, very suspicious that forces are plotting against them, internal and (especially!) external. The great paradox of the Chinese leadership, as everyone who has observed the place knows, it that it is simultaneously strong, successful, and insecure.

So when they hear a sitting U.S. Secretary of State make an offhanded remark that sounds like, "we know you're going to collapse, sooner or later," it's like confirmation of their worst paranoid fears. Ah, at last the truth comes out! It's like the old Dave Chappelle jokes about what the whites are saying when no blacks are around, or the Woody Allen nightmare-fantasy of attending an Easter dinner in Annie Hall (and growing a Hasidic beard while at the table), or any other suspicion of what someone else "really" thinks.

That's why it would be interesting to hear Sec. Clinton's discussions with the heads of the Chinese delegation, Dai Bingguo and Wang Qishan, today. And even more interesting to hear the follow-on discussions among the Chinese about what the Americans "really" mean.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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