Chas Freeman and China

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For the record here are two interesting statements on Chas Freeman and his fitness for public office, by people deeply familiar with the China-related part of his experience and outlook. Quick points of context:

- I don't think anyone seriously contends that Freeman's views on China are the central reason for the opposition to him. As Andrew Sullivan convincingly (IHMO) demonstrated, the real argument, for better or worse, concerns his views on Israel.

- On the other hand, his most often-quoted view about China -- that the regime erred mainly in waiting too long to crack down on the Tiananmen Square demonstrations -- has added to the argument that he is a doctrinaire "realist" who has no time for ideals of any sort.

- The two people whose views I quote below have absolutely unquestionable standing to speak on this subject. One is Sidney Rittenberg, who first went to China with the US Army in 1945 and ended up spending 35 years there, 16 of them in solitary confinement for alleged espionage and disloyalty to the Mao regime. The other is Jerome A. Cohen, of NYU Law School and Paul Weiss, who has been tireless in his efforts for legal reform in China and was instrumental in freeing John Downey, who had been held in Chinese prison for two decades after the Korean War.

Both of them strongly support the expansion of individual liberties and civil society in China. Both of them strongly support Chas Freeman and his candidacy for his now-disupted job.

After the jump, a long email Rittenberg sent me today about Freeman. Here, comments each of them made on a private China-related discussion group, quoted with their permission. Read these and ask yourself: based at least on the China part of his background, does this sound like a man so far beyond the range of reasonable opinion that he must be prevented from holding appointive office?

Rittenberg:

To my knowledge--and from personal experience--Chas Freeman as DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission, #2 to the Ambassador] in Beijing was a stalwart supporter of human rights who helped many individuals in need. Not political bluster,but intelligent and courageous action. He is strong in both wisdom and integrity.

Cohen:

Chas Freeman is one of the most brilliant, analytical, balanced and skeptical people I have known in the last four decades. I first knew him as a young State Dept China-watcher and was so impressed I persuaded State to stake him to a year at Harvard Law School so he could finish his JD and hone his skills in international law. Chas had left HLS after two bored, ho-hum years to join the Foreign Service, but when he returned he took full advantage of the opportunity and, if memory serves, had a perfect third year record. I have not been close to him since that time but we have occasionally crossed paths and I always benefited from and enjoyed the experience.

Chas is a keen observer, a wicked wit and a fearless critic. It is ludicrous to portray him as a "panda hugger" who endorses the slaughter of June 4 or someone who can be seduced by Saudi enticements. As far as I know, he has always been fiercely independent, and an enemy of "group think", and I will be glad to have him analyzing Israeli politics and policies as well as other problems.

In 1973, when Chas was helping to establish the pre-Embassy U.S. "liaison office" in Beijing, a time when the Cultural Revolution led PRC officials to obscure their titles from foreigners by identifying themselves as "responsible member of the department concerned," Chas had his own name cards printed in Chinese and English bestowing the same sobriquet on himself.

I congratulate Admiral Blair on selecting Chas to be "responsible member of the department concerned" and certainly will think less of President Obama and his advisors if they back down.

_____

A followup email from Sidney Rittenberg:

if memory serves me, Chas was so effective as chief of the China Desk at State that the Reagon Administration kept him on after they replaced Jimmy Carter. I remember calling him about something the day after the elections, and he said he was in his office packing up his stuff, because he was certain to be fired promptly. But, if I remember right, he stayed over.

Chas is an unusually deep thinker who doesn't hesitate to state his views, even when he's a minority of one. I remember talking with him at State around 1979 or '80, right after Deng Xiaoping took the helm and launched the "Reform and Opening" campaign. Virtually all critics were talking about how far China could go down the capitalist road, China's international strategy, and all the other obvious things. Chas said he thought China's future depended in large measure on how they dealt with their old legacy of Marxism. I believe that is still the case with current leaders who try to make a Marxit silk purse out of an authoritarian/capitalist sow's ear. Hu Jintao keeps trying to revive an up-dated version of Mao and a clean CPC, in a context of steamrolling capitalism and pervasive corruption. He hasn't really dealt with the issue of Marxism as official ideology. No one that I know of, except for Chas, was pointing to the importance of this 30 years ago.

Clear-headed Chinese Marxists, in my view, hold that the only part of Marx's work that is of practical value to them is his emphasis on making a realistic, dialectical analysis of different forces in society. Also, perhaps his passionate dedication to making any future socialist state much more democratic than any capitalist one -- mainly by eliminating the choke-hold of money over politics. The Communist Manifesto of 1848 clearly states that the first task of the workers after coming to power is to proclaim democracy. Marx only mentioned dictatorship a very few times in his writings, explaining it as a need for the in-coming regime during the revolution, to quash armed resistance -- he never dreamed of it as the political system that could possibly be compatible with socialism. (I had lots of time to read him in the can.)

On the decisive role of class struggle as long as classes exist, on the elimination of surplus value under socialism, on the labor theory of value, on the absolute impoverishment of the working people -- on lots of things, Chinese Marxists know how mistaken he was, limited as he was to the circumstances of his times and environment. As for the "Marxism-Leninism" that Mao adopted, whenever and wherever it suited his needs -- that had very little to do with the thinking of the Karl Marx who declared to French Socialists, "One thing I know -- I am not a Marxist!"

UPDATE: An email from another experienced international-affairs figure who has ask that I not use his name. This is in response to my earlier argument that Freeman's "contrarian" nature would actually be a plus in his prospective next job.

I have known him since 1995 and feel that the criticism of him has been extreme and ill informed. To be honest, it has come to resemble (irony notwithstanding) the Dreyfus Affair.

In any event, I would differ somewhat with the contrarian label. He is an independent thinker but I would say "irreverent" applies better than "contrarian." The latter implies a certain systematic element of iconoclasm, which Chas, in my opinion, doesn't have. He's been quite
happy to support the conventional wisdom when it makes good sense.

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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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