»  National Review

April 5th, 2001

  What China Wants


To judge from the Internet chat groups and radio call-ins, there is widespread disgust and anger in the U.S. at China's attitude in the spy-plane incident. China's peculiar way of addressing the matter has especially got people's backs up. Colin Powell's statement of regret over the loss of that Chinese pilot is "a step in the right direction," honked a Chinese spokesman. "If the U.S. takes a co-operative approach," he further harangued, China "would consider arrangements" for another visit to the kidnapped crew. However, "the U.S. has made a mistake and should first apologize." The tone is that of a bossy schoolteacher lecturing a naughty child. You can almost see the finger wagging.

These kinds of arrogant threats, self-righteous bluster and de haut en bas scolding are reflex actions for the Chinese leadership. This is how they talk to their own people. This is how Chinese interrogators address prisoners. Confess! And we'll go easy on you. While living in China, I myself got into a spot of trouble with the authorities. A Chinese friend instructed me in the required techniques of self-abasement. The two guiding principles were:

Everyone in China knows this stuff. It's the way they live. The Chinese Communist Party is, according to its own doctrine and written histories, infallible. It follows that, if anything untoward happens, it must be someone else's fault. It is more than their pysche can tolerate to admit otherwise. To insist that the Party might be wrong in any way whatsoever is to attack the very ground of their being.

The Party is also, however, a wise and loving parent to the people, her children. (When someone asked the late Prime Minister Chou En Lai if he regretted that he and his wife had had no children, he replied: "All the people of China are my children." Chinese people tell you this disgusting story with warm approval.) Therefore, once the straying child has acknowledged the error of his ways, Benevolence can be extended, the shutters of Imperial dignity can be thrown open to allow Compassion to radiate outwards, and Harmony can be restored.

Of course, nobody is actually expected to believe in these things. Everyone in China, including presumably the nation's leaders, knows that the Party has committed gross errors that cost tens of millions of innocent lives. The Party's actual capacity for "benevolence" is well understood by everyone. In a state like this, ruled by lies, all dealings with the authorities have the nature of a game, and nothing drives them crazy like someone who won't play the game properly. Here is Timothy Garton Ash, a writer with long experience of dealing with communists in Eastern Europe.

Imagine sitting round a table with four apparently sane and civilized men, the senior of whom suddenly remarks: "Of course, the Earth is flat." You expect the others to demur. But no. "Flat," says one. "Very flat," agrees his neighbor. "How else could we walk upright!" exclaims the third. And then they all smile at you, challenging dissent.

Far-fetched? If you travel to communist countries as a journalist this is a regular experience. You are ushered into a large government office, greeted with elaborate politeness by the minister or party secretary, seated at a glass-topped table under the marquetry plaque of Lenin. A middle-aged secretary brings in cups of coffee, a plate of small cakes, perhaps a round of schnapps. And then they start quietly telling you these whopping lies.

              —in the London Spectator, 8/13/83

Anyone that has dealt with Chinese officials knows the feeling very well. At first you take these things as an affront, an insult to your intelligence. Most of the lies they tell you are so flimsy, you think they can only be doing it to test you in some way. ("There are no murders in China," my own party secretary once told me, with a perfectly straight face.) Surely, you think, they know that I know that it's a lie — so why are they saying it?

The best way to advance your understanding in this matter is to refuse to accept the lie being offered. As gently and courteously as possible, point out that the world is not flat. If it were, ships would not disappear over the horizon, and so on. This produces a striking result. They get angry. Now, this is not a natural reaction. If I tell you a lie and you correct me, I will probably display embarrassment. If anyone's angry, it will be you.

It is your failure to play the game that's making them angry. All despotic societies have a state ideology of harmony, of unanimity, of perfect conformism. Think of those rubber-stamp "parliaments," the hands all going up in unison. Listen to Chinese spokesmen in this latest affair: "The Chinese people are angry!" What, all of them? How do you know? Isn't there perhaps one Chinese person, somewhere, that isn't angry? Since you are so intimate with the feelings of the Chinese people, why don't you submit yourself for their approval in a free vote, as leaders do in civilized countries? Such questions are not permitted. Harmony must be asserted, whatever the cost in truth and freedom. The person who refuses to go along with the official line, however obviously mendacious, is creating disagreement. How unpleasant! You can see the smiles wavering, hear the feet shuffling nervously under the table. Damn foreigner, doesn't he know the rules?

What the Chinese want is for us to behave as they expect their own people to behave when confronted with the wrath of the infallible, all-mighty, all-benevolent state. Flatter the leaders, criticize yourself. Make a big matter into a small matter. Alas, free people do not have the habits and mentality of slaves, and cannot easily acquire them. We refuse to criticize ourselves when we have no reason to believe we have done anything wrong. We decline to flatter rulers who represent nobody, who were elected by nobody, whose behavior is restrained by no law, and whose hands are stained with the blood of numberless innocents. We persist in thinking that the theft of our property and the kidnapping of our people are large matters, which cannot be made into small matters. That's just the way we are.



  1. In my April 3 column "Trash That Plane" I used the British term "Special Services" when I should have said "Special Forces." In the U.S. military, I'm informed, "Special Services" are tasked with checking out towels and basketballs at military gymnasiums. Valuable work, to be sure, but not necessarily the best training for storming a well-defended ChiCom airfield.
  2. In the follow-ups at the end of that column I slipped in an ad for The Young Marines, with a hyperlink to their excellent web site. Unfortunately the hyperlink didn't work, and this was my fault, not — as I told some early complainers — the gentle webmaster's. This time the link will work. I also said that TYM's very small amount of government money comes to them for drug rehab. Wrong: it is a "drug demand reduction program." I have also been apprised of the existence of the USAF Auxiliary, which provides similar, but of course Air Force-oriented, training for young people aged 12 to 21 and is spoken very highly of by my respondents. It is hard to think of any work more important than the work these people are doing, and I urge you to support them in any way you can.