This post is perhaps a bit ahead of its proper time since the 20th anniversary of June 4th is still about three months away. Nevertheless, the recent chatters in the blogsphere made me check out the background of Chas Freeman, Obama’s choice as the head of the National Intelligence Council, and his comment concerning June 4th. Well, it’s kinda difficult to keep on skipping through posts concerning Freeman, about whom I knew absolute nothing, when James Fallows decided to jump into the fray with a post titled “A fight I didn’t intend to get into: Chas Freeman“.
Apparently, Freeman is a realist and someone not afraid of spelling out other than established views on a variety of topics. That made him a number of enemies and they have been out in force in recent days to attack his appointment. In particular, the Weekly Standard offered this following email written by Freeman in 2006 as a manifest evidence of his disqualification. (The highlight on the text is added by me.)
I will leave it to others to address the main thrust of your reflection on Eric’s remarks. But I want to take issue with what I assume, perhaps incorrectly, to be yoiur citation of the conventional wisdom about the 6/4 [or Tiananmen] incident. I find the dominant view in China about this very plausible, i.e. that the truly unforgivable mistake of the Chinese authorities was the failure to intervene on a timely basis to nip the demonstrations in the bud, rather than — as would have been both wise and efficacious — to intervene with force when all other measures had failed to restore domestic tranquility to Beijing and other major urban centers in China. In this optic, the Politburo’s response to the mob scene at “Tian’anmen” stands as a monument to overly cautious behavior on the part of the leadership, not as an example of rash action.
For myself, I side on this — if not on numerous other issues — with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. I do not believe it is acceptable for any country to allow the heart of its national capital to be occupied by dissidents intent on disrupting the normal functions of government, however appealing to foreigners their propaganda may be. Such folk, whether they represent a veterans’ “Bonus Army” or a “student uprising” on behalf of “the goddess of democracy” should expect to be displaced with despatch from the ground they occupy. I cannot conceive of any American government behaving with the ill-conceived restraint that the Zhao Ziyang administration did in China, allowing students to occupy zones that are the equivalent of the Washington National Mall and Times Square, combined. while shutting down much of the Chinese government’s normal operations. I thus share the hope of the majority in China that no Chinese government will repeat the mistakes of Zhao Ziyang’s dilatory tactics of appeasement in dealing with domestic protesters in China.
I await the brickbats of those who insist on a politically correct — i.e. non Burkean conservative — view.
Jon Chait, in an Washington Post article titled “Obama’s intelligence blunder“, felt the same way and described this above email as the most extreme manifestation of Freeman’s realist ideology. Incidentally, Mr. Chait started his quotation of the email in the middle of the highlighted text above.
As for my view, I find Chas Freeman’s view of the dominant view in China about June 4th very plausible.
[UPDATE] The Weekly Standard kept up the attack on Freeman by leaking another email written by him, addressing on June 4th and other broad China related subjects, again as something so evidently vile on its own. It is well worth a read. So please do.
Of course, the US should maintain the capacity to intervene in the Western Pacific, not just with respect to the Taiwan issue but with respect to Indonesia-Australia and other potential conflicts involving our interests as well. Do you know anyone who advocates not doing so? With our defense spending now over half that in the world, it is, in any event, pretty hard to generate a lot of worry about our capabilities in this regard.
I have, until recently, been among those most outspoken in tolling the warning bell about the possibility of Sino-American conflict over Taiwan. All signs seemed to me to point toward a Chinese decision, faute de mieux, to use force to resolve the issue when the prospects of success seemed good and Taiwan and the US had been lulled into a mood that would facilitate surprise. More recently, I have noted a conclusion by the Chinese leadership that the use of force will not be necessary. I think that is a credible judgment on their part and that armed conflict in the Taiwan Strait is therefore now less likely than in the past and, given sensible policies on our part and some measure of self restraint in Taiwan, will become still less likely in future. Notwithstanding this judgment, however, I think we must keep our powder dry. So we have no disagreement on that score.
But I take issue with the “facts” on which you rest your conclusions. On your facts:
(1) I can’t imagine there was no surprise to the Chinese offensive against Vietnam. (At least, although not working on China per se at the time, I was not in the least surprised by it.) The Chinese had repeatedly warned Vietnam that continued empire-building in IndoChina would draw a forceful response. They gained the tacit support of some sections of the USG for their decision to make good on this warning. Having demonstrated that they could take Hanoi, QED, they withdrew and then quite cynically used the artillery and infantry duel on the border as live-fire training to battle-harden the remainder of their flabby post Cultural Revolution, internal security-oriented forces. This was a classic use of force for diplomatic purposes. It is very hard for me to condemn it while endorsing our uses of force in Grenada, Libya, or Panama not too much later. Great powers do what they must. There is nothing particularly insidious about the Chinese in that regard.
(2) The attack on “unarmed students” at Tian’anmen (actually at Muxudi and Fuxingmen and other locations outside Tian’anmen) came after many weeks, even months, in which the Chinese leadership had lost control of security in their own capital. (The troops were, in fact, fired upon at Muxudi, though it is not clear by whom.) The only surprise to me (and other realists, including, I gather, you) was that the Chinese leadership did not act earlier to restore order. We would have done so, judging by the precedents set by MacArthur and our National Guard over the decades from 1920 – 1950. The main lesson those leaders who survived the affair have drawn from it, in fact, is that one should strike hard and strike fast rather than tolerate escalating self-expression by exuberantly rebellious kids. If June 4 tells us anything about the Chinese leadership it is that they are reluctant, often to the point of rashness, to resort to the use of force against their fellow citizens.
(3) I am frankly stunned that you would argue that China has not “become more tolerant of dissent” in recent years. No one can have spent any time at all talking to ordinary people in China over the past two decades and have this view. Of course, outright opposition to rule by the Chinese Communist Party continues to draw a sharp response from the authorities. No government, including our own, is or should be asked to be prepared to tolerate efforts to overthrow it and the constitutional order it administers. (Ironically, despite our ideological predilections to believe the contrary, I am aware of no evidence that Chinese currently consider their government less “legitimate” or worthy of support than Americans do ours — but I defer to [name redacted by TWS] and other experts on this.) Certainly, China continues to fall far short of our minimal expectations for human and civil rights in many respects but it has made very significant progress on many levels. To deny this is primarily to raise questions about the extent to which one has been able to observe readily observable reality.
(4) You did not repeat the Rumsfeld / Rice canard that China has yet to make a decision whether to integrate itself into the existing order or to stand outside it. So you cannot be accused of embracing that quaint but hystrionic absurdity about a country that has joined just about every international organization and regulatory regime that exists, while emerging as a strong defender of the status quo in each against attacks on them, primarily from the US.
Like you, I worry that we will get China fundamentally wrong. It is certiain that we will do so if we allow our idées fixes and ideological preconceptions to guide our reasoning about China rather than deriving our conclusions from first-hand and empirically validatable data. I do not disagree that we need to keep a wary eye on China, that much could yet go wrong on the Taiwan issue, and that broad Sino-American hostility is a possibility (indeed, a probability if our defense intellectuals — who have been fundamentally wrong on so many issues in Southeast Asia and the Middle East but who have apparently not been chastened by the remarkable consistency of their erroneous judgments and fallacious policy prescriptions– keep us on the course they now have us on).
But I fundamentally disagree that China is inherently inimical to our interests, unmanageable by skillfull diplomacy, or ineluctably aimed at mirror-imaging our own hegemonic and scofflaw behavior internationally. In any event, to conclude that this is so, it seems to me, begs the key policy question: what do we do about it? In the militaristic mood of contemporary Washington, there is little patience for anything other than coercive approaches to international problem solving. But there are lots of alternative methods, with a better track record of success, than that. Where’s the foreign policy approach, as opposed to the military deterrent approach, to dealing with a rising (or re-rising) China?
[UPDATE 2] The more I read about Chas Freeman, the more I want to express my sincere appreciation for the editor of Weekly Standard, Michael Goldfarb. His tireless effort in recent days at exposing all of Freeman’s formulated views on China makes a happy reader out of me. Seriously, I heartily encourage all readers to check out all the posts and their linked material concerning Freeman at the Weekly Standard. In particular, I credit Mr. Goldfarb for directing me to Freeman’s 2006 remarks on Mao Zedong and 2008 speech at the National War College Alumni Association on China policy for the 21 century. The later speech, given a month after the deadly riots in Tibet, was cited by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) in a letter to Obama objecting to Freeman’s appointment because he described the events as race riots. Well, the following is the actual remarks by Freeman. Judge for yourself.
Whatever the reason for it, the absence of a unifying concept has left us and everybody else to figure out for ourselves what the United States is actually trying to do with or to China. The Chinese, it must be said, are particularly bad at this kind of analysis. The majority of Chinese appear to believe, for example, that public reaction here to the recent race riots by Tibetans and to unrest among other Chinese minorities proves the existence of a plan by the United States and its western allies to divide, dismember, weaken, and humiliate China. The admirably stiff upper lip and unwillingness to politicize the Olympics that President Bush has shown in the face of these events will, I hope, help to convince them that they are wrong. But I wouldn’t count on it. The level of patriotic indignation in China against posturing by American and European politicians over Tibet is already so high that a long-term clamp-down in Tibet seems inevitable, while public support in China for continued cooperation with the West can no longer be taken for granted.