North Korea and China’s Response to the UN Commission of Inquiry Report

North Korea has ever been the subject of journalistic inquiry, but in the past couple of years things seem to have hit a kind of new high point. Likewise, public consciousness in the US and Western Europe of the importance of Pyongyang’s relationship with China seems also to have taken a major leap forward. So what happens when a United Nations special report on North Korean human rights emerges, and China is implicated heavily in the document?  Journalists need to seek comment from experts, or at least perceived experts. Since some of my work is cited in the UN report (in a discussion of Kim Jong-un’s newly generated holiday, the “Day of Songun”), it seems I became fair game.

The history of the impact of the UN Commission of Inquiry report is still being written, so I thought it might be appropriate at this point to share some of my initial responses, which I also discussed in a 6 March event at the University of York. The questions below were generated by a reporter for a major daily in Western Europe, who was so impressed with my answers that none of them made it into print — such is life, but that is also why scholars these days keep weblogs:

1.- What effect do you think the report will have on North Korea? Is it likely to produce any change in the country?

While the authors of the report clearly hope to create some spark of recognition for their work among the people of the DPRK, the state is likely to depict the report as highly instrumentalized, serving as another implement in a broader US-led drive to overthrow the regime and besmirch the “supreme dignity” of their leader personally. The notion of a letter addressed to Kim Jong-un, while logical in any number of other contexts, is likely to ignite a scramble within the DPRK propaganda and media organs for a competition to see who can most vehemently denounce the Western methods.

We also have to keep in mind that while the DPRK has been a member of the United Nations since 1992, the country has had a very adversarial relationship with the UN dating of course back to the Korean War, when the UN sent troops led by Douglas MacArthur precisely to roll back the gains of their violent revolution. This does not mean that the North Koreans would reject any initative from the UN or the international community more broadly – in fact they are rather receptive when it comes to areas of capacity building in areas like medicine and agriculture, and they are looking of course for foreign aid to solve the food problem, but this report seems to run counter to anything that the North Koreans would remotely accept.

2.- What is so special about this report? Haven’t these abuses been reported in the past?

What is special about the report is the recommendation to the General Assembly that the North Korean regime be referred to the International Criminal Court. It suggests that North Korea is becoming more isolated internationally under Kim Jong-un’s leadership – and the execution of Jang Song-taek, which is referenced in the report, would seem to indicate this. China will be defending the DPRK in the Security Council but this is no guarantee that the country will not be referred to the ICC.

The abuses chronicled in the report are well known, but this report packs a kind of cumulative effect and it has served to update the literature while energizing the loose yet broad coalition that exists attempting to enact change in North Korea. Of course the North Korean regime puts forward a much different conception of rights and human rights, which emphasizes the role of anti-colonial sovereignty and the right, more or less, to remain outside of the global economic system and to continue with their weapons programs and leader veneration.

3.- The UN calls for the international community to impose sanctions against the Korean Leadership? Can’t this be a way of destabilizing the region? Can this sort of mechanism be effective?

Sanctions on DPRK have been tightening since their first nuclear test in 2006, but I don’t think this report will itself result in economic sanctions. The regime is definitely feeling the pain from the ban on luxury goods, and again, the Chinese element is the one to watch. China certainly does not want to see North Korea destabilized, and is not at all receptive to the critiques offered by the UN, for various reasons. North Korea stands up for China on the Tibet issue (where the PRC has few friends and many critics) and China stands up for North Korea in the international critiques of its human rights. However, the Jang Song-taek execution seems to have upset Chinese leaders and the report’s critique of the Jang execution has already been echoed, if faintly, by the Chinese media.

Wolmi Island DPRK film



Three Recent Speeches on U.S.-China Relations

Jon Huntsman, U.S. Ambassador to the PRC, delivers the Oksenberg-Barnett Lecture in Shanghai, 6 April 2011, sponsored by the NCUSCR (National Committee on U.S.-China Relations):

Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, delivers the first Richard Holbrooke Lecture at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on 15 January 2011 (speech starts in earnest at 5:30):

Joseph Biden, U.S. Vice President, opens the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue forum in Washington, D.C., 9 May 2011:

10,000 Chinese Netizens Know Curtis Melvin, Google Earth North Korea

Amid the obligatory fury at the Chinese government for restricting the flow of information into China, it’s worth noting that articles like this one are increasing in prevalence: a Tianya translation of a CNN article about Andrei Lankov, Curtis Melvin, and the wonders of mapping North Korean gulags on Google Earth.

According to statistics the article has been read over 10,000 times; let’s hope the current dispute doesn’t potentially rob all 344 million Chinese internet users of a chance to bump into this extraordinary resource and understand further about their peninsular neighbor.

See Google Earth上的“裸体”朝鲜

Chinese Foreign Ministry: Sweden’s Brazen Gambit Exposed to Interfere in China’s Internal Affairs

Sweden, a country that really knows a little something about assimilation of Turkic and Arab peoples, recently had the temerity to criticize the People’s Republic of China for executing five (5) nine (9) Uighurs who had been accused of fomenting the violence of this past July 2009.  Sweden is presently holding down the Presidency of the European Union and one of its particularly distinguished professors, Per Svastik, is a visiting professor of human rights at Beijing University.

Per Sevastik in Beijing, via Sweden's EU site

Audacious Journalist!  Qin Gang!  Step to the mic at the Foreign Ministry of the PRC press conference:

Q: On November 12, the Swedish Presidency, on behalf of the European Union, issued a statement, condemning China’s recent execution of nine criminals who participated in Urumqi July 5 Incident and asking China to abolish death penalty. Do you have any comment?

A: We express our strong dissatisfaction with the second EU statement in half a month that seriously interferers in China’s internal affairs. China is a country ruled by law, where there must be laws to go by, the laws must be observed and strictly enforced, and lawbreakers must be prosecuted. The judicial authorities of China have carried out fair and open trials of the suspects and brought to justice criminals guilty of the most heinous crimes. This is China’s judicial sovereignty which brooks no interference from any foreign parties. China strongly opposes the practice of breaking the rule of law under the pretext of rule of law, and urges the EU to earnestly abide by the principle of equality and mutual respect rather than make the same mistakes over and over again, with a view to contributing to the healthy and stable development of China-EU relations.

Sweden seems to be in the middle of everything East Asian these days — from negotiating for Euna Lee and Laura Ling’s release from Pyongyang to speaking up for the Uighurs, it’s worth keeping an eye on the Swedes.  After all, among other things they’ve got their eyes on Chinese churches and le droit de l’ours (e.g., bears’ rights) in the great Chinese north:

Courtesy MXP, the persistently documented Swedish missionaries and Christian human rights in China watch blog -- click image for link

Swedish models and Anneka Svenska "take part in a photocall to protest against China's cruel bear farms on October 6, 2003 at the Chinese Embassy, Portland Place in London." Photo courtesy Getty.

North Korea News Roundup

Almost exactly one year to the day from his election, Barack Obama now has a point man for a controversial arm of his North Korea policy.   Robert King, nominated as Obama’s Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights Issues, a position created by the North Korean Human Rights Act of 2004, had a hearing on November 5 for Senator John Kerry’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

there he is -- the harbinger!

King’s prepared statement for the committee is available here; the Daily NK spin is here; a few selections from King follow:

The United States Government has been and remains deeply concerned about the human rights conditions in North Korea and the plight of North Korean refugees. In part this is a reflection of who we are as a nation. We were founded on fundamental principles of human rights, and our support for these rights is an essential part of who the American people are. At the same time, respect for human rights by the DPRK will have a significant impact on the prospect for closer ties with the United States and will be necessary for North Korea to fully participate in the international community.

While I do not believe that we will be able to change conditions quickly or radically, I do believe that we must seek to make progress where we are able at a pace that is sustainable.

- We have made progress in expanding broadcasting into North Korea, and, if confirmed, I will continue this effort. This is important in breaking down the isolation of the North Korean people and making available independent sources of information inside the country. My first position after completing graduate school was with Radio Free Europe at a time when Central Europe was under Soviet domination, and I saw first-hand the importance of our international broadcasting in expanding human rights.

- The United States also remains committed to improving conditions for those who leave the DPRK. We continue to work with international organizations and countries in the region to help North Korean asylum seekers obtain protection, including by resettling some in the United States.

Many encouraging things are present here, particularly the turning the human rights issue inside out, showing North Korea that benefits can flow from a policy of change.  Not incidentally, the French people and politicians agree heartily with the first paragraph quoted above (just substitute “French” for “American”), meaning that if France were able to open up relations with North Korea, more pressure could be applied on the human rights front.

Thus it is heartening that today’s Parisian left-wing (and wonderful) paper Liberation reports that Sarkozy emphasized the human rights angle to envoy Jack Lang, who will be starting a five-day visit to North Korea soon.  In an earlier piece, Liberation speculates that Obama’s time in Beijing will be occupied with coordination on the North Korea issue, navigating between the North’s demands for a permanent peace and its brandishing fissile material.

On the environmental front, NK Leadership Watch reports on the appointment of a new Minister of Land and Environmental Protection, all in the context of battles between citizens and the state over land use.  Forestry, the Daily NK reports, is being used to suppress the people who are trying to do patch farming.


Patch farming on a steep Tumen River ravine just east of Hyesan, Ryanggang province, DPRK; Photo by Adam Cathcart

Chinese tourism officials are in the DPRK holding talks, while the European Business Association in Pyongyang is keeping very busy.

Liberation also carries an interesting interview about the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and the costs and benefits of aiding North Korea, with an ex-Unifcation minister from the ROK, Park Jae-kyu, who was in Paris on account of the Chirac Foundation.  “It’s hard to conceive of a reunification of the two Koreas,” he said, a bit paradoxically, given his previous line of work.

Although I usually spend more time looking at story comments in Chinese, a couple of comments French “netizens” on the above story caught my eye:

Kim Il Sarko et Nicolas Jong Il
C’est vrai, quel drôle de pays dictatorial et nespotique, où le président chauffe la plus haute place pour son fistounet…
À quand leur pas de deux ?

Dana Rohrabacher vs. Selig Harrison

North Korea analyst Selig Harrison, an “old North Korea hand” if there ever was one, the closest thing this country has to an oracle as regards the North Koreans, has got a few facts to share with the rest of us.  To the extent he has a primary “bias,” it seems to be a desire to accelerate and facilitate a process of North Korean opening up and reform.  Harrison has got decades of experience dealing with North Korea, and one can’t simply scoff it away by calling the man names.

He isn’t some Charles Lindbergh in 1940; nor is he Edgar Snow in 1970 (although, like Snow with the PRC, Harrison has contacts in the top DPRK echelons and sometimes serves as a bearer of signals from Pyongyang).  Selig Harrison has no interest in seeing North Korea as a permanent nuclear power which threatens the national security of the United States.

Selig Harrison in Beijing

Selig Harrison in Beijing

Dana Rohrabacher, on the other hand, has less experience with Korean affairs.  He does, however, have a very impressive world view that emphasizes human rights and a moral outlook in U.S. foreign policy.  He is also quite taken with the issue of human rights in North Korea and speaks out powerfully about gulags in the North as well as the failings of communism more generally.

Dana Rohrabacher, right, with the late Tom Lantos at the dedication of Monument to the Victims of Communism, California, Sept. 2007

Dana Rohrabacher, right, with the late Tom Lantos at the dedication of "Monument to the Victims of Communism," California, Sept. 2007

So when these two men clashed on February 12, 2009, at a House hearing, there was much to be learned.  Here are a few excerpts, with a touch of analysis.

Around page 29, Harrison is wrapping up a long discussion of the tension between diplomatic need for ambiguity with the very real imperatives of former negotiator Chris Hill for tangible progress on the nuclear issue.  An argument advanced consistently by Harrison is the existence of a group of unnamed pragmatists vs. the evident hardliners in Pyongyang:

HARRISON: So, there is an argument in Pyongyang, they got politics too, you
know, there is an argument in Pyongyang for keeping the process
going because we took them off the terrorist list, and at the same
time the pragmatists did not win the argument that some
verification compromise should be made in return for that, just
what Hill wanted, of course, because Kim Jong Il had had a stroke,
and the day-to-day control of all this had shifted during the months
when this was going on. The stroke was in August.
And one very interesting thing, you know, Hill was trying to
carry this thing forward and he got—he wanted to go to Pyongyang
in the critical stage of this, and the hardliners did not want him
to come, and the pragmatists worked out a compromise which was,
okay, he will not come as a state guest. We will put him in the
Potonggang Hotel which is one of the hotels in Pyongyang, and he
will not be a state guest but he can stay in the hotel at his expense,
U.S. Government’s expense, and come over to see us and
talk to us. That was the internal compromise in North Korea. So
he went there and did not get what he had hoped he would get.
I have given you a long answer but you have raised a very tricky
question and a very raw nerve in the whole process, and I am not
quite sure what Chris Hill would have said if he were sitting here,
but that is the way I perceive it.

At this point, with timing befitting a Shakespearean drama, enters the man who will challenge all of this subtlety with blunt and moral force:

Mr. FALEOMAVAEGA. The gentleman from California, Mr. Rohrabacher.
Mr. ROHRABACHER. Thank you very much. I am sorry I was a little
late in getting here. We did have votes on the floor, and Mr.
Harrison, I think that we have a different way of looking at the
world. From listening to your testimony today, it seems you are
telling us that peace and progress in the world will come through
accommodation with evil and tyrants and gangsters and murders
and all the other scum of this world that prey upon decent people.
Accommodations with them is going to make it a better world?

Would not what you are proposing today would have left the Soviet
Union in power had we just simply decided that we are going
to have an accommodation rather than seeking change within the
Soviet system? Correct me if I am wrong, that is my interpretation
of what you are telling us.

How would you respond to this?  There is plenty of room to hit back, certainly, starting with the choice of oratory.  Words like “scum” and “gangster” feel damned good coming off the lips, but they also mirror precisely the very vitriolic rhetoric of North Korean propaganda.  We’re not likely to get very far dealing with the face-conscious North Koreans in this fashion.  IN other words, you can think they are scum, go ahead, and they very well may be.  (After all, are they not promoters of a state health care system?)  But there is nothing to be gained in verbal smashdowns against straw men.  Not calling them gangsters, pygmies, or children does not by extension mean that one advocates a policy of appeasement toward the North Koreans.

But Harrison goes straight to the core of Rohrbacher’s attack: it is, more or less, a way of calling Harrison a commie.

Harrison responds (beginning on page 30 of the hearing transcript, for those of you who are packing footnotes):

Mr. HARRISON. I did not say anything, Congressman Rohrabacher,
about a better world, and I do not like the North Korean
regime anymore than you do.
My testimony, if your voting schedule permitted you to hear
Mr. HARRISON [continuing]. Was that we should be capping their
nuclear program rather than allowing it to grow beyond the four
or five that the Bush administration’s unrealistic policies had given
us because we do not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons,
precisely because we know that it is a regime that we have not
made our peace with yet.
Mr. ROHRABACHER. I guess what I was referring——
Mr. HARRISON. So I do not think I said anything about nirvana
developing from negotiations——
Mr. ROHRABACHER. I think I was referring to your statement
that in order to deal with them that they are going to have to be
assured that we do not want to change their government, that we
do not want to have a regime change in North Korea; that we are
not going to have progress as long as they have that fear.
I believe the United States Government should put dictatorships
in fear that they will be replaced by democratic government. I
think that is part of our obligation as free people is to back up the
people of North Korea and Burma and other type of dictatorships.

Instead we have—have we not subsidized North Korea these last
10 years in terms of fuel and food? Without that, perhaps they
would have collapsed on their own.

Mr. HARRISON. North Korea has changed a lot in the last 10
years. I have been going there since 1972. And when I went there
in 1972, the first of my 11 visits, it was a very monolithic dictatorship.
Now you have a great deal of marketization. You have people
trying to make a buck. You have access of information coming in
from China and from South Korea in spite of the efforts of the regime
to keep it from happening.

[HARRISON]: The argument between us is not over our objective. We share the
same values. I want to see this regime in North Korea evolve into
something gradually closer to our concept of the way a society
should operate, just as I would like to see China, and China has
moved in that direction. I mean, dealing with China, I am sure you
would have said the same thing back in the seventies when some
of us were talking about——

Mr. ROHRABACHER. I hate to tell you this, but when I take a look
at the liberalization in China, I do say the same things about
China today, which is still the world’s worst human rights abuse.

Mr. HARRISON. Well, the difference between China—you have
what I think, I mean, you talk in tough terms, sir, but I think you
are taking a very unrealistic view of things. You do not change societies,
countries of 1 billion people overnight. The process is China
has changed enormously since 1972 in the direction that is desirable
in terms of our values
, and I think North Korea will evolve
in the direction of greater human rights and more open economy,
more and more congruent with that of South Korea, more and more
open to foreign influences to the extent that we helped open it up
and let the winds of freedom blow in, and they are not going to [31] blow in with a bunch of balloons from South Korea, or with tough
rhetoric. The winds of freedom will get into North Korea to the extent
that we engage them and gradually open them up as we have
been doing, as we did very successfully during the Clinton administration.
I do not mean that on a partisan level.
So, I think the argument is kind of circular. We do want the
same end result, that I can assure you.

Mr. ROHRABACHER. Well, then we do have a disagreement.
Mr. HARRISON. If your end result is——
Mr. ROHRABACHER. Thank you very much.
Mr. HARRISON. If your end result has to be that everything in
North Korea collapses, and you have millions and millions of refugees
going into South Korea and Japan in order to have the

Mr. ROHRABACHER. One last question. Do you think it was a good
thing that the communist government in Germany, in East Germany,
collapsed? Was that a good thing? And why should we not
be trying to do for the people of Korea who deserve to be unified,
deserve to live their lives in a modicum of decency and freedom,
why should we not wish the same for them as we did for the people
of Germany?

Mr. HARRISON. I think that the geopolitical factors that were at
play then and the way in which Germany changed are very different
from the ones in Korea.

Mr. ROHRABACHER. Okay, thank you, sir.

This is such a rich exchange, encompassing a struggle between possibly misguided pragmatism and bull-headed principle, between historical analogies (is North Korea East Germany in 1988 or the PRC in 1971?), between competing visions of reality (is North Korea engaged in a process of marketization or is that completely trumped by the fact of their labor camps?) and ultimately about change.

What stimulates change in North Korea, and what is the end result?

You will notice that Rohrabacher, with the great skill of an experienced debater who is always, always, up against the clock, throws a few provocations out without expecting any response at the end of his remarks.  When Harrison calls him on it (“your end state results in huge refugee outflows, Dana” in so many words), Rohrabacher steps back from the prespice to let someone else clean up the mess.

Let us hope this is not a metaphor for a post-Kim North Korea.

In the meantime, further discussion about facilitating “the winds of freedom” among the North Koreans — which I strongly believe can be pushed forward and faster by more people-to-people exchanges through multiple and especially cultural channels — will continue.

As Rohrabacher shoots his final bolt and his conservative California colleague Edward Royce gets ready to pump Harrison with eager queries about the Pakistan connection (yet another area of Harrison’s unquestioned expertise), the chair of the hearing steps in with further confirmation that Dana Rohrabacher is a man who is both comfortable with a shotgun in his hand and who has already had a very rich life experience indeed:

Mr. FALEOMAVAEGA. I thank the gentleman from California. He
and I also have some basic disagreements, but we always agree to
disagree. But my good friend from California and I visited Pakistan
at one time, and I had to hold a 45-revolver and he had a shotgun
for fear that somebody would come and kill us, but Dana, thanks
for your questions. But it is always good to have this. This is why
we have a democracy like this.

Somehow I have a feeling that if we could just get Dana Rohrabacher on a shooting range with Chang Song-taek for discussion of their respective Glocks, or if Rohrabacher could realize that North Koreans believe strongly in the right to bear arms in both North Hamgyong province and Orange County, or if Selig Harrison could get the North Korean Mansudae Arts Troupe into the Orange County Arts Center auditorium to boost its faltering ticket sales figures, things would be just a little bit better for everyone.

Dana with a shotgun on the 405!

Republican Leaflet from Eisenhower Library, reprinted in Casey, Steven.  Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion in the United States, 1950-1953.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Republican propaganda from Eisenhower Library, reprinted in Steven Casey's Selling the Korean War: Propaganda, Politics, and Public Opinion in the United States, 1950-1953 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008) a book which unfortunately dwells almost zero on how the Truman administration was planning to justify an ongoing US/UN occupation of North Korea in October 1950. One answer: war crimes trials for the Kim family! a story for another post.

Refugees Flowing Into Yunnan from Myanmar

Apropos of yesterday’s posting on James Webb and Myanmar-China relations, Chinese newspapers report that between 10,000 and 30,000 refugees have crossed the rugged border from Myanmar into China. This was an area of real instability for the PRC, not incidentally, at the same time as the Korean War was ongoing. Estimates of more than 100,000 anti-communist guerillas roamed this borderland (with U.S. aid of course) in opposition to communist rule in 1951. The campaign to crush “counterrevolutionaries” was para-military in this particular area. And now again it is full of individuals whose meaning for the central government in Beijing needs to be questioned. This event might also serve as a kind of drill or preview for the CCP in the event of instability in North Korea, although I would imagine that refugee numbers there could be much larger. A situation to keep an eye on, to be sure.

Shanghai Daily
29 Aug 2009

Thoughts on Sino-French Relations from “the Time of Distrust” to Today

One of the more exciting things I get to do as a young academic is travel to the Foreign Ministry Archives in Beijing, there to scout out new sources on China’s relations with the world in previous decades.  And what could be more interesting?  In terms of people-to-people relations, or political/military conflicts, China’s history offers a panorama of change and continuities.

So, somewhat more than other folks, I have a chance to discern a few themes and patterns of change.

For instance, how and when did the Tibet issue arrive the forefront of European consciousness about China?  Was it 1989?  Certainly few Europeans seemed to care about Tibet in the early years of the PRC, in the period when the CCP was consolidating its control over the Himalayan Plateau.

For example: I ran across a very interesting document in the archives yesterday from the PRC in 1952, describing the numbers of foreigners in Tibet.  There were more Swiss than any other nationality, just a handful of French and Germans, hardly enough to constitute a core of any kind of “counter-revolutionary rebellion.”  The Chinese were far more worried about the Indians, and remain so, when it comes to Tibet, and in the 1950s, to my knowledge, no European countries were actively aiding the Tibetan resistance movement, much less doing so with anywhere near the arms and funds flowing out of Washington into the exile movement and into Tibet itself.  [See “Orphans of the Cold War” for more, although Liu Xiaoyuan’s ongoing work on this, along with Case Western Reserve University’s Melvyn Goldstein’s even-handed and jaw-droppingly trilingual scholarship, is likely to provide the true standard for decades to come.]

Here is the relevant document I found; it is a scrawled and scarred thing:

PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Beijing, Document # 105-00233-02, 西藏和平解放后英国,法国,印度,德国人在西藏边界活动情况 [Xizang heping jiefang hou Yingguo, Faguo, Yindu, Deguo ren zai Xizang bianjie huodong qingkuang / “Situation of Activities of British, French, Indians, and German people inside the borders of Tibet after Tibet’s Peaceful Liberation”], 1952 [undated]- 31 May 1953, 8 pages.

In the warming trend of the mid-late 1950s with France, even though the French had nothing to lose, as relations had yet to be achieved, no French Prime Minister or President stood up to denounce Chinese “repression” in Tibet.  On the other hand, it seemed, starting in 1955, French leaders were seeking to remove any obstacle they could to reaching the Chinese market.  That the Dalai Lama himself was in Beijing and cooperating with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in those years seems to have conviently forgotten by the Tibetan indepdence movement as well, so no harm done.

I should add as a caveat that I have yet to investigate the 1959 Tibet uprising as it was reflected in the French media or among French politicians interested in China.  But I think the relevance of such an examination – and the need for an earnest look at the origins of the Tibet problem so far as the French public is concerned – is obvious, or will be by the end of this essay.

I think that one unintended consequence of China’s massive rise as an economic powerhouse is that sympathy for China among the French left has eroded completely.  Does any self-respecting French communist, much less a reader of the (quite-well written) leftist daily papers like L’Humanite or Liberation really have hope for socialism in China?  In the 1950s and 1960s, some French saw China as a major source of revoutionary theory and socialist creativity.  (On the other hand, French correspondent Robert Guillain coined the decidedly unfriendly term “army of blue ants” to describe how Mao was organizing society.)  During the Cultural Revolution, a French film studio even produced “Red Guards Occupy Paris” in a type of praise for student activism.  Today, in the aftermath of Tiananmen’s disappointing fussilades, the French left appears to have divested itself permanently from association from a People’s Republic with whose agenda it has little in common.  To them, the combination of economic growth with political repression is, simply, repugnant.  Contrast this attitude again with the enthusiastic, even euphoric, depictions of China offered up in Simone de Beauvoir’s hefty travel memoir, The Long March, where she describes her six weeks in China in late 1955 as a kind of life-changing and pulsating experience of a future utopia.

(De Beauvoir validates these sentiments in 1955 in one of her many fascinating love letters to the pugilistic American writer, Nelson Algren.  Yet Algren appeared to be as indifferent to her suprisingly Anglophone charms as he was to the tug of the PRC!  Chicago was this man’s haunt, not the Left Bank.  But we can never really know how he felt about the famous French feminist author until his family allows his letters to de Beauvoir to be published, which up until now they have strictly forbidden.  Yes, she was writing him all kinds of precious sentences like “Multiply the number of times you have said ‘yes’ today by 10,874 and that is the number of kisses I will give you”; but who knows what he wrote in return?  Maybe he waited weeks, and then shot back little telegraphs that said “Whatever, Simone, I’m trying to work on some projects, yes whatever about your friends in Paris; no, I don’t have that dude’s address that you met at the party…” but she kept going because she was a creature aflame with love for her own broad-shouldered version of die ferne Geliebte…Truly!  Without having his letters available, anything is possible!  I think de Beauvoir clearly relished writing the letters anyway, both as an opporunity to work her mind and to open up her heart to a passionate someone whose work she admired but with whom she could never really live.  But I digress…)

Returning to the point: what is China’s natural “constituency” inside the French republic, and what is the connection of the Tibet issue to these groups?  The French insistence on the rights of man (le droit de l’homme) without precondition seems to be a major sticking point.  One will find few cobbled-together (and foundationally weak) explanations among the French for Chinese conditions as inherently exceptional to accepting the notion of univeral human rights.

And French ownership of these concepts and insistence on them also seems to have been strengthened somewhat by changes in American behavior since 2001.  Within the American political context, the impacts of 9/11 are often debated and “the American image in the Islamic world” is a poorly understood but endlessly debated subject.  Witness Obama’s address in Cairo.  Do you think we will ever see an American president similarly dissect “the American image in China” or, perhaps more pressing still, “the image of the United States in the Democractic People’s Republic of Korea”?  Is it really so much more vital for the United States to be loved, or at least tolerated, in the Islamic world than in East Asia?

Ongoing fallout over the Bush administration doctrines of torture, detainee abuse, not to mention launching preventative wars, has not simply ceded American authority over human rights issues, it has ceded that authority to Europe.  (In general, the laws of science might hold here; American human rights energy is not simply dissapated, it simply appears elsewhere in another [French or German] guise.)  As I have noted in an earlier blog post, the Europeans remain a bit self-conscious about taking the lead in critiquing China, fearing disruption to their relations with the PRC.  Yet the German politician whose editorial I read and translated on this blog also noted Germany’s complicity with American torture and rendition programs, and that as often as the U.S. is criticized, Europeans are often lumped in with the U.S.  Last February, while spending a week researching at the Biblioteque national Francais and exploring things Chinese in Paris, I spent a couple of hours at the YouFeng bookstore on the rue de Prince.  There I met an intelligent international environmental lawyer (is there any other kind?) who then regaled me with multiple tales of his litigious voyages to China and Japan over some tempura and sushi. According to my friend, the French protested violations of human rights in Tibet on principle alone.  “Even if it changes nothing, the French feel they have to do it,” he stated emphatically, darkening a shrimp with wasabi glaze as he spoke.  Switching voice, he stated: “If we don’t do it, who is going to?”

And yet, being imperfect promulgators of a universal human rights, the French and the German governments are so reluctant of late to criticize China for anything!  The wicked aufschwung of student nationalism in he PRC has already proven harmful to French interests in China; no one wants to see another Carrafour boycott, or worse still, something further reaching where French cosmetic and fashion products, but more importantly, industrial contracts such as high-speed trains and Airbus orders, are cancelled due to political pressures.  Germany has avoided talk of being boycotted by Chinese superpatriots, but has quite a bit to lose if political temperatures flare.

As it so happens, I am writing this post on the top floor of an immense mega-mall north of Beijing’s fifth-ring road; as I walked past the entrance to the Carrefour downstairs, I asked my student friend if anything had transpired here last spring during the hubbub in Paris.  “Yes,” he said, “some bloggers showed up with some signs and took some pictures,” laughing nervously to indicate both the ineffectiveness of the gesture but also his knowledge that this store was indeed French, and therefore a place that wasn’t quite right with everybody in his demographic.

Finally, why does this matter to me?  Because I am interested in Chinese nationalism and its targets, and, according to my reading of the Chinese press and observation of the global situation, Chinese youth and BBS boards seem much more focused right now on North Korea and France than virtually any other countries.  The US is relegated to a lesser country because of its economic problems, Obama is less polarizing than Bush, Hillary Clinton refused to wade into some mosh pit of human rights critiques when she came to China in the spring, and Sino-US relations seem to be largely stable, though far from problem-free.  (The Taiwan issue, related deeply to US-China relations, has not been by any means front and center, unless you count a Starbucks Coffee website error that put Taiwan under “country” on a drop-down menu where one could buy coffee cups.  But their stores are full here nevertheless.)  By contrast, the Dalai Lama has been flirting with the French, and wounds are still a bit raw from spring 2008 and Sarkozy’s Olympic snub, while in early 2009 the flurry over the auction of Chinese antiquities at Christie’s similarly raised temperatures in China.  Only since early April 2009 have things settled down in Sino-French relations, and then the Dalai Lama’s visit to Paris earlier this month unsettled things somewhat further.

The other country that Chinese appear to be paying most attention to these days is North Korea, but that is a subject for another post or three.

Relevant Citation:

Marc Epstein, “Paris-Peking: Chinese Supplication; To Put an End to the Bad Terms Between the Two States over the Subject of Tibet, France appears to be ready to do anything.  But Will it also abandon its principles?” (in French) L’Express, 9 April 2009, p. 44.