Thursday, December 11, 1997

Mike Oksenberg, senior fellow, Asia/Pacific Research Center, Stanford University; Arnold Beichman, research fellow, Hoover Institution; and Lawrence Lau, senior fellow, Hoover Institution, and professor of Economics, Stanford University, acknowledge that China wants to be counted among the world's powers. Is China on its way to becoming "the" other superpower? Should the United States be worried? Should we respond? Are the U.S. and China on a collision course?

Recorded on Thursday, December 11, 1997

ROBINSON Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: China. Think of China and the first thing that comes to mind might be just exactly this, the image of a rural peasant dressing and tilling his fields in a manner unchanged for centuries. The trouble with that old stereotype is just that, it's old. Today China is a powerhouse, it's economy growing at the booming rate of some ten percent a year. What's emblematic of the new China is less the pheasant hat from the rice field than the business attire of bustling cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai. As the Chinese economy grows, the country engages more and more international trade. Rice bowl out, Big Mac in. Economic growth is good news in and of itself of course, but China is devoting a large portion of its' resources to something that might not be good news - a military build-up. With us today, three guests, each an expert on China: Arnold Beichman, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution; Mike Oksenberg is a Senior Fellow at the Asia/Pacific Research Center; and Larry Lau is a professor of Economics at Stanford University. The question is very simple, "The new China, a buoyant economy, a growing military, is it a threat?"

ROBINSON The Soviet Union collapses in 1990 and the United States loses its most important adversary, but so does China. In the years since the United States has built down it's military by about one-third, whereas China, in the absence of this potential aggressor, has expanded its military. Larry, why?

LAU Well I think you have to look at the fact that China, actually the military expenditure has not increased in real terms for many, many years.

ROBINSON As a percentage of G.D.P.?

LAU Even, absolutely in real terms. So it is really recently that is has started to expand again.

ROBINSON So you simply deny the assertion flatly that they are not engaging in a large military build up?

LAU No, if you look at the troops rank they have really cut it drastically. I mean troops rank have been cut about 30, 40%.


OKSENBERG I believe that the Chinese military is being expanded. It is being expanded significantly and it is a source of concern to me. I think the major reason is the Chinese are determined over a long period of time to acquire modern military might as their budget and as their technological constraints allow.

ROBINSON Arnold, why do the Chinese build...

BEICHMAN Well, I am starting from the date of May 1992 when the Chinese set off a terrific underground explosion at least probably the equivalent of a million tons of TNT. Obviously that is to get a warhead on an ICBM.

ROBINSON Nuclear testing.

BEICHMAN Nuclear testing. In underground. You know one million tons of TNT equivalent. That's a lot of moxy.

ROBINSON So what are they up to?

BEICHMAN They want to be the equivalent of American super-power.

ROBINSON Let me frame the question in a somewhat different way. Ross Monroe, China watcher, writes this is a recent book, "The Chinese view the United States as their long-term adversary. It may take decades but their grand strategy is to dominate Asia, and that puts the United States and China on a collision course." Mike, are we on a collision course with China?

OKSENBERG Not necessarily. The long-term is unknown. China is in the midst of major transitions and what their foreign policy will be a decade or two hence I dare not say. But, prudence requires that we maintain vigorous military presence in the region in case our efforts to make China part of the world community fail.


LAU Well, I think that is right. I think that, you see China as befitting a growing power in Asia, it has to have the wherewithal to defend itself, and basically to withstand pressure from the outside.

ROBINSON Here's what I am getting at. The Soviet Union run by communists. China run by communists. There is a very good argument, and indeed it was their own rhetoric, the Soviet's own rhetoric, in the absence of counter-force from the United States, the Soviets wanted to dominate the world. They wanted a communist revolution worldwide. Is that the Chinese game? Are they an aggressive, expansionist, communist power?

OKSENBERG At the present time, that is not their objective. After all, there are not doing three things that the Soviets did. Establish their own military bloc, establish their own economic sphere, and seek to promote revolutions around the world. In my opinion, the Chinese objectives are fourfold. First: to secure technology, capital in order to accelerate their economic growth, second: to secure China's borders and to bring back into the realm parts of the country that they still think are outside it, particularly Taiwan, third: to gain a voice in the councils of nations that they think are part of what is owed them as a great country, and fourth: for the leaders themselves to participate in the world for their own personal benefit and political strength at home.

ROBINSON So what it sounds like to me is, in your view, we are not dealing with an expansionist or aggressive power, anything like the Soviet Union at all. It almost sounds as though what we are dealing with is a billion population nation that has a little bit of an inferiority complex and simply wants to have...

BEICHMAN Let's not psychoanalyze it.

ROBINSON It's the Rodney Dangerfield problem. They want a little respect. Is that right, Larry?

LAU I think that is right. I think that they want the proper respect. They want to be treated as an equal to the United States, you know, eventually. But what I want to go back to...

ROBINSON China wants to be treated as an equal. Will the country's humans rights record make that impossible?

ROBINSON We have the case of Tibet which China invaded in 1950, formally annexed in 1951, brutally put down a rebellion in Tibet in 1959, and Tibet is not exactly a border region. It is a country almost as big as France. What is going on in Tibet?

OKSENBERG In my view, Tibet existed in an ambiguous relationship with the Emperors of China, each acknowledging a sphere of autonomy to the other, but each acknowledging that the other had some authority over the other. So the Chinese now think that Tibet is inescapably and should be a part of China. Many in Tibet would seek a great deal of autonomy. But the real issue now is not independence of Tibet, the Dali Lama himself has made clear that his objective is not independence. The real issue now is whether the Tibetan people and Tibetan religions can proceed without oppression, without persecution from the Han people, both government and the Populus. And that is a matter to be...

ROBINSON Are the Han people who we think of as Chinese?

OKSENBERG That's right. And its a tragic situation, very complex. I am delighted that the United States focuses upon it. But it is not an issue of independence; it is an issue of human rights.

ROBINSON Nobody, including the United States, even hopes for Tibetan independence any longer.

OKSENBERG That's right. No.

ROBINSON Not a country in the world.

OKSENBERG Not a country in the world would advocate - even India does not advocate Tibetan independence.

ROBINSON Okay, so now what we have is quite a large country with a tiny....

OKSENBERG I prefer not to use the word "country" now but a portion of China.

ROBINSON Excuse me. Quite a large chunk of territory, quite a large part of the earth's surface with a population of only 2-1/2 million people. China with a billion people in need of a little room, perhaps - in other words, is it understandable that the Han Chinese would be attempting to settle in Tibet? What is the case to be made?

LAU I think there is a lot of history behind this and it is very difficult to roll back time. There are now quite a few Han Chinese who probably went there not too voluntarily.


LAU Most people didn't want to go there but now that they have been there for a generation or so, they've settled roots, I think it's a very complex question. That is why I agree with Mike that independence is very out of the question. I think the real issue is how to give the Tibetans some semblance of people who live in Tibet. Some semblance of autonomy, and one thing about religion is that it is actually on the upside because during the cultural revolution which lasted from ‘66 to ‘76 all the temples were closed. Everything was destroyed. And I think right now there is a renaissance. All the temples are being restored as so forth. I would say relatively there is actually much more freedom today than you know say 20 years ago..

ROBINSON So, if there's more freedom in Tibet today than twenty years ago, the question is "How did that freedom come about? Isn't China still run by Maoists?"

ROBINSON How do the changes in policy take place in China? What are we dealing with? They are still communists, they are still in Beijing. It is still the same regime but they are quite different. Or are they? And to what extend?

LAU Peter, even Gorbachev was a communist. So people do change. And I think the same people who founded the republic in 1949 were different than the people who are in power now. I think you have to take that into account. These are not revolutionaries. They are second and third generation. I think one thing you have to take into account is the fact that most of the Chinese leaders today went through the cultural revolution themselves. Most of them were out in the labor fields and even labor camps. They were actually - they suffered. And I think they saw the consequences. I think that is one of the reasons why China was able to turn around in 1979 and start this reform because people saw that the old system didn't work and they didn't like it. And they suffered under it.

BEICHMAN And there is something else. Do you remember I think it was 1978 when People's Daily announced that Marxism doesn't have all the answers. That was a fantastic, startling admission, so startling that a few days later they amended it saying Marxism doesn't have all the answers. It was just going to be no answers. It was an amazing statement to make. I remember I was in Asia at the time in Hong Kong and the papers headlined it, "Marxism doesn't have all the answers" says Dung Xiao Ping. Now that was quite a statement. It was a form of heresy. And then you remember Dung was being quoted "It doesn't matter what color the cat is so long as it catches mice." You know, everybody understood the subtlety of that one. I mean, there has been culturally I think a very big change, and the question is are they changing enough so that you won't have to have Tienemen Square again?

LAU Let me just add one thing along that line. The reason that you might have read that China is really pushing this line that China is undertaking the primary stages of socialism, is capitalism.

BEICHMAN You can't have communism until you grow through the stages of...

ROBINSON Are they still communists, Mike?


ROBINSON Are they still communists? Or are we dealing with a new set of emperors? Is this...

OKSENBERG I wouldn't say either fully captures the reality. There is much of that political system that still...

ROBINSON Much of the old communist system?

OKSENBERG The old system. The techniques of control, public security forces, etc., are still in place, the instruments of totalitarian rule. But they...

ROBINSON So its a tough regime. People get thrown in prison...

OKSENBERG It's a tough regime. I would call it a tough, authoritarian regime, but that is different from the totalitarian regime of the past. The classic distinction is that totalitarianism totally penetrates the society. The politics, totally controlled.

ROBINSON They want to be in peoples' minds.

OKSENBERG And every person is supposedly to affirm loyalty to the regime on a daily basis. Today privacy is allowed. Today people can withdraw from the system. They cannot explicitly and openly oppose it.

ROBINSON Now, on the scale of scale of Asian regimes let's put Mao Tse Tsung in the old days at least, the ideologue Mao, the Mao of the cultural revolution, the one who was without question totalitarian at one end of the spectrum, and Li Quan Yu at the other end of the spectrum. From Mao Tse Tsung to Li Quan Yu, Li Quan Yu - is dictator a fair word? Of Singapore. The leader of Singapore who...

BEICHMAN Strong man.

ROBINSON The strong man of Singapore - very little political freedom but considerable economic freedom. Where are the Chinese today?


ROBINSON Half-way?

OKSENBERG Moving toward Li Quan Yu. Point one.

ROBINSON And that is pretty good, right?

OKSENBERG Point two. And point two. But point two. China is so large that no simple statement is accurate. That is to say that there are parts of China, I can assure you, that are still back in the Mao era, totally under the control of some local despots. And there are other parts that are much closer to Li Quan Yu because of their involvement in the outside world.

LAU On the coast...

OKSENBERG So you've got to think in a very complex fashion about a country that is more a continent and embodies within in all the tensions of the world at large within its own borders.

BEICHMAN There is something else that I think you should think about, when we talk about China, I think of the Soviet Union under Stalin. What was horrible about Stalin and what is wonderful about a democracy is punishment is predictable. You commit a crime in the United States, you get arrested, you go to jail, two years, five years. Stalinism, you arrested everybody because everybody was guilty as far as Stalin was concerned. In China today, I don't think this would happen. You are arrested if you disobey what they regard as their laws, you know and so on, where an example, is a good example, a guy disagrees, but they don't go and pick up innocent people in the street the way Stalin did. And they don't kill the wives and the children and so on.

ROBINSON Next issue, Taiwan. Just off the coast of China, Taiwan was recently the source of serious tensions between the Chinese and the United States. Some say it's bound to be the source of tensions again. Why?

ROBINSON Taiwan has free markets, and in recent years, quite a large measure of political freedom and the mainland says that Taiwan is part of China. Arnold, you recently wrote an article predicting that sooner or later there is going to be trouble: confrontation over Taiwan, and that the United States had better get ready for it. What form will that trouble take?

BEICHMAN Because there is a movement now, a serious movement for Taiwan to declare its independence. That was not going to be accepted by the PRC, by the Peoples' Republic of China.

LAU The independence movement actually has been around for a long time.

BEICHMAN Yes, yes.

LAU And I think what is really interesting is the following is that I think, as I kept mentioning, China's first priority is the economy. And Taiwan has been de facto independence since 1949, right? I mean this all the trappings of an independent state except in name that people don't recognize as being independent. I think China really does not want to have to do anything. I mean the status quo, in my opinion.

ROBINSON Is acceptable?

LAU Is quite sustainable for a long term, for quite a long period of time. As long..

ROBINSON Is it true that the Taiwan are investing in the mainland as well? There are large, capital. BEICHMAN Up to 20 percent of China investment is from Taiwan.

LAU I think as long, as long as Taiwan does not declare independence, I think China will basically pretty well accept the status.

BEICHMAN It will launch a missile so...

LAU But the declaration of independence basically will force the Chinese leaders to do something. I mean, I think no Chinese leader can survive......

ROBINSON Can accept a formal...

LAU Can survive, can survive.

ROBINSON Can even survive within his own regime.

LAU Right. So I think that is, if you even ask the dissidents today, Chinese dissidents, whether Taiwan should be allowed to go independent, even Chinese dissident would tell you no way. I thinks that is something...

ROBINSON Larry, Larry, two years ago, two years ago in the run-up to the first Presidential election in Taiwan, now they have a democratically elected leader in Taiwan the Chinese staged military maneuvers on the mainland opposite Taiwan and even went so far as to lob missiles into the Strait of Formosa. Now, that was not accepting the status quo.

LAU That is actually sending a signal, Peter. That there is a line. There is a line you shouldn't cross. And the line is Declaration of Independence.

ROBINSON The line is not democratic elections? The line is independence?

LAU Formal Declaration of Independence. Because Taiwan has been de facto independent since ‘49.

ROBINSON Larry, I'm even willing to grant that the first priority of the Chinese may be economic growth. We'll grant that for the time being. Nevertheless, they do have a military and they do have specific aims including the reabsorption at some point, at least according to their own statements, of Taiwan. Now, here is my question. In response to the Chinese actions lobbing missiles into Taiwan, as a military matter, had they not backed down what could we have done? short of an attack on the mainland. That is to say, they are not a lot of steps, we send aircraft carrier, if they don't back down, so far as I see the next thing we have to do is a lob a few missiles at the Chinese mainland which in unthinkable to the United States.

BEICHMAN Excuse me, this was a minuet. I think it was all arranged that we are going to send a fleet up to here, we won't go into the Straits, you can lob a missile, we are not going to make protests or...

ROBINSON You mean it was...

BEICHMAN It was understood. No. That was not going to be...

ROBINSON They were sending signals, we sent some counter-signals. It was all a minuet.

BEICHMAN That's right.

LAU Peter, I think I agree with Arnold on that one. I think the real question is really how to contain it. But there is also face which is really important. That you really have to orchestrate this properly and I don't think there is any real danger that it would play out into a full-scale battle. I think China actually realizes how important the United States is in the whole game. And in fact, on the Chinese side to improve relations with the United States, is so that we can help preserve the status quo.

OKSENBERG What is the underlying strategic reality of Asia, namely that there are two indigenous countries in the region: China and Japan? In the past because of animosity between China and Japan. What happened after President Nixon's brilliant opening to China was that for the first time in over a century, the United States could have good relations with both simultaneously while China and Japan had good relations with each other. It is that underlying triangular relationship which the United States helped forge in the early ‘70s and has sustained since then. That's what brings peace and stability to the region.

ROBINSON China may recognize America's importance to stability in the region, but China may not recognize the importance of something else - human rights.

ROBINSON I quote now from The Economist magazine. This is not me being provocative. "China persecutes Christians, dissidents and free thinkers. It exports goods made by prison laborers. It rattles it's saber at its southeast Asian neighbors." And I would add, as would many Americans, that under its one child per family policy, it forces many of millions of women to undergo abortions, forced abortions. Now what do we do? Just ignore it?

LAU No, it's really looking at whether the cup is half empty or half full. I made my first trip back to China in 1979 as an adult, and in 1979, I'll tell you, was a terrible time because people were all wearing the same things, people wouldn't dare talk to you. And whatever they told you read the next day in the Peoples' Daily. They were just basically...

ROBINSON You can feel fear.

LAU Yeah, you can feel fear. And now you go to Beijing or Shanghai or anywhere, especially in Quan Yo in the south and people criticize government. They only thing they would probably not probably be willing to do would be to do it in print, okay? It would get them in trouble, but you know, you find no shortage of criticism of anybody in the government.

ROBINSON Do you buy that? There is a question of trend and the trend is...

BEICHMAN And there is something even more important. This is known as selective morality. I know a country of 6 million people in which there isn't a single freedom existing. None. Women are subjected to the worst kind of treatment. They are, people, there is no real rule of law. It is one of the worst. There isn't a single atom of freedom in's called Saudi Arabia. And the CIA says in its report that we enjoy very close relations with Saudi Arabia. Why the hell aren't we denouncing Saudi Arabia? The worst, one of the most destabilizing factors in the Middle East because they subvention all the terrorist groups. Somehow, Saudi Arabia is immune is to any kind of criticism. If you look at the Freedom House list of countries in terms of freedom, there are at least 50 countries that are very, very bad. And somehow, there is no indignation about these. So I think there is a certain hypocrisy about this without minimizing the accusations of Harry Wu, for example, about slave labor, and so on. By all means. But let us not make a big, moral issue while Saudi Arabia still stands preeminent as close relations with America.


OKSENBERG I think that still the question remains. China is a gross violator, the government of China, a gross violator of human rights in many respects.


OKSENBERG And it therefore is quite appropriate to ask the question, "In what way should the United States act upon our core values as we formulate a policy?"

ROBINSON Nicely put.

BEICHMAN At a joint session of Congress speech.

OKSENBERG Now, wait a minute. I wouldn't even be opposed to that. I think the real issue is how does one seek to create an improved human rights situation in China? In my view, this is not a new problem. This has existed for over a century in China, intensified by communist rule. The real issues are how does one create the rule of law and institutions that are supportive of human rights in such a vast country? You may be interested to know how was the bible reproduced again in China and allowed to be disseminated? It wasn't done openly. President Carter had a private conversation with Dung Xiao Ping in a car ride from the White House to the Kennedy Center, and he asked him two questions. Had the time come for the Chinese to allow missionaries to return to China? Dung Xiao Ping explained why that could not be done. Then he asked how about reprinting the bible. And Dung said he'd think about it. And two years later, President Carter in 1981 went to China, no publicity given to this issue. Again a conversation. Dung said he'd thought about it. The bible was reprinted. So a very important matter is how one promotes human rights in China. I think it should be done quietly.

ROBINSON Quietly in limousines.

OKSENBERG And then third, very important. Not take credit for it when its done.

LAU Here, here.

OKSENBERG Let them move forward.

ROBINSON You like all this?

OKSENBERG Let them move forward.

BEICHMAN I agree completely.

OKSENBERG Then another very important thing is that the private sector has a major role to play. The government can't be the sole proponent. That Amnesty International, Asia Watch all have very important roles to play, but they should do so vigorously and not necessarily rely on the U.S. government to be their agent.

ROBINSON hina has already put economic reforms into effect. What about political reforms?

ROBINSON A colleague of ours at the Hoover Institution, Harry Rowen, predicts that in 25 years, China will be democratic. So extensive will the changes be between now and then, 25 years from now, will there be a democratically elected leader of China? Larry?

LAU I think it is very likely. Harry and I have talked about this. Originally, he said 15, and I actually told him that...

ROBINSON You pushed him to 25? You think its likely?

LAU I think it is very likely. But it might not take the form, the form might be different from what we have. You know, I mean at 1.2, 1.3 billion people whether we've completed the election, I don't know, but they will be democratically elected.

OKSENBERG Yes, but with Chinese characteristics, meaning it will probably be corrupt...

BEICHMAN And unlike in our system in America which is not be corrupt!

ROBINSON I sense a little dissent here.

OKSENBERG Yes, but I think that it will be a democracy that exhibits many of the same characteristics that other Asian countries now exhibit.

ROBINSON But the sanitized version. MIKE: Yeah. Yeah.


BEICHMAN Well I think that, remember what I said before. Prosperity creates pressures for democratization because you have individual decision making, and once you have individual decision making, the central committee doesn't matter. And I think that what you are going to have is more - and I hate to say this - the possibility of democracy on an economic front and perhaps less importance given to the political front.

LAU One thing you have to remember for the last 20 years is that China has been sending 20,000 students to the United States every year. And these people would go back and they would see just massive changes, just like what we saw in Taiwan and elsewhere.

ROBINSON Larry, Mike, Arnold. Thank you very much.

ROBINSON With a sizzling economy and a growing military, Chinese clearly a force to be reckoned with. But will it become the world's other super power. Well, you won't find the answer in a fortune cookie. Only time will tell. I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.

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