Congenial viewpoints on America and China

By David Bandurski — With a new administration in Washington, more attention has turned to America’s international relationships and to possible mood changes in foreign policy. As could be expected, there is enlivened discussion about the nature of the U.S.-China relationship, although this has so far turned mostly to such prickly economic issues as trade protectionism and currency manipulation. [Frontpage Image: Top-ranking Chinese general Liu Yazhou, who has in the past voiced more moderate views on the United States].

The U.S.-China relationship is of course a long and complicated one, and we won’t presume to tackle it head on here [Click here for more recent news coverage of the issue].

uss-ships-in-hk2.jpg

[ABOVE: U.S. guided-missile cruisers pass through Hong Kong on a scheduled deployment in June 2008, image from Voxeros available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

Our point is simple — to share just a couple of more moderate and good-humored takes on America and its relationship with China. To that end, we selected two articles from among a roster of pieces shared recently among Chinese journalists and academics through e-mail and the Internet on the eve of Obama’s inauguration.

The idea, according to the journalist who compiled the articles, was to promote an “objective, fair and true assessment” of U.S.-China relations. We do not mean to suggest, however, that these are somehow representative.

The first is a 2005 article by Liu Yazhou (刘亚洲), a top-ranking Chinese general who has often in the past voiced more moderate views on a range of issues, including democracy, U.S.-China relations and tensions over Taiwan. Li is a prominent “princeling” (太子党), or influential scion of a high official, and a lieutenant general in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

In the essay below, Liu analyzes the “threat” that the United States poses to China as well as the relationship between American policy making and the American character. The essay is humorous at points, as when the senior military official confesses to frequently wearing a pair of stars-and-stripes underpants, “a kind of psychological release and satisfaction.”

The second piece is by writer and poet Liu Shahe (流沙河), an elder man of letters who was denounced as a rightist in the 1950s. In his talk, Liu reflects on U.S.-China relations going back to the Boxer Rebellion, and draws on his personal experiences as a boy in the 1930s.

What Is It That Truly Makes America Scary?
By Liu Yazhou

So what is it that really makes America scary? While the United States has the world’s most powerful military, and the most advanced technology, I don’t find these frightening at all. I understand that its stealth airplanes go back and forth freely over China, but there’s nothing frightening about this either. These are not the things that make America scary.

In 1972 I was studying at Wuhan University and taking political science courses there. I remember one of my politics professors saying: “America is in decay, a moldering specimen of a capitalist nation, its sun already setting, its life ebbing away.” I, a student from the Workers, Peasants and Soldiers University, decked out in my military uniform, stood right up and challenged him: “Teacher, I believe what you have just said is wrong. While the U.S. is not like China, where it’s 8 or 9 a.m. and the sun is just coming up, it’s not at sunset, but rather at high noon.”

The teacher’s face went white, and he spoke falteringly. “You, how can a student dare say such a thing!” He did not even bother to ask why I had said what I did, but came straight out with this word “dare.”

There was yet another way to approach this question, I thought. America was made up of thousands upon thousands of people who felt no great love for their motherlands, but who all loved America very much. While many [Chinese] leaders at the time had harsh words for America, they were all packing their sons and daughters off to America. How stark was the contrast!

But the more you talk about it, what is it exactly that makes America so scary?

Personally, I think there are three things. First of all, America’s meritocratic system cannot be underestimated. Its leadership system, and its mechanisms of competitive election, are sufficient to ensure that policy makers come from the intellectual elite. The tragedy of China is that from the heights of the state to the lows of the individual work unit, in the vast majority of cases, those with ideas do not make decisions and those who make decisions have no ideas. If you have a decent head on your shoulders there is no place at the table for you. In America it is exactly the opposite — a pyramid structure sends the intellectual elite to the top.

And so, in the first place, Americans don’t make mistakes; second, they make few mistakes; and third, when they do make mistakes they can correct these quickly. [In China] we make mistakes in the first place; second, we make mistakes often; and third, when we make mistakes it is almost impossible to correct them. Using just one tiny little Taiwan, America has managed to hold China down for half a century . . . One Taiwan has transformed the climate of international politics in East Asia.

What I worry about most is that China’s strategic framework for development in the new century might become distorted by Taiwan. In these times, the importance of territory is vastly diminished for the strength of nationalities, and the pursuit of territory has given way to the pursuit of national power and influence (国势). Americans harbor territorial demands toward no country. America does not trouble itself with the question of territory. All of its actions in the twentieth century were about creating power (造势). What does it mean to create power? Aside from economic strength, this is about popular morale (民心)! Nations bolstered with popular sentiment achieve cohesive power. If territory is lost it can be returned. But if popular sentiment is not with you, the territory you do have will undoubtedly be lost. Some national leaders see only one step ahead. America often thinks ten steps ahead when it takes action. It is because of this fact that every major global crisis since the Second World War has strengthened America’s position.

If we let America lead us by the nose, we stand a chance of throwing away all of our strategic capital. I stress again and again that America’s strategic center will not shift to Asia, but this does not mean that it will not envelop China. Many of my comrades see only the ways in which America surrounds China militarily. Many see only the gap in technological and military might separating America and China. They overlook the fact that on larger strategies, particularly on the level of foreign relations, there is an imbalance far more serious than that of arms. Our foreign policy toward America has tactics but no framework, specifics but nothing comprehensive. After the 9.11 attacks, America moved quickly within the space of two months to secure Afghanistan, pushing up to China from the western flank. Meanwhile, military pressure from Japan, Taiwan and India has not flagged. It may seem that we gained some advantages from the events of 9.11, but these will likely dissipate in the space of two years.

I believe our country has been strategically contained in a completely different way. It is not about military affairs. It surpasses military affairs.

Look at the way that, over the last several years, the social fabrics of countries surrounding us have been transformed, becoming so-called “democratic” nations [NOTE: In the original the second character of "democracy" is replaced with an "X" to elude automated censorship mechanisms]. Russia and Mongolia have changed. Kazakhstan has changed. Add to this South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia, and then Taiwan. This threat to our country is far more fierce than that posed by military might. Military threats are effective only in the short term, while being enveloped by so-called “democratic” nations has a lasting impact. And then there is America’s energy and tolerance (大气与宽容). If you you go to Europe and then to America, you will discover a significant difference. On European mornings the streets are empty, but American mornings teem with people going about their exercises, and this is something you might see all day long. I have a theory, and that is that exercise is a measure of character. Exercise reflects the vigor of a culture. Whether or not a nation has vitality can be measured by how many of its people engage in active exercise.

Americans can take their national flag and wear it as underpants. When I was in America I bought a pair of stars and stripes underwear for myself. I wear them often. I wear them as an act of scorn, a way of letting off steam, a kind of psychological release and satisfaction. For Americans wearing them is a kind of joke. The act is fundamentally different. Americans can set fire to their own flag on the streets. Dai Xu (戴旭), an author and friend, once said: “If a nation can burn even its own flag, what possible reason can you then have for burning it?”

Third, there is [America's] great strength of spirit and morality. This is the scariest of all. September 11 was a disaster. When disaster struck, the physical body was the first to fall, but the soul stood. When some people meet with calamity, their bodies stand but their spirits give up. Three things happened during 9.11 that allow us to see the strength of Americans.

The first thing happened in the time just after the [first] plane struck the World Trade Center, as the flames spread and at the most critical juncture. As those in the buildings fled through the emergency exits, the scene was not particularly chaotic. People traveled down, and the firefighters pushed their way up. They yielded to one another and there was no conflict whatsoever. When women and children or the blind came through, people naturally made way for them, letting them through first. Even a small pet dog was let through. If a nation’s spirit is not strong to a certain degree, there’s simply no way its people can behave in this way. Facing death with such calmness, if that is not saintliness it at least approaches saintliness.

The second thing happened on day two after 9.11, as the world discovered that this was the work of Arab terrorists [NOTE: This is a literal translation of the Chinese, 阿拉伯恐怖分子]. Many Arab businesses were attacked by angry Americans. A number of Arab businessmen were also attacked. At this moment, a large number of Americans organized themselves and gathered at Arab restaurants and businesses to stand guard for them. They patrolled Arab neighborhoods to prevent further harm. What kind of spirit is that!

The tradition of revenge has been handed down to us from ancient times. I live in Chengdu. After Deng Ai (邓艾) [of the Three Kingdoms Period] destroyed Chengdu, Pang De‘s (庞德) son murdered everyone in Guan Yu‘s (关羽) family, young and old. The blood of revenge stains the books of history.

The third thing [demonstrating the strength of Americans] was the crash in Pennsylvania of a 767 meant [by terrorists] to crash into the White House. Passengers struggled with terrorists onboard, and this is why the plane crashed [rather than struck its target]. Because they knew at the time that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been struck, they decided that they could not stand idly by, that they must struggle to the death with the terrorists. Even at such a moment, they did something else: they decided to determine by vote whether they would do battle with the terrorists. Even at such a crossroads of life and death [they thought], I cannot impose my will on others. Eventually, all agreed, and only then did they enter into struggle. What is democracy? That is democracy. The idea of democracy has already sunk into their very life and spirit, it is in their blood and in their bones.

Who would rise if such a people as this did not rise? If people such as this do not rule the world, then who will rule the world? I often think to myself: perhaps it is most appropriate that the world’s most advanced weaponry, most advanced science and technology, and the greatest military should be in the hands of people such as this. Is this not better than such power in the hands of Japan, or in the hands of Libya, or in the hands of the Iraqi people? Even if it were in our own hands, there is no way of knowing what we would do. This nation, America, holds many successful lessons, and it behooves us to study and learn from them.

August 2, 2005

A partial translation follows of a lecture by poet Liu Shahe on the U.S.-China relationship:

American’s Are Our Best Friends
(A lecture by Liu Shahe)

My friends (hearty applause), I’m a much older fart than everyone seated here. I’m 74 years old this year. I can’t really talk about any “ideas” (思想). But because I’m much older than the rest of you, I’ve been through historical episodes such as the War of Resistance Against Japan that you never experienced, and this is where you and I are really different. I come today simply to talk about two things with everyone . . .

. . . My second story is also something I saw with my very own eyes. I want to tell everyone: Americans are our best friends. China’s greatest friends in the whole world are Americans. The year after the eight armies entered Beijing in 1900 [during the Boxer Rebellion], when eight nations received Boxer indemnities (庚子赔款), there was only one country that did not use this money for its own ends, and that was America. Later, through various channels, the money was given back. One of these channels was the Boxer Indemnity Overseas Study Program (庚款留学生). Another was the subsidizing of our universities. I want to let all of you know that during the war of resistance [against Japan] there was in Shanxi a so-called “Mingxian Academy” (铭贤学院) that was established in my neck of the woods. The school was connected to America’s Oberlin College, and Oberlin had a “Shanxi Fund” that was established by the U.S. government using Boxer Indemnities. The “Shanxi Fund” monies were used to support the Mingxian Academy, and this was the case from its founding in the 1930s onwards. As the front of the war of resistance advanced thousands of miles to my hometown, and one of our biggest landlords, a certain Mr. Zeng, voluntarily vacated his fort and offered it on loan to the academy. So this was how the school came to be. After the changeover in political power, the school became the “Shanxi Agricultural College” (山西农学院). And finally, after relations worsened with the U.S., the annual funds stopped flowing. At the time no explanation at all was given. We simply said on our side: “Ours is a nation of revolution, and no one wants this stinking imperialist money of yours!” So this money was cut off for decades after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

In the early days of economic reform and opening, Oberlin College’s “Shanxi Fund” dispatched a representative, a young man just 27 years of age, to mainland China to speak with Chinese government representatives. When they asked what business he had, he said he wanted to know whether the Mingxian Academy still existed. He was told by everyone that this Mingxian Academy had been moved back to Shanxi since the foundation of the P.R.C., and that the “Shanxi Engineering College” and “Shanxi Agricultural College” had been set up in its place. Later, this young man sought out a number of old teachers to find out whether or not this was true. Once he had sussed things out, he left without a word. Some time passed and finally the American side sent some representatives in an official capacity. They said that those people [in charge of] the original Mingxian Academy, now referred to as the “Shanxi Engineering College” and the “Shanxi Agricultural College,” were entitled to a substantial portion of funds.

You can imagine just how interested these officials of ours were when they heard the word “funds” (sound of laughter). They sought the party leaders from the engineering and agricultural colleges straight away, and representatives from all the work units showed up — party secretaries, presidents. But they didn’t bother to get in touch with a single flesh-and-blood person from the Mingxian Academy. The [American] representatives from the “Shanxi Fund” said, look, everyone here is a government official, but we want to see people from the Mingxian Academy. What to do? What to do? So at last they thought of this old rightist from the Shanxi Agricultural College who had once been at the Mingxian Academy, and they went and got this old guy, who was making ends meet by cleaning out toilets, and said, look, we need you to come along with us and walk at the head of the delegation. Finally, they saw someone they recognized, so from that time on 200,000 U.S. dollars came each year without fail, half for the agricultural college and half for the engineering college. In this way, everyone eventually realized how it was. After power changed hands [in China], this money stopped flowing, but the Americans didn’t touch a penny of those funds. All of it was socked away, even collecting interest all those decades, and now they can give away 200,000 a year to each of these colleges.

This is a story a friend of mine who studied at Mingxian Academy told me. I wept when he first told me (applause). Of the eight foreign powers [that received indemnities], no other nation behaved in this way. Two of these countries were the worst. The first was Japan, which took our indemnities and turned around and bought military weaponry with them. The second was Russia, which acted with impudence and greed. Not long ago, I read a Chinese memoir written by someone who went to America in the Late Qing. At the time, when the American president met with this foreign minister, he said there are two countries that have designs about invading you – one is Japan and the other is Russia. We feel sympathy for you, this great nation that has been cheated, he said, and we hope you will grow stronger. A strong China suits the interests of America . . .

When the war of resistance against Japan broke out I had just begun primary school. By the time I entered middle school, the war had already entered its finally stage, also its most difficult stage. The year I was 13 years old I went with some of my classmates to the American military airfield. Like the adults there, I offered my labor. We all ate . . . and there were eight people to each table. There was just one small bowl [on each table] of shredded carrot without a hint of oil. And this is how we went through a whole week doing repairs on the airstrip. Our thought then was that if we didn’t put in an effort our country would perish. Because our teachers had said to us from our first days that we must not become the slaves of a destroyed state (亡国奴), that if we became slaves of a destroyed state we would be like the Koreans, who had to stand at attention and bow whenever they saw Japanese . . . We knew from a young age that we should love our own country. At the time, whether it was the Kuomingtang government or our teachers, when anyone talked about loving one’s country they did not use the word “patriotism” (爱国主义). You know, when love of one’s country (爱国) becomes patriotism it becomes a kind of doctrine. And doctrine is absent of feeling (applause). Our teachers said we should “love our country.” [Poet] Xu Guangzhong (余光中) once said to me that love of one’s country was an emotion, not an “ism”. I’ve been restricted by this emotion ever since I was a child.

So eventually this airstrip was repaired. As a student I remember seeing watching with my own eyes from the courtyard of our house as the American pilots took off on bombing raids to Tokyo . . .

I’d also like to talk about the goodness of Americans. We Chinese were poor, we lacked self-respect, and we didn’t pull ourselves together. So many of us Chinese would go and steal items from the American airfield, but the Americans never once sought us out. Every day after dusk in our village, the black market stalls overflowed with military stuff that had been taken. Army-issued leather boots and belts and jackets and canned foods – they were all hot. We even stole cans of peanut butter. And toilet paper. All of it was stolen on that side and sold on this side. Never once did the American military look into this matter. That’s something no other country would be capable of.

RELATED READINGS:
Bumpy Road Ahead for US-China Relations,” UCLA International Institute, February 3, 2009.
A Mystery in Beijing: Who Runs the Military?” International Herald Tribune, June 22, 2007
“A Young Turk in China’s Establishment: The Military Writings of Liu Yazhou,” China Brief (Asia Foundation), via AsiaMedia, September 13, 2005.
China President Moves to Rein in Military,” Malaysia Star, July 27, 2005.

[Posted by David Bandurski, February 3, 2009, 12:30pm HK ]

12 Comments to “Congenial viewpoints on America and China”

  1. David says:

    Bendilaowai:

    Yes, it should by Liu. We got it right at the outset, but somehow slid into “Li” and the seventh graf of the article. We’ve fixed it now.

    Thanks for reading.

    Best,
    David

  2. [...] Bandurski of China Media Project  translated and posted this article by Li Yazhou (刘亚洲, and shouldn’t it be Liu)? , a lieutenant general in the People’s [...]

  3. Inst says:

    Michael Turton: just like the American ABM deployments in Eastern Europe are not aimed at the Russians, especially when they decline Putin’s offer to base the ABMs in a position both closer to Iran and less threatening to the Russian nuclear arsenal.

    If you’re not going to take the Chinese seriously and allow them any points whatsoever, you’re not going to be able to establish dialogue and it’s just going to degenerate into who has the money, who has the technology, who has the military, instead of a battle of ideas.

  4. Inst says:

    On one hand, I really appreciate that these writers care to respect and fear America; when you don’t understand a country well, it’s safer to overestimate than underestimate. Besides, denigrating your competitors instead of appreciating their strengths is a loser’s strategy.

    On the other hand, this has the faint scent of Chinese radical rightists, who write ridiculous poems about how they fantasize about how sweet it would be to be killed by an American precision-guided bomb; idolizing everything American and Western and denigrating everything Chinese. That’s not to say that the vast majority of Chinese liberals fall on this extreme fringe.

  5. [...] arguments advanced by a B-list comedian and aspiring senator, I recommend – with real enthusiasm! – David Bandurski’s superb translations of two “congenial” points of view on Chinese…. One of the better China-related blog posts that I’ve read in some time (h/t Granite [...]

  6. JG says:

    I would like to know by what algebra the author of the first article arrived at America’s being governed by intellectual elite. Less than two months ago, we as a nation came very close to electing as President a man who graduated 5 spots from the bottom of his class, and even if that weren’t a stain on his intellectual prowess, several media outlets openly questioned his mental faculties. Then there is the matter of his running mate, someone who attended 5 different, mediocre universities, and who was accused – by the only media outlet that openly and fervently supported her party and candidacy – of not knowing Africa was a continent and not a country, and of not being able to name the parties to the NAFTA trade agreement.

    Thats fun for starters, but oh, does it get better!

    The 2004 election – George Bush graduated with a GPA lower than 2.4, and yet he STILL managed to better the GPA of his adversary, John Kerry.

    MAC has it exactly right: globalization has now rendered America and China equally inept at judging the other, and our respective governments equally dependent on the other. That doesn’t bode well for the future.

  7. MAC says:

    Well, come on, that’s pretty much an article of faith in China, you can’t expect him to get TOO radical.

    “America often thinks ten steps ahead when it takes action. It is because of this fact that every major global crisis since the Second World War has strengthened America’s position”

    I find it funny that the Chinese apparently ascribe the same incredible powers of foresight and craftiness to Americans that Americans often ascribe to them.

    These are interesting (and appear to be very nice translations, maybe I should look at the originals), I will have to finish them at some time other than 2:00 AM.

  8. America holds China down by using Taiwan? ROFL.

  9. admin says:

    Uln:

    I quite enjoyed “meep his posotion” — very Finnegan’s Wake. Yes, Liu’s outspokenness certainly surprises. But tolerance has its limits. Try reading the Reuters article at the Malaysian Star link above, in which Liu is mentioned as a particular sore point. Note also that the date given for this Liu piece comes at least one month after this move to “rein in” recalcitrant generals.

    Best,
    David

  10. Uln says:

    OMG, sorry, it should be: keep his position.

  11. Uln says:

    Thanks for these two translations, 2 of the best reads on China-American relations.

    I particularly like the one by Liu, and I must admit I am surprised: after publishing articles like this he is able to meep his posotion in the PLA?? Perhaps the Chinese military are more open than I thought.

  12. [...] and the other from poet and writer Liu Shahe (流沙河).  I encourage everybody to visit David’s site for the full texts and relevant links, but I thought I might excerpt a couple of paragraphs I found particularly [...]

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