Europe's China Flip-Flop
March 16, 2005
By Wu'er Kaixi
TAIPEI -- In the standoff between the United States and Europe over lifting the Tiananmen Massacre arms embargo on China, I find myself on the side of George W. Bush, even if my reasons for being there differ from his. President Bush's interests are, of course, those of the world's leading superpower. Mine are those of a Chinese student leader who, after more than 15 years in exile, is still waiting to be allowed to go home.
The U.S. position is well summed up by Peter Brookes, senior fellow for national security affairs and director of Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation, who wrote recently: "Lifting the embargo would endanger U.S. interests, accelerate China's military build-up, undermine stability in the Pacific and send the wrong signal to repressive regimes everywhere." These are legitimate concerns, and I see no reason to contest them. China -- currently second only to the U.S. in terms of arms spending -- is clearly seeking to extend its influence in Southeast Asia and into the Pacific via the sea lanes controlled by U.S. allies Japan and Taiwan. And, yes, China continues to be a repressive state, and to kowtow now would send the wrong message to similarly repressive regimes.
But, as an exiled Chinese citizen who has lived in Paris and the U.S. before settling in Taiwan, I would add to Peter Brookes' list the objection that lifting the embargo now makes a mockery of Europe's decision to put it in place to begin with.
Perhaps from the worldly, sophisticated perspective of the Europeans, I am taking things too personally. But if Europe does go ahead -- as it says it will -- and lifts the embargo shortly after the British elections, expected around May 5, I do have to wonder just what China has done to deserve the favor. To be sure, China is richer and more powerful than it was when I was forced to leave in 1989. But have human rights improved? Have there been substantive moves towards participatory politics? Is there greater freedom of speech? Can I go home? The answer is "no" every time.
And then there is the question of Taiwan, which I also happen to take a personal interest in because it is now my home. Europe's decision takes place as China puts into place a so-called anti-secession law. This in effect legitimizes the use of force to take over a liberal democracy and the world's 15th largest trading economy. From where I stand, I cannot help but be reminded of Tiananmen Square. In 1989, as a leader of a movement that is thought to have brought up to 100 million people onto the streets China-wide, I saw the ugly face of Chinese Communist Party rule. Here in Taiwan in 2005 I worry that before long, I will see it again.
This is precisely what I mean when I say that lifting the embargo now makes a mockery of the decision to put it in place. When China turned its troops and tanks on its citizens in Tiananmen Square, the world recoiled in horror and imposed sanctions. Sixteen years later, as China embarks on a massive military build-up aimed at enforcing a disputed territorial claim on Taiwan, Europe decides that the best course of action is to supply it with the high-tech weaponry to do so. I'm afraid the logic of this defies me.
It could be argued, of course, that Chinese leader Hu Jintao, who just succeeded Jiang Zemin as chairman of the state's Central Military Commission, gave a relatively measured -- if not conciliatory -- speech to the National People's Congress on the subject of Taiwan late last week. Proof, Europe might say, that China is doing everything it can to resolve the Taiwan problem peacefully. It would only use the weapons we are selling them, Europeans might say, if Taiwan did something rash like enshrining independence in a new constitution or, heaven forbid, allowing the island's 23 million people to cast a vote one way or another, for or against: unification on some mutually tolerable grounds, or independence.
It is a disingenuous argument. Firstly, we are asked to believe that the Chinese leadership can be counted on to be reasonable, and I know for a fact that this is a naive and dangerous assumption -- I have been guilty of making it myself once before, with disastrous consequences. And secondly, we are asked to ignore the fact that China's military arms purchases are aimed as much at denying its own people and the Taiwanese the right to self-determination as they are to national self-defense.
In short, whatever the strategic aims of its China policy, in terms of my personal engagement with the Chinese government, Europe's position is morally flawed and intellectually absurd. I may not have the advantage of a European education, but I say that when the Europeans tell us that one plus one do not equal two, that the advanced weapons it has for sale will never be turned on the Taiwanese people, I say they are wrong. When the Europeans tell us it's time to forget Tiananmen, I say I am sorry but until I hear an apology I cannot even begin to forget. And when the Europeans say, China has improved, I say, does that mean I can return to my homeland and visit my ageing parents without going to jail?
Mr. Wu'er Kaixi was a Tiananmen student leader, and is now exiled in Taiwan.