Commentary Magazine


Topic: Wen Jiabao

Corruption in China Isn’t Just a Local Story

Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, must have felt like he was hit by a political hurricane last week when the New York Times published a front-page story claiming that he and his family control a fortune of at least $2.7 billion.

While it has been generally known that the Communist Party elite were acquiring considerable wealth, that is still an eye-popping amount. All the more so because it is hardly an aberration. As my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elizabeth Economy notes in a trenchant blog post on the Wen scandal, “the annual 2011 Hurun report on the wealthiest Chinese reveals that the top seventy members of the National People’s Congress are worth a combined total of $89.8 billion; in contrast, the net worth of the top 660 U.S. officials is only $7.5 billion.”

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Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, must have felt like he was hit by a political hurricane last week when the New York Times published a front-page story claiming that he and his family control a fortune of at least $2.7 billion.

While it has been generally known that the Communist Party elite were acquiring considerable wealth, that is still an eye-popping amount. All the more so because it is hardly an aberration. As my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elizabeth Economy notes in a trenchant blog post on the Wen scandal, “the annual 2011 Hurun report on the wealthiest Chinese reveals that the top seventy members of the National People’s Congress are worth a combined total of $89.8 billion; in contrast, the net worth of the top 660 U.S. officials is only $7.5 billion.”

Economy is right to note that the scale of Chinese corruption should put to rest the fashionable opinion that the U.S. government should emulate the one in Beijing. Corruption on this scale is not only a major obstacle to the further development of the Chinese economy; it is also a huge problem for an unelected elite that hungers for popular approval. Beijing tried to block access via the Internet to the Times, but it is a safe bet that this scoop will become generally known on the mainland and will further the people’s cynicism about the motives of their leadership.

Unfortunately, the way that the Chinese leadership generally responds to such scandals is disconcerting. The typical Chinese counterattack is to push nationalist propaganda that demonizes the U.S., Japan, and other states, thus trying to channel popular anger outward at foreign devils. This is an inherently unstable status quo, with a small elite amassing vast wealth while whipping up xenophobic feelings to justify the way they rob their own people, and it portends greater choppiness in U.S. relations with China.

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Hillary Clinton: Errand Girl for Disastrous Foreign Policy

Michael Hirsh writes a lengthy piece on Hillary Clinton, confirming that she’s not much of a secretary of state. But then we knew that from the results of her handiwork — an unratifiable START treaty, a wrecked relationship with Israel, offended European allies, a Middle East “peace process” that has succeeded only in encouraging Palestinian intransigence, a failed Syrian-engagement gambit, and a dead-end Iran policy. So it’s not surprising that Hirsh focuses on her relationship with Obama — Starsky and Hutch! — and dwells on minutiae. After all, that’s what Hillary does best. The duo’s great accomplishment? Storming a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the ultimately meaningless Copenhagen global-warming conference. That’s the best Hirsch can come up with.

It’s hard to hide the problem, namely that she’s really not up to the job. Hirsh writes:

“She has no real strategic vision,” says an NSC official. “But she’ll get done what she has to do. She’s the good little Methodist girl. In the end she’ll have her list of the nine or 10 things she has to do and check them off one by one.”

Associates bridle at such condescension, and so do many White House officials, including General Jones. Clinton’s former longtime policy chief, Neera Tanden, sees nothing to apologize for: “She definitely has lists. And she really feels a sense of obligation, duty, responsibility, as part of her general outlook; perhaps it is her Methodism. It’s part of who she is.” Clinton herself ridicules the criticism. “At the end of the day, have you solved the problem or haven’t you? Have you crossed it off the list or haven’t you?”

Hmm. Do you suppose “Thwart Iran’s nuclear program” is on the list? What about “Reorient administration away from Israel”? That one gets a check mark.

Outside observers concede the obvious:

Clinton’s and Obama’s various policies do not yet add up to anything like a doctrine on America’s place in the world. Much of the first year was about “rebuilding the brand, rebuilding political capital,” says one official. And blaming George W. Bush for America’s dire situation, of course. Now, however, fewer world leaders care about the mistakes made by the previous administration. Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he doesn’t think Clinton is of the caliber of James Baker, the George H.W. Bush secretary of state who was perhaps the last real superstar in the job. “She’s very smart,” he says. “She understands all these issues. You can have a good discussion with her on almost any [subject]. But she doesn’t pretend to be, nor is she, a strategist. When she goes to the National Security Council, she doesn’t bring that to the table.”

So what does she bring? It seems that Obama found the perfect errand girl for his bizarrely counterproductive strategy of cozying up to despots, shoving democracy promotion aside, dissing allies, and focusing on unilateral grand gestures – which suggests that no one in the administration has a workable strategy for promoting American interests and values. Obama imagines himself a great foreign-policy visionary, but the legacy he is creating is an America more estranged from allies and a Middle East on the tipping point of a deadly nuclear-arms race. Hillary might be just the enabler, but she’ll share in that legacy, which for now promises to be the most dismal of any American president’s since (maybe including) Jimmy Carter.

Michael Hirsh writes a lengthy piece on Hillary Clinton, confirming that she’s not much of a secretary of state. But then we knew that from the results of her handiwork — an unratifiable START treaty, a wrecked relationship with Israel, offended European allies, a Middle East “peace process” that has succeeded only in encouraging Palestinian intransigence, a failed Syrian-engagement gambit, and a dead-end Iran policy. So it’s not surprising that Hirsh focuses on her relationship with Obama — Starsky and Hutch! — and dwells on minutiae. After all, that’s what Hillary does best. The duo’s great accomplishment? Storming a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at the ultimately meaningless Copenhagen global-warming conference. That’s the best Hirsch can come up with.

It’s hard to hide the problem, namely that she’s really not up to the job. Hirsh writes:

“She has no real strategic vision,” says an NSC official. “But she’ll get done what she has to do. She’s the good little Methodist girl. In the end she’ll have her list of the nine or 10 things she has to do and check them off one by one.”

Associates bridle at such condescension, and so do many White House officials, including General Jones. Clinton’s former longtime policy chief, Neera Tanden, sees nothing to apologize for: “She definitely has lists. And she really feels a sense of obligation, duty, responsibility, as part of her general outlook; perhaps it is her Methodism. It’s part of who she is.” Clinton herself ridicules the criticism. “At the end of the day, have you solved the problem or haven’t you? Have you crossed it off the list or haven’t you?”

Hmm. Do you suppose “Thwart Iran’s nuclear program” is on the list? What about “Reorient administration away from Israel”? That one gets a check mark.

Outside observers concede the obvious:

Clinton’s and Obama’s various policies do not yet add up to anything like a doctrine on America’s place in the world. Much of the first year was about “rebuilding the brand, rebuilding political capital,” says one official. And blaming George W. Bush for America’s dire situation, of course. Now, however, fewer world leaders care about the mistakes made by the previous administration. Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he doesn’t think Clinton is of the caliber of James Baker, the George H.W. Bush secretary of state who was perhaps the last real superstar in the job. “She’s very smart,” he says. “She understands all these issues. You can have a good discussion with her on almost any [subject]. But she doesn’t pretend to be, nor is she, a strategist. When she goes to the National Security Council, she doesn’t bring that to the table.”

So what does she bring? It seems that Obama found the perfect errand girl for his bizarrely counterproductive strategy of cozying up to despots, shoving democracy promotion aside, dissing allies, and focusing on unilateral grand gestures – which suggests that no one in the administration has a workable strategy for promoting American interests and values. Obama imagines himself a great foreign-policy visionary, but the legacy he is creating is an America more estranged from allies and a Middle East on the tipping point of a deadly nuclear-arms race. Hillary might be just the enabler, but she’ll share in that legacy, which for now promises to be the most dismal of any American president’s since (maybe including) Jimmy Carter.

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The Israel Standard

Charles Lane is the latest to spot the Obami’s double standards. He compares the administration reaction to Israel’s apartment expansion with its reaction to a deliberate Chinese provocation:

In Beijing Sunday, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, launched an anti-U.S. tirade that made the president’s objective of economic harmony with Beijing seem even more unattainable than a comprehensive Middle East peace.

Rejecting President Obama’s rather tepid call, delivered just days earlier, for a “market-oriented” Chinese currency policy, Wen accused the U.S. of “trade protectionism,” alleging that Washington wanted to force the Chinese yuan up, and the dollar down, “solely for the purpose of increasing one’s own exports.”

This, as Lane explains, “was not only a direct sneer at the president — it was an insult to his intelligence, and everyone else’s for that matter.” What was Obama’s reaction? “Officials look forward to ‘an open channel of communication … and fostering a good bilateral relationship,’ a State Department spokesman told the Wall Street Journal.”

Totally different, you say? Why yes, Israel is a small, vulnerable democracy. China is a huge, powerful dictatorship. In the Obami worldview, there simply is no question about who gets the kid-glove treatment.

Charles Lane is the latest to spot the Obami’s double standards. He compares the administration reaction to Israel’s apartment expansion with its reaction to a deliberate Chinese provocation:

In Beijing Sunday, China’s premier, Wen Jiabao, launched an anti-U.S. tirade that made the president’s objective of economic harmony with Beijing seem even more unattainable than a comprehensive Middle East peace.

Rejecting President Obama’s rather tepid call, delivered just days earlier, for a “market-oriented” Chinese currency policy, Wen accused the U.S. of “trade protectionism,” alleging that Washington wanted to force the Chinese yuan up, and the dollar down, “solely for the purpose of increasing one’s own exports.”

This, as Lane explains, “was not only a direct sneer at the president — it was an insult to his intelligence, and everyone else’s for that matter.” What was Obama’s reaction? “Officials look forward to ‘an open channel of communication … and fostering a good bilateral relationship,’ a State Department spokesman told the Wall Street Journal.”

Totally different, you say? Why yes, Israel is a small, vulnerable democracy. China is a huge, powerful dictatorship. In the Obami worldview, there simply is no question about who gets the kid-glove treatment.

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Chinese Ire and Obama’s Big Stand

The Obama administration deserves credit for finally ending its kowtowing to Beijing. As the New York Times notes, the administration has recently raised the ire of Chinese officials in several ways. The biggest and most recent is the announcement of a $6 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China claims is simply a breakaway province — a fiction that far too many nations, including the United States, collude in by refusing Taipei formal diplomatic relations.  China has reacted predictably, suspending military-to-military contacts with the U.S. for some unspecified period; other expressions of pique are no doubt coming. The Obama-ites knew this would happen, but they went ahead anyway. Good for them.

The president is also finally going to meet the Dalai Lama, something he refused to do before his visit to China in the fall, where he went to contemptible lengths to please his hosts. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has unveiled a doctrine of Internet freedom that rankles China, which is in the midst of a dispute with Google over Chinese censorship and hacking.

Chalk this up as another area where some of the illusions that Obama and his aides carried into office are being shed as they confront the cruel reality of the world. They had hoped that by making nice with the Chinese, they would win Beijing’s cooperation on issues like global warming and sanctions on Iran. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead of signing up with the Obama agenda, China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, went out of his way to humiliate the American president at the Copenhagen global warming summit. The latest initiatives from the Obama administration can be interpreted as payback.

It’s about time. After his first year in office, Obama gave the distinct impression that he could be pushed around with impunity. That is cheering news for America’s rivals and enemies — and dangerous news for us. Obama needs to do far more to dispel that impression of weakness, but this is at least a start. Next up: Iran?

The Obama administration deserves credit for finally ending its kowtowing to Beijing. As the New York Times notes, the administration has recently raised the ire of Chinese officials in several ways. The biggest and most recent is the announcement of a $6 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China claims is simply a breakaway province — a fiction that far too many nations, including the United States, collude in by refusing Taipei formal diplomatic relations.  China has reacted predictably, suspending military-to-military contacts with the U.S. for some unspecified period; other expressions of pique are no doubt coming. The Obama-ites knew this would happen, but they went ahead anyway. Good for them.

The president is also finally going to meet the Dalai Lama, something he refused to do before his visit to China in the fall, where he went to contemptible lengths to please his hosts. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has unveiled a doctrine of Internet freedom that rankles China, which is in the midst of a dispute with Google over Chinese censorship and hacking.

Chalk this up as another area where some of the illusions that Obama and his aides carried into office are being shed as they confront the cruel reality of the world. They had hoped that by making nice with the Chinese, they would win Beijing’s cooperation on issues like global warming and sanctions on Iran. It hasn’t worked out that way. Instead of signing up with the Obama agenda, China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, went out of his way to humiliate the American president at the Copenhagen global warming summit. The latest initiatives from the Obama administration can be interpreted as payback.

It’s about time. After his first year in office, Obama gave the distinct impression that he could be pushed around with impunity. That is cheering news for America’s rivals and enemies — and dangerous news for us. Obama needs to do far more to dispel that impression of weakness, but this is at least a start. Next up: Iran?

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China Turns Our Lights Out

Chinese hackers caused two power blackouts in the United States in the last half decade, according to the cover story in tomorrow’s National Journal. American intelligence sources confirm that the People’s Liberation Army was responsible for intrusions in 2003 that likely caused North America’s largest blackout, which affected three states, parts of Canada, and 50 million people. More than a hundred generating stations were shut down. To this day the Chinese activity that precipitated the cascading failure is not fully understood.

Then, this February, three million customers were hit by a blackout that appears to have been inadvertently caused by the People’s Liberation Army as it mapped the network of Florida Power & Light. “I suspect, as the system went down, the PLA hacker said something like, ‘Oops, my bad,’ in Chinese,” said an unnamed information-security expert quoted in the story.

As they say, the Chinese are at war with us every day over the phone lines. Washington is squeamish about publicly naming China as the source of hostile attacks, so we almost never push back.

Whatever happened to the don’t-tread-on-me spirit in this country? We ignored al Qaeda’s attacks until September 11. Now we’re adopting the same passive approach to Chinese assaults on our critical infrastructure. Last August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while in Beijing, publicly told off Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao about Chinese hacking. Why can’t Robert Gates muster the courage to say anything in front of the microphones when he travels to the Chinese capital? Beijing has rewarded our secretary of defense for his discretion by hacking into the computer network serving his office last June.

We need a better China policy. So here’s a proposal. The next time the Chinese cause a blackout in this country, let’s take down all their grids. The communists in Beijing will be angry, but I suspect they’ll get the message.

Chinese hackers caused two power blackouts in the United States in the last half decade, according to the cover story in tomorrow’s National Journal. American intelligence sources confirm that the People’s Liberation Army was responsible for intrusions in 2003 that likely caused North America’s largest blackout, which affected three states, parts of Canada, and 50 million people. More than a hundred generating stations were shut down. To this day the Chinese activity that precipitated the cascading failure is not fully understood.

Then, this February, three million customers were hit by a blackout that appears to have been inadvertently caused by the People’s Liberation Army as it mapped the network of Florida Power & Light. “I suspect, as the system went down, the PLA hacker said something like, ‘Oops, my bad,’ in Chinese,” said an unnamed information-security expert quoted in the story.

As they say, the Chinese are at war with us every day over the phone lines. Washington is squeamish about publicly naming China as the source of hostile attacks, so we almost never push back.

Whatever happened to the don’t-tread-on-me spirit in this country? We ignored al Qaeda’s attacks until September 11. Now we’re adopting the same passive approach to Chinese assaults on our critical infrastructure. Last August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while in Beijing, publicly told off Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao about Chinese hacking. Why can’t Robert Gates muster the courage to say anything in front of the microphones when he travels to the Chinese capital? Beijing has rewarded our secretary of defense for his discretion by hacking into the computer network serving his office last June.

We need a better China policy. So here’s a proposal. The next time the Chinese cause a blackout in this country, let’s take down all their grids. The communists in Beijing will be angry, but I suspect they’ll get the message.

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“A Complete Failure of Governance”

Since snow started falling in the second week of last month, southwestern, central, eastern, and southern China have been gripped by a massive storm. About 105 million people have been affected in 17 provinces. Some 2.5 million of them have been or will be evacuated. Around 30 million have lost electricity. A quarter of a million troops have been mobilized to shovel snow and provide emergency relief. Approximately 16 million livestock have been killed. The storm will continue through at least the second week of this month, according to the China Meteorological Administration.

The snow could not have come at a worse time. Tens of millions of workers are on the move, making their once-yearly trip home for Chinese New Year, which begins next week. Hundreds of thousands of desperate, weary, and angry travelers, most of whom depend on the rails, are now stranded. On Wednesday, Premier Wen Jiabao went to the Guangzhou train station to calm distraught passengers through a megaphone. About 217,000 travelers were stuck in that city, the capital of southern Guangdong province. Security around the nation has been tightened where crowds have gathered. The ruling Politburo met on Tuesday in emergency session.

The storm is, according to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, “historically unprecedented.” The official People’s Daily calls it “the worst in 50 years.” Beijing can’t be blamed for the weather, but central government policies have severely aggravated the suffering. “What has appeared to be a natural disaster is, in essence, a massive failure of governance,” said Mao Shoulong of Renmin University. Attempts at central planning have turned an unusual weather pattern into a national disaster.

There are about a dozen wrongheaded policies that have aggravated the situation, but the most misguided of them are the central government’s price controls on energy, needed to power the trains to take people home. Beijing technocrats have been waging an unsuccessful campaign to slow accelerating inflation. As an integral part of that effort, the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning agency, has put a ceiling on electricity charges. The NDRC in the last few days has been insisting that its cap has not led to the decline in the generation of power that is aggravating the ongoing crisis, but its case is unconvincing. The trains won’t move unless there is electricity, and there is an electricity shortage due in large measure to overregulation of the economy. There is also a national shortage of coal, used to generate most of the country’s electricity, due to a result of a mix of central government measures.

China needs better weather, but more important it needs a more open economy. The forecasters say the snow will stop sometime this month. Unfortunately, that will be long before the country gets better economic planning.

Since snow started falling in the second week of last month, southwestern, central, eastern, and southern China have been gripped by a massive storm. About 105 million people have been affected in 17 provinces. Some 2.5 million of them have been or will be evacuated. Around 30 million have lost electricity. A quarter of a million troops have been mobilized to shovel snow and provide emergency relief. Approximately 16 million livestock have been killed. The storm will continue through at least the second week of this month, according to the China Meteorological Administration.

The snow could not have come at a worse time. Tens of millions of workers are on the move, making their once-yearly trip home for Chinese New Year, which begins next week. Hundreds of thousands of desperate, weary, and angry travelers, most of whom depend on the rails, are now stranded. On Wednesday, Premier Wen Jiabao went to the Guangzhou train station to calm distraught passengers through a megaphone. About 217,000 travelers were stuck in that city, the capital of southern Guangdong province. Security around the nation has been tightened where crowds have gathered. The ruling Politburo met on Tuesday in emergency session.

The storm is, according to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, “historically unprecedented.” The official People’s Daily calls it “the worst in 50 years.” Beijing can’t be blamed for the weather, but central government policies have severely aggravated the suffering. “What has appeared to be a natural disaster is, in essence, a massive failure of governance,” said Mao Shoulong of Renmin University. Attempts at central planning have turned an unusual weather pattern into a national disaster.

There are about a dozen wrongheaded policies that have aggravated the situation, but the most misguided of them are the central government’s price controls on energy, needed to power the trains to take people home. Beijing technocrats have been waging an unsuccessful campaign to slow accelerating inflation. As an integral part of that effort, the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning agency, has put a ceiling on electricity charges. The NDRC in the last few days has been insisting that its cap has not led to the decline in the generation of power that is aggravating the ongoing crisis, but its case is unconvincing. The trains won’t move unless there is electricity, and there is an electricity shortage due in large measure to overregulation of the economy. There is also a national shortage of coal, used to generate most of the country’s electricity, due to a result of a mix of central government measures.

China needs better weather, but more important it needs a more open economy. The forecasters say the snow will stop sometime this month. Unfortunately, that will be long before the country gets better economic planning.

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Springtime for China and Japan

Yesterday, Japan’s Yasuo Fukuda returned from his first official visit to China as prime minister. During his four-day “ringing in the spring” trip, he received a red-carpet welcome, bowed to a statue of Confucius at the philosopher’s birthplace, held “heart-to-heart” talks with senior leaders in Beijing, and spoke to students at prestigious Peking University. Fukuda agreed to transfer environmental technology to China, promised to reflect on Japan’s historical mistakes, and abjectly said what Beijing demanded on the subject of Taiwan. In the midst of his heavy schedule he even had time for a game of catch with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, each of them decked out in a baseball uniform and wearing a red cap decorated by a “C.”

Yet the trip, to borrow the words of Tokyo political scientist Takeshi Inoguchi, “was not a home run.” Other leaders come away from Beijing with economic packages or concessions of some sort. Fukuda returned to Japan with only Beijing’s momentary goodwill. Perhaps that was all that Fukuda could achieve in these circumstances.

Yet the object of diplomacy is not maintaining good relations—the object is achieving national goals. Japan, unfortunately, has been particularly unable to do so when it comes to China. The most visible open sores between the two nations are their competing territorial claims, especially the one festering over the gas fields in the East China Sea. On the East China Sea dispute, Beijing issued a stream of wonderful-sounding but essentially meaningless words during Fukuda’s visit. “We feel each other’s sincerity and determination,” Premier Wen said after their talks on the subject.

Of course, we can’t be too tough on Japan for failing to craft a sensible approach to China, because Tokyo is merely taking its cue from a feckless Washington. As Michael Auslin pointed out recently, other nations will become allies of Beijing unless the United States can come up with more resolute policies. On his recently concluded trip, Fukuda said he wanted to establish a “creative partnership” with China and hoped both countries would team up on global issues. If Washington does not want to lose its remaining friends in East Asia—and at this point it cannot afford to give up any of them to Beijing—the Bush administration will have to start exercising effective leadership. Of course the Chinese will try to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo. It is up to President Bush to make sure that American alliances in Asia stand firm.

Yesterday, Japan’s Yasuo Fukuda returned from his first official visit to China as prime minister. During his four-day “ringing in the spring” trip, he received a red-carpet welcome, bowed to a statue of Confucius at the philosopher’s birthplace, held “heart-to-heart” talks with senior leaders in Beijing, and spoke to students at prestigious Peking University. Fukuda agreed to transfer environmental technology to China, promised to reflect on Japan’s historical mistakes, and abjectly said what Beijing demanded on the subject of Taiwan. In the midst of his heavy schedule he even had time for a game of catch with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, each of them decked out in a baseball uniform and wearing a red cap decorated by a “C.”

Yet the trip, to borrow the words of Tokyo political scientist Takeshi Inoguchi, “was not a home run.” Other leaders come away from Beijing with economic packages or concessions of some sort. Fukuda returned to Japan with only Beijing’s momentary goodwill. Perhaps that was all that Fukuda could achieve in these circumstances.

Yet the object of diplomacy is not maintaining good relations—the object is achieving national goals. Japan, unfortunately, has been particularly unable to do so when it comes to China. The most visible open sores between the two nations are their competing territorial claims, especially the one festering over the gas fields in the East China Sea. On the East China Sea dispute, Beijing issued a stream of wonderful-sounding but essentially meaningless words during Fukuda’s visit. “We feel each other’s sincerity and determination,” Premier Wen said after their talks on the subject.

Of course, we can’t be too tough on Japan for failing to craft a sensible approach to China, because Tokyo is merely taking its cue from a feckless Washington. As Michael Auslin pointed out recently, other nations will become allies of Beijing unless the United States can come up with more resolute policies. On his recently concluded trip, Fukuda said he wanted to establish a “creative partnership” with China and hoped both countries would team up on global issues. If Washington does not want to lose its remaining friends in East Asia—and at this point it cannot afford to give up any of them to Beijing—the Bush administration will have to start exercising effective leadership. Of course the Chinese will try to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo. It is up to President Bush to make sure that American alliances in Asia stand firm.

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Hotline to Nobody

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is now in Seoul, after completing two days of meetings in Beijing during the first stop of a three-nation tour (he also will be visiting Japan before heading home). In China, Gates traded compliments with Chinese leaders, issued correct statements on the need for dialogue, and toured the Forbidden City, the imperial palace at the north end of Tiananmen Square. It was Gates’s first trip to the country since succeeding Donald Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief, and senior U.S. officials marked the event by reporting modest progress on a range of secondary issues. The Chinese, for example, promised to provide more cooperation on accounting for American prisoners taken during the Korean War.

Both sides also announced the planned establishment of a military hotline between Washington and Beijing “at an early date.” The initiative was announced during Hu Jintao’s summit in Washington last April and has been the subject of periodic re-announcements ever since, such as one this June when Gates was in Singapore. Despite the apparent signs of progress, the Chinese have been dragging their feet over technical issues. The United States has sought to establish such a hotline for more than five years. Yet the critical issue now is not how such a link will be established. It is whether the Chinese wish to engage the United States in substantive discussions at all—or whether they wish merely to sip tea and waste our time.

There is reason to believe that when we call, no one will answer the phone. (There was, remember, nobody taking Washington’s calls during the Hainan reconnaissance plane incident in April 2001.) The issue is as much about the ability of the Chinese government to make decisions in the middle of crisis as it is about the state of relations between the two countries.

But there’s a more fundamental reason why the phone may not be of much use during the next confrontation. At the same time that Gates was talking with Chinese officials this week, Premier Wen Jiabao was in Moscow talking with President Vladimir Putin about their countries’ “friendship for generations.” While the American defense secretary was arguing about the technicalities of telecommunications lines, Moscow and Beijing were putting together the alliance that will challenge the international community for a lifetime. It seems they have been communicating just fine without a hotline.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is now in Seoul, after completing two days of meetings in Beijing during the first stop of a three-nation tour (he also will be visiting Japan before heading home). In China, Gates traded compliments with Chinese leaders, issued correct statements on the need for dialogue, and toured the Forbidden City, the imperial palace at the north end of Tiananmen Square. It was Gates’s first trip to the country since succeeding Donald Rumsfeld as Pentagon chief, and senior U.S. officials marked the event by reporting modest progress on a range of secondary issues. The Chinese, for example, promised to provide more cooperation on accounting for American prisoners taken during the Korean War.

Both sides also announced the planned establishment of a military hotline between Washington and Beijing “at an early date.” The initiative was announced during Hu Jintao’s summit in Washington last April and has been the subject of periodic re-announcements ever since, such as one this June when Gates was in Singapore. Despite the apparent signs of progress, the Chinese have been dragging their feet over technical issues. The United States has sought to establish such a hotline for more than five years. Yet the critical issue now is not how such a link will be established. It is whether the Chinese wish to engage the United States in substantive discussions at all—or whether they wish merely to sip tea and waste our time.

There is reason to believe that when we call, no one will answer the phone. (There was, remember, nobody taking Washington’s calls during the Hainan reconnaissance plane incident in April 2001.) The issue is as much about the ability of the Chinese government to make decisions in the middle of crisis as it is about the state of relations between the two countries.

But there’s a more fundamental reason why the phone may not be of much use during the next confrontation. At the same time that Gates was talking with Chinese officials this week, Premier Wen Jiabao was in Moscow talking with President Vladimir Putin about their countries’ “friendship for generations.” While the American defense secretary was arguing about the technicalities of telecommunications lines, Moscow and Beijing were putting together the alliance that will challenge the international community for a lifetime. It seems they have been communicating just fine without a hotline.

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Wen to Merkel: Mind Your Own Business

Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel encouraged China’s Premier Wen Jiabao to do more to stop climate change. “The Chinese wish, like all people, for blue skies, green hills and clear water,” Wen said at a joint news conference in Beijing. Then, the “People’s Premier” told the Germans—and by implication, everyone else—to mind their own business. He essentially said that China must finish its industrialization before it can consider minimizing its impact on world climate. “China has taken part of the responsibility for climate change for only 30 years while industrial countries have grown fast for the last 200 years,” he said.

China does not have a severely degraded environment—the world’s worst—because it is industrializing. And it’s not because of a shortage of money—China possesses the world’s largest pile of foreign currency reserves, now in excess of $1.3 trillion. Nor is it due to a lack of technology: China already possesses much of the know-how, and foreign governments and companies are tripping over themselves to supply what it does not now have.

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Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel encouraged China’s Premier Wen Jiabao to do more to stop climate change. “The Chinese wish, like all people, for blue skies, green hills and clear water,” Wen said at a joint news conference in Beijing. Then, the “People’s Premier” told the Germans—and by implication, everyone else—to mind their own business. He essentially said that China must finish its industrialization before it can consider minimizing its impact on world climate. “China has taken part of the responsibility for climate change for only 30 years while industrial countries have grown fast for the last 200 years,” he said.

China does not have a severely degraded environment—the world’s worst—because it is industrializing. And it’s not because of a shortage of money—China possesses the world’s largest pile of foreign currency reserves, now in excess of $1.3 trillion. Nor is it due to a lack of technology: China already possesses much of the know-how, and foreign governments and companies are tripping over themselves to supply what it does not now have.

The country has polluted its land, water, and air because its political system has prevented its disgusted and frustrated citizenry from stopping the damage. The Communist Party’s bottom-up patronage system rewards economic growth at any price, providing an incentive to dump raw sewage, scatter industrial waste, and release toxic smoke. Beijing’s leaders are afraid that an economic slowdown will lead to the collapse of the one-party state.

Wen Jiabao can, of course, put off the German chancellor for the moment. but the People’s Premier one day will have to listen to his own people. According to Zhou Shengxian, Beijing’s top environmental official, Chinese people took to the streets an astonishing 51,000 times in 2005 to protest environmental degradation. In other words, during that year the Communist Party failed almost a thousand times a week to mediate conflict between ordinary citizens on the one hand and polluting factories and colluding local governments on the other.

There is, however, hope in China. Either Mr. Wen will figure out a way to clean up the nation’s environment—or the Chinese people will. I’m betting it won’t be Wen.

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