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Did the Hu Summit Mean Anything?

A tour through the WikiLeaks cables suggests that the China-U.S. relationship is far too strained for a single state dinner to resolve.

Chinese President Hu Jintao's recent trip to Washington seemed to go smoothly enough. There were few awkward moments of the sort that Hu confronted on his last visit to the United States or that President Barack Obama ran into on his first trip to China in 2009. But the cables recently released by WikiLeaks open a larger window into the underlying, troubled relationship between Washington and Beijing. Reading the cables, it's worth asking whether any summit could ease the mistrust between the two countries.

When Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger carried out their historic opening to China, the diplomacy was so closely held that it took more than a quarter-century for historians to learn the essential details of what had happened. Kissinger had written in his memoir, for example, that during his initial meeting with Zhou Enlai in Beijing in 1971, the issue of Taiwan was "mentioned only briefly." When the actual notes of their conversation were released 30 years later, it turned out that Taiwan was discussed at considerable length; it was, along with Vietnam, one of the two main subjects of discussion.

Now, with the release of the WikiLeaks documents, there is no such time delay. Readers can gain direct access to some of the private conversations in recent years between U.S. and Chinese officials. And what the documents reveal, almost in real time, is a relationship marked by mistrust, gamesmanship, and occasional, highly provisional cooperation. We of course can't know what the United States and China will look like a few decades from now. But future historians will probably see in these WikiLeaks cables the concrete evidence of a period of profound change in the relationship between the two countries. In the cables, one finds China often testing the implications of its growing economic strength, and the United States struggling to cope with an increasingly assertive China.

There are some instances of hidden cooperation that come to light in the cables. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, at a working lunch with Dan Piccuta, then the charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, a senior Chinese official referred to collaboration on international economic issues by what he called the "troika" of China, the United States, and Britain.

The Chinese official "felt that the U.S.-U.K.-China 'troika' had been effective," reported Piccuta. "Beijing could persuade the developing countries, Washington could influence Japan and South Korea, and London could bring along the Europeans."

But Americans were sometimes privately warned to be skeptical about the Chinese regime's public versions of reality. One embassy cable describes how one of China's future leaders told the American ambassador not to trust some of the country's most important economic statistics.

"GDP figures are 'man-made' and therefore unreliable," Li Keqiang, then a provincial Communist Party secretary, now in line to become China's next premier, told then-U.S. Ambassador Clark Randt over dinner four years ago. Li said he relied on a few economic indicators that are less easy to manipulate, such as electricity consumption and the volume of rail cargo. "All other figures, especially GDP statistics, are 'for reference only,' [Li] said smiling," according to Randt's cable.

While this is impressive candor, for the most part the leaked cables only point out the gulf between public face and private reality. While Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said in public in early 2009 that China was concerned about the security of its holdings in U.S. Treasury bonds, a cable shows that the U.S. government nervously explored what Wen had meant and whether China might be planning to dump its Treasuries. In another cable about trade and economic disputes, the embassy in Beijing reported that "USG [U.S. government] complaints -- absent a credible threat of retaliatory action or other leverage -- are falling on increasingly deaf Chinese ears."

The WikiLeaks files frequently show U.S. officials (from both the George W. Bush and the Obama administrations) trying and failing to get help from China. They repeatedly ask for China's help in persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and for Iran to end its nuclear program. They are regularly rebuffed.

In private talks, Chinese officials seem willing to swap stories or offer insight about North Korea and Iran -- to volunteer, for example, news about whether North Korea's Kim Jong Il looked healthy or not in meetings with Chinese leaders or to suggest theories about the latest political intrigue in Tehran.

But in most cases, the private Chinese responses to U.S. pleas for help on North Korea and Iran are roughly as vague and bland as their public statements. According to one cable, State Councilor Dai Bingguo told Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg in 2009, "With a history of mistrust and mutual suspicion between the United States and Iran, it would not be easy to resolve the Iran nuclear issue," and "urged the United States to have more patience."

The WikiLeaks cables make clear that in private, at least, the U.S. government is under no illusions about the nature of the Chinese regime. One of the cables listed the financial interests of various Chinese leaders and their families, describing how different members of the Communist Party hierarchy controlled China's oil, banking, and real estate industries, electric power, and precious gems. These personal interests, it was suggested, gave the leaders a personal stake in preventing the development of a free press, which might investigate and write about high-level corruption.

One of the most astonishing accounts of Chinese media censorship that has ever come to light is contained in an embassy cable about how extensively the regime had controlled TV coverage during a Communist Party congress in October 2007. Quoting Chinese media contacts, the cable said that for seven days, China Central Television (CCTV) banned all negative images from television screens in China -- not just in TV reports about the party congress, not just in other news shows, but even in entertainment programs.

"During the Congress, CCTV would not show images of people crying, regardless of the circumstances," the embassy reported. "Even nature shows depicting animals stalking and killing prey were cut because such scenes were considered 'inharmonious.'"

At January's Washington summit, both governments put a positive gloss on how things were going. Much was made of Hu's forced assertion at the White House that "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights" -- but this was, in fact, boilerplate language that Chinese officials have used for more than a decade.

We'll find out whether the summit was truly a success over the coming months, when we see whether the two countries can begin to work together to deal with North Korea, Iran, the trade and currency disputes that have divided them, or China's imprisonment of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. And those are just the short-term issues. The long-term sources of friction were described in one WikiLeaks cable to Washington from Randt, then the U.S. ambassador in Beijing:

"The list ... includes China's authoritarian political system, China's support for unsavory regimes, China's breakneck military modernization, China's paranoid fear that the United States secretly promotes regime change and 'separatists' in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, growing nationalism and the sense in some quarters in both Washington and Beijing that the United States and China are commencing a long-term struggle for global political, economic and military supremacy."

That's a list that no single summit, however smoothly orchestrated, can possibly fix.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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