Politics & Policy

Lunch with a Leader

Friends, you and I have been preoccupied in the last few months with politics — with candidates, conventions, moose, and all that. As a result, I have a big backlog of things I want to discuss with you here in Impromptus. Should we get started? Some time ago — might have been September, actually — I had lunch in New York with Jian-li Yang.

#ad#Jian-li, you know, if you’ve been a reader of this column. He is an activist, scholar, and Tiananmen Square hero. I met him in 2001, I think — and he was imprisoned from 2002 to 2007. (Need I mention that he was imprisoned in China?) He is back at his work in the Boston area, and elsewhere. Shortly after his return, I did a piece on him for National Review, “Leader of the Chinese.” You can find it here.

Anyway, it’s good to be in regular touch with Jian-li again. It was rather difficult during those five years. And as we lunched, I took notes, to share some of his thoughts with you — with his permission, of course.

‐We talked about the political conventions, so it must have been early-ish September — right after the GOP convention concluded. Normally, we don’t talk about politics much — American politics — but Jian-li was interested. He liked McCain’s acceptance speech much better than Obama’s. Why? Well, for one thing, he identified with it — “McCain and I have something in common,” he said. “Oh, yes,” I said: “You were both in prison for five years.”

Actually, that was not what Jian-li was thinking of: Both of them refused early release, on principle.

‐We talked about American academics, who tend to be soft on China — on the Communist authorities in Beijing. “They go over there,” said Jian-li, “and they’re treated like kings.” They’re wined and dined and altogether serviced. “They never had it so good. And they are seduced.” I asked whether he ever had contact with Sinologists in the Harvard community (where he lives). Oh, no, he said: “They’re as bad as professors in Beijing University. No, worse!” They are more apt to defend the party line, whatever it is, than to care about political freedom.

I have written a little bit about the effect of PRC largesse on Western scholars of China — and I intend to investigate and write more. (By the way, I touched on this subject in my exploration of Middle East studies, which you can find here.)

‐Jian-li wonders why Russia comes in for stern treatment, from the U.S. government and U.S. elites, but not China. He thinks he knows one reason for this disparity: Beijing is much better at showering money and flattery on foreigners than Moscow is. “The Chinese government knows how to co-opt and corrupt people,” he says. The Russians are far behind in this art.

To put it briefly: Jian-li complains of “a big double standard” in the general positions of America on China and Russia — and he has a point (as always).

‐Talk turns to President Bush, a man he admires, and by whom he is frustrated. (A lot of us know the feeling.) Jian-li mentions in particular Bush’s second inaugural address. “He sounded like Sharansky in that speech!” he says, noting the president’s emphasis on democracy and human rights. But the president has veered from that speech, says Jian-li: “We can even use the word ‘betrayal.’”

About the Olympics, our friend says, “He should not have gone” — Bush should not have traveled to Beijing. Why? “Because there were no preconditions.” Preconditions like what? Well, “the release of political prisoners.” Not one was released. I wonder whether anything went on behind the scenes, some maneuvering of which we’re unaware. No, says Jian-li: There was no such maneuvering.

The bottom line: Before, during, and after the Olympics, no prisoner was released. And you remember that the Beijing Olympics were sold to us, certainly by Western boosters, as a mechanism for liberalization in China.

(I pause to say that I did a five-part series on the runup to the Games, published on NRO from August 4 to August 8. You can find it in this archive. I’m afraid anything else I had to say on the subject would be mere repetition.)

Jian-li notes that Bush did bring up the issue of Chinese human rights: in a speech in Bangkok, on the way to Beijing. But in China itself: nothing. And, within a short distance of the Olympic stadium, there were “countless political prisoners,” says Jian-li: people in dungeons, basically unthought of.

Is Bush better than most people about rights and dignity and decency? Oh, sure: and yet actions often don’t match up to rhetoric, and often even rhetoric itself sags, or goes missing.

‐Jian-li Yang has three words — three main words, among others — for the opening ceremony of the Games, so ballyhooed and lauded: “politicized,” “robotic,” and “disgusting.”

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‐The Chinese government, of course, stressed harmony above all — “harmony” was their big watchword and slogan. And what does that mean? It means no protesting, no yearning, no peeping, no rocking the boat. The government (which is to say, the party) demands stability, and “stability” means you do as you are directed, without an independent word or action, and preferably without an independent thought.

#ad#‐In typical fashion — prison terms or not — Jian-li tried to go back to China. He did, actually: He got as far as Hong Kong, and was promptly put on a plane back to the U.S. What had his purpose been? Well, one purpose was this: He wanted to go to Szechuan province, to build a school “according to earthquake code.” This would have been an example of “citizen power,” which is a cause of Jian-li’s. In fact, Jian-li has an organization called “Initiatives for China,” whose Chinese name translates into “Citizen Power.” The website is here.

‐Talk turns to Iraq, where “Bush did right,” says Jian-li — and “history will remember him for that.” When the invasion/liberation began in 2003, Jian-li was in prison. “I got very excited. I kept telling my students [Jian-li did a lot of teaching while in prison], ‘Saddam Hussein is a very bad dictator. The Iraqi people and the whole world will be better off with him gone. How often do you see a brutal dictator toppled?’”

‐We also talk of the bailout — the bailout of Wall Street — which is terribly current. Jian-li is firmly against the bailout, saying that blundering companies should pay the price: “Let them collapse. They will learn their lesson.” Wasn’t responsibility supposed to be an American ideal?

But he has this idea, too: “The crisis is not the failure of the market, but the failure of a distorted market. Who has the most power to distort the market? The government. The root cause of the problem is bad governmental policy” — policy that backed up subprime loans that banks would not have made on their own.

Incidentally, one of Jian-li’s Ph.D.s is in political economy. (That is from Harvard. There is a Ph.D. in math from Berkeley.) I ask him a question, sheepishly: “What does ‘political economy’ mean?” He says, “It means nothing” — but this is meant to be lighthearted. “Political economy” means something to those to whom it means something.

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‐We turn back to China and the Olympics: “A park was set aside for protest,” says Jian-li — was set aside at least in theory. “But not a single application for a protest or demonstration was approved.” In addition to which, there were not as many potential protesters around as there might have been: because “everyone had been arrested before the Olympics.”

#ad#‐For months and years, people who favored the Beijing Olympics said the following (in their general advocacy): Western journalists will descend on China and do all sorts of things, performing a world of good. It will be of great benefit to the Chinese people, and to the cause of human rights and democracy. The word they kept using was “descend”: Tens of thousands of journalists would “descend” on the country, and, boy, those Red Chinese would be sorry they ever asked for the Olympics! Those rambunctious, independent, uncontainable Western journalists would cause them no end of grief.

What a joke. What a crock. The descenders did nothing — or next to nothing. Most of them were lambs, eager to cooperate with the government, making no waves, not even rippling the water. You might have thought that Western journalists would be interested in their brother journalists — Chinese journalists in prison cells. But no. And a little investigation or trouble-making would have cost them nothing: just deportation. They would have come home heroes of a sort. Chinese journalists and others risk their necks all the time: They risk imprisonment, torture, worse (if there is worse). The Westerners would just have been packed off to Santa Monica or Lucerne or wherever.

In short, the journalistic performance was disgraceful. The Chinese authorities had to have smiled broadly: They let all those descenders descend, and they were caused essentially no trouble. Everyone was interested in the “success” of the Games: meaning the satisfaction of governmental (i.e., party) interests.

‐Jian-li, frankly, is disappointed in himself and his fellow dissidents for not doing more: for not staging a big protest in Beijing, for example, no matter how horrible the penalties. “If the Olympics had been held in British India, would Gandhi have done nothing? Would he not have protested?” But I myself protest — protest strongly: To offend the British imperialists was nothing like offending the Chinese Communists. Nothing at all. There is no comparison — it is not even apples and oranges; it is more like apples and eels.

What set Gandhi on his course? He was expelled from a first-class train compartment. If a Chinese dissident were expelled from a train compartment, it would be as a gentle kiss.

I do not wish to make (entirely) light — and some Indians suffered terribly — but there are degrees of tyranny, as we know. I think of our own revolutionaries and how they railed against George III! What language they used against him, the “despot”! But, in contrast with the despots of the 20th century, George III was a combination of Pericles and Mother Teresa.

In my view, Jian-li Yang has spent enough time in prison — better to have him on the outside, working for the betterment of so many.

‐An article has appeared about Jian-li and his family in the Boston Globe. “The United House of Yang,” it’s called, and it is here. Jian-li has been readjusting to a different kind of life: a life back with his family, out of that prison, or those prisons (actually). It has not been easy, of course. He missed much of his children’s growing-up. But he has done great things for them, and for lots of other children. There is a touch of Solzhenitsyn in him: as witness, as truth-teller, as leader (mainly moral). What will he do next? I don’t know, but I bet it will be good.

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