Giant on the move
By Emma Graham-Harrison
I was trying to take photos of pilgrims near the Potala Palace in Lhasa, with my government minders telling me to hurry up (we had a neighbourhood committee to visit) and the pilgrims looking uncomfortable as I snapped away at their devotions.
Suddenly a smiling old woman, dressed like she had stepped out of an engraving of 19th century Tibet, hobbled up behind me and gave me a resounding smack on the bum.
I wondered if this was guerrilla revenge for taking people’s photos without asking – something I’ve always hated doing but felt obliged to attempt.
But when I turned around she was grinning like my little sister did when she pulled the same trick on me years ago. The woman’s face lit up, showing a few remaining teeth, as she roared at the joke.
Thirty years ago today, China invaded its one-time Communist ally Vietnam to “teach it a lesson”, to the delight of Beijing’s newfound friend, Uncle Sam, which was still smarting from having lost its own Vietnam War.
The attack came on the heels of Washington switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing and a closed-door meeting between China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Washington.
Three decades on, it remains unclear just how much Deng told Carter about the incursion and whether Washington offered any assistance such as satellite imagery of Vietnamese troops and military bases.
Until the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department declassify minutes of the meeting, the world will not know for sure whether the United States offered to back China in the event the Soviet Union rushed to Vietnam’s rescue.
Now the great wheel of history has turned again, and 30 years on, the United States is seeking China’s help in applying pressure on another Communist neighbour, North Korea.
China’s foray into Vietnam was brief yet in some ways disastrous. Its troops suffered terribly against the battle-hardened Vietnamese who were fighting on their home soil.
But there is no arguing that the invasion was a watershed event that smoothed the way for China to mend fences with the West. American investors, tourists and students flocked to China. Western and Japanese aid and loans flowed in, while trade and investment mushroomed, helping to transform the world’s most populous nation from an economic backwater into an export powerhouse and the world’s third-biggest economy.
In an apparent quid pro quo, China abandoned its longstanding policy of “liberating” Taiwan and offered “peaceful reunification” in an overture to the self-ruled island it has claimed as its own since their split in 1949 amid civil war.
Also in 1979, Deng invited Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit, prompting the latter to renounce advocacy of Tibetan independence, beseech CIA-armed and -trained Tibetan guerrillas to end their struggle and send his older brother to China on fact-finding trips.
The United States softened its criticism of human rights abuse in China, including the imprisonment of dissident Wei Jingsheng for challenging Deng at the height of the Democracy Wall movement.
American Sinologist David Shambaugh described as a “marriage of convenience” the teaming up of the United States and China to curb Soviet expansionism.
On a lighter note, American culture invaded China. Many Chinese traded their Mao suits for jeans or business suits and dined at McDonald’s and KFC outlets. Hollywood movies and rock ‘n’ roll — once considered decadent by China’s ideologues — swept many Chinese off their feet.
The honeymoon abruptly ended on June 4, 1989, when Chinese troops crushed student-led demonstrations for democracy centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. China slipped into diplomatic isolation in the face of U.S. sanctions.
China broke out of isolation and forced the United States to deal with it after menacing Taiwan with war games in the run-up to the island’s first direct presidential elections in 1996. Bilateral relations see-sawed in the ensuing years, hitting low points when NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter over Chinese airspace.
Fast forward to February 2009. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits on Friday, she will be dealing with a richer, more confident and assertive China. Again, but now in peacetime, it will be a China that needs the United States as much as the United States needs China.
The United States needs China to help rein in a nuclear North Korea and help nurse the global economy back to health. But China’s abrupt slowdown in growth and exports shows that it remains yoked to U.S. fortunes.
Photo Credit: A Vietnamese border guard stands next to a border marker between China’s Guangxi and Vietnam’s Lang Son provinces on Jan. 13, 2009. REUTERS/Kham
Karaoke is much maligned in most of the West and much loved in most of China.
After years in Beijing, I’ve become perhaps too fond of all-night singing sessions in the city’s karaoke palaces, where you can rent a room for two or 20 friends to croon along to tens of thousands of Chinese numbers and an eclectic English selection that ranges from old hymns to Amy Winehouse.
For as long as I’ve lived here, singing on a Saturday night meant reserving a room, arriving on time (more than 10 minutes late and you lose your room) and then waiting around for at least half an hour for the previous group to tear themselves away from the mics and for the cleaners to do a quick mop-up.
The ideas came pouring in, with variations centered on the rising might of China’s economic powerhouse, fresh from memories of Beijing’s triumphant hosting of the Olympic Games and following years of double-digit economic growth that have made China the world’s third-largest economy after the United States and Japan.
Beijing opened the Paralympic Games in spectacular fashion on Saturday, the crowd at the Bird’s Nest roaring in approval at the lavish performance overseen by renowned Chinese film director Zhang Yimou.
Particularly well received was a moving ballet performance by a young girl who lost a leg in May’s massive Sichuan earthquake.
I’d expected the worst when I got to Beijing three weeks ago. I remember what it was like in another Communist country — East Germany with its suppressed and scared people coupled with deplorable service and shoddy quality everywhere you turned.
That’s roughly what I had in mind for China, although I knew Beijing itself would certainly be a more prosperous and modern place than East Germany, and with a bit of window dressing for the Olympics.
I’ve worked intermittently in Beijing for 11 years and in Taipei for 15, but analysing the world’s most populous nation, and an opaque one for that matter, is like a blind man feeling an elephant.
The Beijing Olympic Games closed on Sunday, as China passed on the flame to London.
Former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch was in the habit of describing each Games as “the best ever”, with the notable exception of Atlanta in 1996.
There’s been a lively discussion, here and elsewhere, about which version of the medals table is a better way of ranking countries’ achievements at the Olympics.
Reuters goes with the “gold standard”, if you like, which has put China out in front almost from the start. Other, mainly American outlets go with the “total number of medals” tally that puts the U.S. on top.
China had just lost to the U.S. but even though their team was out the crowd’s cheering, jeering, floor stomping and plastic stick drumming was just warming up on a 14-hour day of men’s volleyball play.
One match later, the Chinese fans were wildly rooting for Egypt over Russia.