21 January 2009

Less than 24 hours ago, George W. Bush became a Former President and for a while now there’s been the traditional tenure evaluation and the search for whether anything will positively contribute to his legacy. AIDS in Africa has been bandied around, and so has the U.S. - China relationship. January 1 was the 30th anniversary of formal bilateral ties between the two nations, and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said the “relationship has never been better”, particularly holding out anti-terrorism as an example. Under Bush, the U.S. and China have certainly had good relations, surprisingly so considering the Hainan Incident and Bush’s stance towards China in the “Pre-9/11 world”, particularly involving missiles and Taiwan.

But Americans, particularly of certain political bents, might want to consider other ways Bush has moved the U.S. closer to China. Under Bush, the United States has detained Xinjiang Uighurs as enemies of the State, and then subjected them to interrogation procedures (insert personal definition of the word ‘torture’ here) derived from Chinese manuals in order to prepare them for interrogation by Chinese officials. As China Matters puts it, “In summary: we used Chinese torture techniques to soften up Chinese prisoners for Chinese interrogators.”As if that wasn’t enough, it appears that at least one released Uighur detainee has been listed by the Pentagon as “returning to the fight” against America for writing an op-ed to the New York Times.

How very close to China that feels. I can’t help but wonder if those dissidents and activists who lobby the U.S. president and Congress to bring change to China, many of whom personally know what Chinese detention is like, ever express concern in private that their adopted country was slipping into the same behavior as the country they seek to reform. They didn’t out in protest publicly, either.

There are other ways that the Bush administration has inched the United States closer to some of the policies of the PRC. Although American critics of China can be unbearably shrill and self-righteous at times, it seems to be true that China has 50 Cent gangs and other “CONTROL 2.0” schemes for “public opinion guidance”. So then, what are we to make of U.S. Air Force “counterblogging” tactics? If China’s alleged “grains of sand” strategy is so nefarious and dastardly, what of the Pentagon’s Minerva Initiative, which was inaugurated with Defense Secretary Gates asking academics to gather documents in other countries that could help intelligence services? What about the bribed newspaper columnists, the media military analysts briefed by the Pentagon on talking points, and Barry McCaffrey’s One Man Military-Industrial-Media Complex? And I nearly forgot the ongoing campaign to listen to all our phone calls. [UPDATE: and I did forget that the NSA and the Chinese government both want new UN measures to enable easier tracing of anonymous users on the Internet.]

Of course the U.S. and China have vastly different political structures. Of course there is a fundamental difference between a system where a current officeholder conducts himself this way, and a system where the office itself functions this way. And yet, if you are going to oppose such things on principle, then the U.S. has violated those principles, just as any country must be said to have done when it behaves that way.

It will be easy for many, should the Obama Administration live up to their expectations, to dismiss these events as an aberration, and focus only on the structural differences between the U.S. and Chinese governments. Those differences are real, and worthy of attention. But there is a lesson here that the U.S. and China are not on separate planes of political existence. Neither is uniquely exceptional, but rather both are susceptible to the same petty tyranny and insanity that can befall any nation. It would be helpful to remember that.

Photo via amatern @Flickr.

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