Helping Dissidents: When People Die for Wealth, and Birds Die for Food

Main Link: He Qinglian’s BBC article

He Qinglian is a Chinese economist and author who has lived in the U.S. since 2001. In an article published by the BBC‘s Chinese website (last updated on May 9, 2012) [ this account of it based on the May-7 updated version], she argues that in terms of national interest, America is rather selling benefits, than gaining them, to act in accordance with its values. There was no economic benefit to be gained by focusing on human-rights issues in its talks with China. Accusations that America was using human rights issues as a “tool” to serve its national interest, as claimed both by the CCP and by a number of dissidents, too, therefore made no sense.

It’s the case of Chen Guangcheng and his family which prompted her article. But her advice on how to help with human-rights issues goes beyond the current situation.

The efficiency of Metternich-style diplomacy had become very limited, she writes. Global decisions sought by America depended on China’s cooperation, and Europe was busy with its sovereign debt crisis (and was seeking cooperation from China, too). America’s best diplomatic “weapon” now was to apply its “soft power”, to influence China by persuasion (劝说, quànshuō) and by exchange of benefits. Otherwise, the inevitable result of situations like the current one was international humiliation of China – it would either turn a deaf ear to the matter, or fight back.

The idea that America “used human right criticism as a tool to pursue its national interests” had been an educational and propaganda line which had become deeply rooted in China – a country with a popular saying of “peole die for wealth, and birds die for food” (人为财死,鸟为食亡). CCP propaganda which kept using the concept of natonal interest was therefore highly efficient, exactly for the situation as it was at home, within China.

He Qinglian sums up why, she believes, the American-Chinese talks didn’t get derailed while secretary of state Hilary Clinton was in Beijing:

I don’t believe that China could be inspired by American soft power, and I can only guess what China got [from America] so that the good “partnership” continued.

Taking refuge in the American embassy was therefore – probably – no regular approach Chinese dissidents could take, writes He Qinglian. Each of them would have to seek international help in some ways, to different extents, in accordance with their individual situations.

One may agree or disagree with her, but I seem to sense the soulsearching and the trouble she felt when writing her article. One of the commenters underneath, under the pseudonym of Grief and Resentment (哀怨人), commenting from the U.S., suggests that there is a kind of helplessness (一种无奈感) in it.

Basically, if anything, He Qinglian seems to endorse the U.S. State Department’s approach, rather than calls from Capitol Hill, from news comments and elsewhere, to do more than what has been done so far.



» A Division of Labor that Can’t Work, Febr 23, 2010
» He Qinglian about Deutsche Welle (interview in German), Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Nov 11, 2008


2 Comments to “Helping Dissidents: When People Die for Wealth, and Birds Die for Food”

  1. This brings to mind a somewhat callous US conversation about “branding” the US as a defender of human rights — not sure if this came from the mouth of Secretary Clinton’s “Undersecretary for Innovation” or the head of the Public Diplomacy office, but this whole notion of a corporate influence (not in the sense of seeking out contracts, but in the way that initiatives are discussed) is not to be underestimated when looking at the US. Maybe it is simply language employed for convenience — talking to Congressional committees, for example, where one can dangle the phrase “smart power” to repackage what the State Department has been doing at least since the beginning of the Cold War, just with a few more weblinks — but maybe it is deep down what it is all about for the US, if not the entire West. Germany’s moves to counter China are somewhat less centralized than American, it seems — Germany has no Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy as far as I know, and you have remarked before about the semi-state role of Goethe Institutes. But Germany still has a better “brand name” when it comes to criticizing human rights violations in China, even if dissidents aren’t leaping over walls to get at the German Embassy. In spite of the fact that Guido Westerwelle had Ai Weiwei snatched out almost literally from under his nose and into house arrest…


  2. I’m thinking of this blue planet as a spaceship with a number of factions, once in a while. It’s become too small for ignoring each other, too small for open war against each other, and it’s turning into a place where everyone wants to write the working rules for the crew. That’s the problem when once distant people and countries become “neighbors”, if not flatmates.

    But no matter how big or small this planet may be, and as interesting as the developing concepts of “soft power”, “public diplomacy”, “nation branding” etc. are, I think that ultimately, all this will lead to a world with much less spontaneity and originality than in the past. There is a gulf between Western and Chinese political concepts, and between concepts elsewhere, but there seems to be a common desire to make people and things manageable and predictable, rather than more responsible.

    If successful, this would to lead to a rather boring world.

    Oh, and Adam? You are misoverestimating us Germans, in terms of soft power, but I think I’ve said this before. If we are ahead of the U.S., it’s to some extent because we are no global power (and therefore with not too much effect, for better or worse), and also because we are probably somewhat more spontaneous – I hope we will never have a fully-fledged concept of “public diplomacy”. Let a hundred flowers bloom, and eighty-million public diplomats contend for Germany’s global image.


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