Can ‘true friends’ talk to China about rights?

by Frank Ching

PARIS — In September 2007, when Chinese President Hu Jintao was visiting Australia, he was pleasantly surprised to encounter the leader of the opposition Labor Party, Kevin Rudd, who upstaged Prime Minister John Howard by delivering a welcoming address at a state lunch in fluent Chinese.

Rudd, a China scholar who had served in the Australian embassy in Beijing in the 1980s, then carried on a half-hour conversation with the Chinese leader without an interpreter.

On that occasion, President Hu announced that two pandas would be sent to Adelaide Zoo. Rudd then said that if his party won the next election, “we would also welcome pandas coming to my home city of Brisbane.”

His party did win, and in December 2007, Rudd became the only Western leader who had devoted his career to studying China, including a dissertation on the leading dissident, Wei Jingsheng. Many expected him to make a new initiative on China and he did not disappoint.

When he visited China for the first time as prime minister in April 2008, Rudd spoke at Peking University, the country’s premier institution of higher learning. Speaking in Chinese, Rudd delved back into the Chinese past and resurrected the old Chinese concept of zhengyou.

“A true friend,” the Australian leader said, “is one who can be a zhengyou, that is a partner who sees beyond immediate benefit to the broader and firm basis for continuing, profound and sincere friendship.

“It is the kind of friendship that I know is treasured in China’s political tradition. It is the kind of friendship that I also offer China today.” On this basis, he added, it was “necessary to recognize there are significant human rights problems” in Tibet.

While his idea of a true friend elicited interest among his audience of students and scholars, the Chinese leadership itself was unimpressed. A few days after his talk, President Hu met the Australian visitor and rejected the idea that human rights violations were occurring in Tibet.

“Our conflict with the Dalai clique is not an ethnic problem, not a religious problem, not a human rights problem,” the Chinese president said. “The Tibet problem is entirely an internal issue of China.”

That meant Australia had no right to offer any view, true friend or not. The following February, during the United Nations Human Rights Council’s review of human rights in China, a number of countries including Canada, Australia and some European states criticized China.

The Chinese government singled out Australia in its response, indicating that its criticism was not acceptable. Instead of clasping the hand Australia was extending, it seemed, China was going out of its way to reject the concept of a sincere friend who speaks his mind. After that, nothing more was heard of zhengyou. This bold concept, it appeared, was stillborn. But maybe not.

Recently, Rudd was invited to deliver the highly prestigious Morrison Lecture at Australian National University where he spoke on “Australia and China in the World.” The prime minister announced the creation of a major center at Australian National University, the Australian Center on China in the World, whose purpose is to “develop a New Sinology.”

Rudd, recalling the words he spoke at Peking University in 2008, explained that he had talked of zhengyou “because I feel we need to be able to speak to the government of China, its media and its peoples in a frank manner.” The Cold War is over, he said, and “the binary language of that era — that is, of being either anti-China or pro-China without any form of nuance, also belongs in the past.”

Emphasizing Australia’s commitment to “a positive, forward-looking and mutually beneficial relationship with the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese world,” he said, “I do not think that every time we express ourselves on the basis of our values and beliefs that our core friendship toward China should be called into question.”

That was a ringing statement of Australia’s beliefs and what it stands for — beliefs and values that are generally shared by all Western countries.

That is as it should be. No country, including China, should expect other countries to set aside their core values and beliefs in order to be considered a friend. That was not the Chinese definition of friend in the past. It should not be the Chinese definition of friend today or in the future.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator. (Frank.ching@gmail.com)