China and the World

Hillary’s China syndrome

What does Clinton have to say about Beijing in her new memoir?

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton smiles as she arrives to sign copies of her book "Hard Choices" at a Costco store in Arlington, Virginia

Clinton’s latest book was released last week

If the 2016 US presidential election were to be decided on the preferences of book reviewers, Hillary Rodham Clinton would probably lose. Reaction to Hard Choices has been tepid, to say the least. UK newspaper the Guardian notes “the critical consensus is that it’s a snore”, while CNN’s Ana Navarro describes it as “50 shades of boring”. Edward Luce of the Financial Times calls it a “dull affair” and advises readers to steer clear of its 600 pages. As he puts it: “Reviewers read Hard Choices so that you don’t have to.”

WiC too leafed through the memoir, though we stuck to reading the parts of the book that relate to China. Clinton’s views on the Chinese are clearly important, as there is a strong possibility she will be America’s next commander-in-chief. In the book she discusses Sino-US relations and hints at how her own China policy might be a bit more aggressive. The former Secretary of State also shares a few anecdotes about China’s leaders.

Indeed, WiC was struck by the fact that she has met all four of the major figures who have ruled China since the death of Mao Zedong. There cannot be many people who can make this claim.

Which is not to say that Clinton ever declares herself a China expert. However, after reading the chapters about China it is hard not to conclude that should she be elected in 2016, she is likely to be better-informed on Chinese affairs than most of those who have entered the Oval Office (on a par perhaps with President George HW Bush who spent 14 months in China as the US envoy in the Gerald Ford administration).

Since much political calculation has gone into this book, that’s probably the conclusion she is steering her readers (and potential voters) to arrive at.

Thus the memoir traces Clinton’s interest in the country back to 1972, when she and Bill rented a TV so they could watch coverage of Richard Nixon’s trip to China.

“We tuned in every night to watch scenes of a country that had been blocked from view our entire lives. I was riveted,” she recalls.

Her next mention of China is at the governor’s mansion in Georgia in 1979. She and Bill are guests at a dinner to honour Deng Xiaoping, who was undertaking a diplomatic tour of the US. China’s paramount leader she says “was engaging and made an excellent impression”.

A more interesting encounter is the “heated discussion” that Clinton reports with Jiang Zemin at a White House dinner in 1997. As First Lady, she learns how prickly Chinese leaders can get when Americans veer onto topics deemed to be China’s internal affairs.

Two years earlier Clinton had made her first trip to China to speak at the Fourth World Conference on Women. It was a “profound experience”. Her speech dealt with freedom and human rights and was blocked from broadcast. As she declares, “I felt the heavy hand of Chinese censorship” although she may not have been that surprised given she also admits to deploying “more pointed words than American diplomats usually used, especially on Chinese soil”.

Clinton made her second trip to China – alongside Bill and daughter Chelsea – in 1998. She would not visit again for a decade.

Her China frequent-flyer points were mostly racked up during her time as Secretary of State, when she was suddenly in charge of managing America’s most important bilateral relationship.

In her four-year term Clinton says she made a dozen or so trips to China, as well as meeting the Beijing leadership at various summits elsewhere. She knew she had to get to grips with a country that had leapfrogged in importance since her husband’s presidency. Indeed, the Obama administration was now dealing with Washington’s largest creditor and an economy that would become the world’s second biggest soon after her appointment.

Early in the book she shares some of her thoughts on the complexity of the Sino-US relationship.

“The rise of China is one of the most consequential strategic developments of our time,” she writes. “It is a country full of contradictions: an increasingly rich and influential nation that has moved hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and an authoritarian regime trying to paper over its serious domestic challenges, with around 100 million people still living on a dollar or less a day. It’s the world’s largest producer of solar panels and also the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, with some of the world’s worst urban air pollution. Eager to play a major role on the global stage but determined to act unilaterally in dealing with its neighbours, China remains reluctant to question other nations’ internal affairs, even in extreme circumstances.”

Economic ties had let to a mutual dependency, but during her time in office it also became increasingly clear to Clinton that there were a growing number of areas where the two powers disagreed.

“We were deeply invested in each other’s success. As a consequence, we both shared a strong interest in maintaining stability in Asia and around the world and in ensuring the steady flow of energy and trade. Yet beyond these shared interests, our values and worldviews often diverged… All this made for a difficult balancing act,” she admits.

Among these divergences: human rights, as well as disputes in the South and East China Seas and over how best to handle North Korea. In fact, the North Koreans were a particular source of frustration in Clinton’s dealings with Beijing. When the Cheonan was sunk in 2010, international experts concluded that the South Korean vessel had been hit by a North Korean torpedo. Although the UN Security Council condemned the attack, she points out, “China blocked the naming of North Korea directly or a more robust response. Here was one of China’s contradictions in full view. Beijing claimed to prize stability above all else, yet it was tacitly condoning naked aggression that was profoundly destablising.”

She is also scathing about Beijing’s approach to territorial disputes in places like the South China Sea: “China was becoming what I called a ‘selective stakeholder’, picking and choosing when to act like a responsible great power and when to assert the right to impose its will on its smaller neighbours.”

Another source of tension is democracy. As she observes: “It’s not a secret that the epicentre of the antidemocratic movement in Asia is China.” In a speech delivered in Mongolia she took a line that seems almost tailored to irk Beijing, by arguing that the one-party model is ultimately flawed. As she told the audience in China’s northern neighbour: “You cannot over the long run have economic liberalisation without political liberalisation.”

In fact, Clinton seems at pains to portray the toughness in her approach to the Chinese government. For example, after accepting the State Department job she says she made an immediate policy decision: “We would not sacrifice our values or our traditional allies in order to win better terms with China.”

There are revealing anecdotes pointing to her her more combative diplomatic style too. One occurs during the drama over Washington’s nightmarish lurch towards a default on its federal debt last October. In Shenzhen, she meets her main counterpart in the Chinese system, Dai Bingguo, a State Councillor. By now they have met many times before, and Clinton is coming to the end of her tenure. She writes of the encounter: “The Chinese were following our political dysfunction with a mix of bewilderment, concern and anticipation… Dai seemed to enjoy dwelling on America’s fiscal woes, adopting a somewhat sardonic tone about our political gridlock. I wasn’t having any of it. ‘We could spend the next six hours talking about China’s domestic challenges,’ I countered.”

(The experience did leave her more embarrassed than she let on: “I left my meeting with Dai even more convinced that America had to avoid these self-inflicted wounds and get our own house in order.”)

Another ‘tough call’ gets a whole chapter of the book, and must rank as one of the hard choices contributing to the book’s title. In this case, it involved Clinton’s decision to help Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who had escaped house arrest in Shandong in 2012. Somehow he made his way to Beijing, contacting the US embassy and requesting protection. But Clinton says the timing of the request couldn’t have been worse as she was jetting to Beijing for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a key diplomatic pow-wow. She learned of this “unexpected crisis” late in the evening when her encrypted phone rang at home. The embassy in Beijing told her that Chen was circling the city in a car, but they figured that his chances of walking into the US compound unmolested were virtually nil. However, if an American team picked him up, there was a 90% chance of getting Chen into the embassy. Clinton was told they had about an hour to make the decision.

The narrative makes plain that White House aides weren’t enthusiastic about the situation, but that Clinton was allowed to make the final call. “It appeared I had to decide between protecting one man, albeit a highly sympathetic and symbolic figure, and protecting our relationship with China,” she remembers.

Over the next hour Clinton weighed up the different scenarios. For example, what if Chen ended up living in the diplomatic compound for an extended period? There was a precedent. During the Cold War, Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty had stayed at the US embassy in Hungary for 15 years. A similar outcome could mar Sino-US relations.

Clinton was also mindful of another Chinese national who had turned up at a US consulate – former Bo Xilai fixer Wang Lijun. He’d arrived at American offices in Chengdu and told consular officials about some of the scandals surrounding his former boss – albeit it was soon apparent he was implicated in much of the wrongdoing himself (for more background on these events, see issues 148 and 204). A bizarre situation turned threatening when Bo’s henchmen from his Chongqing powerbase surrounded the consulate.

“We couldn’t just hand him over to the men outside,” writes Clinton. “That would effectively have been a death sentence, and the cover-up would have continued.”

Her solution: “We reached out to the central authorities in Beijing and suggested that he would voluntarily surrender into their custody if they would listen to his testimony. The Chinese were grateful for our discretion.”

Having pondered this earlier experience, Clinton called back the embassy staff in Beijing and told them to fetch Chen. “In the end it wasn’t a close call. I have always believed that, even more than our military and economic power, America’s values are the greatest source of our strength and security… The United States had talked about human rights in China for decades, across Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Now our credibility was on the line, with the Chinese and also with other countries in the region and around the world. If we didn’t help Chen, it would undermine our position everywhere.”

But she also admits she was taking a calculated gamble that the Chinese wouldn’t want the Strategic and Economic Dialogue to fail and that, with the Bo scandal fresh in their minds, Beijing “wouldn’t have much appetite for a new crisis”.

In a section of the book that reads more like Le Carre than Clinton, she describes how Chen is picked up and makes it into the American embassy. The next step was to contact the Chinese authorities. Clinton sent Kurt Campbell, her department’s head of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to lead the negotiations. His opposite number was Cui Tiankai (who subsequently became China’s US ambassador). Predictably Cui demanded that Chen be handed over, but Campbell refused. Clinton heard back that this had prompted a 30- minute diatribe about Chinese sovereignty and dignity, “growing louder and more impassioned” the longer Cui spoke. The Chinese strategy at this point was to wear Campbell down. “Our team endured five more negotiating sessions, all along the same lines,” she writes.

But the Americans came up with a face-saving alternative. What if Chen were permitted to study law in a university outside Beijing, before coming to the US for further studies? This proved a breakthrough. Cui’s superiors grasped it was the best way to defuse the issue and prevent its disrupting the high-level Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which was about to begin.

(Cui could still lose his temper, mind you. When Campbell gave him a shortlist of the universities that Chen might attend in China, the diplomat roared: “There’s no way he’s going to East China Normal. I will not share an alma mater with that man!”)

But that wasn’t the end of the saga. After being taken to a Beijing hospital, Chen changed his mind about staying in the country and began telling American journalists he feared for his security.

Back in Washington this caused a stir and the White House was thrown onto the defensive by Republican attacks that Chen was “pressured to leave the US embassy against his will amid flimsy promises”. Clinton says this put her in a tough spot as she tried to come up with a new solution. “The Chinese were absolutely incredulous that we would seek to reopen a deal they hadn’t wanted to do in the first place,” she notes, adding that Cui simply refused to renegotiate. She decided her only option was to raise the issue directly with Dai Bingguo whose status as State Councillor ranked him just below the country’s vice-premiers. Over the years the two had met frequently, and talked not only of politics but also their family lives (Clinton says she was touched on an occasion when Dai pulled out a photo of his baby granddaughter and said “This is what we’re in it for”).

Now she wondered: “Would our years of relationship-building pay off?”

Having told Dai about the “political firestorm” going on back in Washington, Clinton suggested that Chen be allowed to leave immediately for an American university. She admitted that this was “moving up the timetable” but argued that it “wouldn’t mean a whole new deal; it would simply be a refinement of the existing agreement.”

In ordinary circumstances these linguistic gymnastics might not have worked, but both knew that Dai was keen to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation too: that Clinton might raise Chen’s case directly during her upcoming meetings with President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

“Dai stared at me quietly for a long while, and I wondered what thoughts were racing behind his stoic demeanour. Slowly he turned to Cui, who was visibly agitated and directed him to try to work out the details with Kurt,” she recalls.

“I headed off to the Great Hall of the People for my meetings with the senior leaders. True to my word, I did not raise Chen with Hu or later Wen.”

A deal was now done for Chen to get a US visa and attend NYU. As they readied to return to the US, Campbell asked Clinton: “Do you feel like we’ve done the right thing?” Her answer was unequivocal: “There are a lot of decisions I make in this job that give me a pit in my stomach. I don’t have any of that here. This is a small price to pay to be the United States of America.”

Sound presidential enough for you?

But as this episode also illustrates, clashes over different intepretations of core ‘values’ could be a source of friction with Beijing should Clinton reach the White House. And for an idea of a future Clinton administration’s China policy, a couple of paragraphs are revealing.

“The US-China relationship is still full of challenges. We are two large, complex nations with profoundly different histories, political systems and outlooks, whose economies and futures have become deeply entwined. This isn’t a relationship that fits neatly into categories like friend or rival, and it may never. We are sailing in uncharted waters.”

She continues: “The jury’s still out. China has some hard choices to make, and so do we. We should follow a time-tested strategy: work for the best outcome, but plan for something less. And stick to our values… Our defence of universal human rights is one of America’s greatest sources of strength.”

Clinton’s view of China, mind you, is probably a lot more nuanced after four years on the job. She acknowledges that the Chinese get riled by American talk of human rights. “They claim the Chinese people are more free than they have ever been, free to work, to move, to save and accumulate wealth,” she writes, adding, “The Chinese believe we don’t appreciate how far they’ve come and how much they’ve changed, or how deep and constant is their fear of internal conflicts and disintegration.”

But while Clinton’s understanding of the Chinese point of view emerges in the book, it’s her toughness that gets more emphasis. This is made plain by the uncompromising formula she concludes with: “We have no interest in containing China. But we do insist that China play by the rules that bind all nations.”


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.