U.S. Should Show Muscle in Diplomacy with China

NPR Senior News Analyst Ted Koppel comments on the balance between making good business choices and having a backbone in dealing with the Chinese. Koppel says the Chinese these days don't like Americans dictating to them, and they are flexing their mouths and muscle more than previously.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

NPR's senior news analyst, Ted Koppel, was reminded just how difficult discussions with foreign officials can be during a recent trip to China. He was in Chongqing, a municipality of 31 million, working on a documentary. And he was caught off guard by what he heard.

TED KOPPEL: Chinese officials are famously, sometimes even maddeningly, courteous unless - and until as I found out recently - they're not. I'm still not entirely sure what prompted the departure from form, but I'll venture a guess after I tell you about the extraordinary breach of good manners.

Several colleagues and I have been invited to a dinner by a high-ranking official of a large Chinese city. We're in the middle of producing a series of documentaries on China. A flat screen television was on at one end of the room and it was showing a reporter about the attack on Benazir Bhutto's motorcade.

I asked my host about counterterrorism and what room there might be for a U.S.-Chinese cooperation. Well, he said, what happened on 9/11 was a terrible thing and I'm sorry so many innocent people lost their lives, but the United States had it coming.

Just what did he mean by that, I wondered. The U.S. posture in the Middle East, he said, it's bound to produce that sort of reaction. At which point, he dropped all pretense of good manners. What's too bad, he said, is that they didn't attack the White House.

To my everlasting shame, I did not, at that point, get up and walk out. I should have. I found myself confronting the same moral dilemma that faces so many Americans doing business in China these days. Do we jeopardize our projects and profits by rejecting unacceptable behavior or do we let it slide in order to keep the business or, in my case, the documentary going?

I made the wrong choice. But I've spent a lot of time these last few days wondering what had prompted my Chinese host's bizarre outburst. For one thing, he is relatively young and, as in the United States today, good manners in China have undergone some generational erosion. But I also think my host's views may be the product of a growing anger and frustration among the Chinese elite about being preached to by Americans.

Others made the point with greater subtlety. I have been reminded of America's disproportionate use of fossil fuels, that - unlike U.S. forces - Chinese troops are not spread far and wide all over the world protecting their interest at the point of a gun, that Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo undermine American claims to the high ground on human rights.

One very successful Chinese industrialist responded to my question about the huge imbalance of trade between China and the United States by reminding me gently that we were the ones who had encouraged China to follow the capitalist road. Maybe, he said with a smile, we're just getting too good at it.

When I asked about the quality control failures on Chinese toys, toothpaste and pet food exported to the United States, he shrugged. You have your own product failures, he said, and anyway, it says though we were to suggest that because you've had some school shootings, all American schools are unsafe.

With the Beijing Olympics just around the corner, Chinese officials, in particular, are not likely to be expressing their irritation with U.S. policies or criticism publicly for these next few months. But those bland old days when an exchange of toasts never got beyond drinking to friendship between the Chinese and American people - those days are clearly over.

This is Ted Koppel.

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