Saru to Media: Did you even read Bush’s speech?

Bush to China: Grant religious, civic freedoms” That’s the headline from a Yomiuri online story today. A quick glance at google news headlines reveals more of the same:

Bush pushes China over freedoms” (CNN)

Bush rebukes China on freedom” (MSNBC)

Bush tells Beijing to model itself on ‘free Taiwan’” (Independent, UK)

And so on, and so on.

Unquestionably, the President’s speech in Kyoto on the 16th was intended to send a message (several, actually) to China and it no, not all of it was soft. Yes, he cited Taiwan as having “created a free and democratic Chinese society.” Yes, he put China in category 2, those “other Asian societies [that] have taken some steps toward freedom.” And yes, he did mention “worshipping without state control” and to “print Bibles and other sacred texts without fear or punishment.” In short, he did allude to some of China’s shortcomings in the area of freedom and democracy and there is little doubt that Beijing heard this loud and clear.

But, his message could have just as easily been interpreted as one of economic determinism – “if you continue economic liberalization, you will have not choice but to become more democratic.”

In this sense, it was more a statement of facts, not of demands:

“In the late 1970s, China’s leaders took a hard look at their country , and they resolved to change. They opened the door to economic development — and today the Chinese people are better fed, better housed, and enjoy better opportunities than they ever have had in their history.”

“As China reforms its economy, its leaders are finding that once the door to freedom is opened even a crack, it can not be closed. As the people of China grow in prosperity, their demands for political freedom will grow as well.”

“…men and women who are allowed to control their own wealth will eventually insist on controlling their own lives and their own future.”

“X” follows “Y.”

As harsh as it got was this suggestion:

“By meeting the legitimate demands of its citizens for freedom and openness, China’s leaders can help their country grow into a modern, prosperous, and confident nation.”

To describe it as “telling” China to become more free, “rebuking it” about a lack of freedom, or even “pushing” it on freedom seems a bit of a stretch to me and it misses the subtlety (and frankly, we should be thankful to see some from this administration) of the speech. Looking at the text, it’s clear that the only things Bush said China “needs to take action to ensure” are the correction of its current account surplus, greater protection of intellectual property rights, and a move towards a flexible, market-based exchange rate system.

Bush even made some concessions to China. After the Taiwan section of the speech, reaffirmed the one China policy. He recognized the “important role China has assumed as host of the six-party talks.” And finally, he closed the speech with a nod to Chinese history, recognizing that they were around a long time before Jefferson and Lincoln.

It could have been a lot worse.

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