Which Hillary will show up in China?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 February, 2009, 12:00am

From a number of perspectives, personal as well as political, former US president Bill Clinton would be the first to volunteer the following: you will underestimate our tough, outspoken new secretary of state - now touring Asia - at your peril. He knows.

So don't be misled by the smiley-faced veneer to US foreign policy. It is true that the former first lady is under clear instructions from her boss, President Barack Obama, to emphasise negotiation over confrontation, listening over lecturing, understanding rather than condemning, and nuancing rather than scolding. What's wanted is a gentler foreign-policy packaging that's notably different from the steel wool of the past eight years.

But Asia is likely to find Hillary Rodham Clinton to be one tough political customer who would have won her party's nomination for the presidency, and may well have trounced the Republicans too, save for the impossible impediment of having to face the most gifted domestic politician to come along since her husband.

Losing to Mr Obama is thus no disgrace. But to undermine her reputation as someone tough on policy details with personal and professional ideals - in public, while on a diplomatic tour - would not be the Mrs Clinton with which many Americans are familiar.

Take, for example, her forthcoming visit to China after important stops in South Korea, Indonesia and Japan. Put the China stop on a 'sparks might fly' setting. Beijing knows it must pay serious attention to this secretary of state.

She is an American woman, very well educated, who knows her stuff, including women's rights issues. The Chinese painfully recall her speech in 1995 at the 4th World Conference of Women, in Beijing.

Mrs Clinton lambasted pretty much every other national government under the sun for various serious rights abuses against women, especially China.

Eight years later, when Mrs Clinton's best-selling autobiography was published, it sold very well in China. But certain passages had been mysteriously censored in the process of translation into the mainland edition. Among them was the author's reference to her fiery 1995 speech, of which she was understandably proud.

Mrs Clinton thus knows from personal experience that when crossed - and publicly criticised - the Chinese government can become cranky, sulky and huffy. In the current circumstances, Beijing would certainly have preferred another Republican to have been elected president; the Bush administration generally emphasised economic policy over all other issues with China.

If, as secretary of state, Mrs Clinton raises the kind of issues so eloquently articulated in 1995, the Chinese elite may begin to wonder whether China lost the US presidential election. By not forcefully mentioning those issues, Mrs Clinton may be doing her job, but at the same time she may be shrinking her feminist soul.

Tom Plate, a syndicated columnist and veteran journalist, is a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy