Loosening Beijing's invisible hand

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 5:32pm

Recent events have stimulated American interest in 'Greater China'. Americans may now be more eager to learn about the region than at any time since president Richard Nixon's 1972 trip melted the ice between Beijing and Washington.

The mainland is far more open to foreigners today than it was 36 years ago. Yet the Olympics' spotlight confirmed that the country still has dark corners that the Communist Party wants to keep that way. Ongoing restrictions on the media recently became more prominent news than the events the media were seeking to report. Less well-known is the continuing denial of visas to some foreign scholars who study sensitive topics.

Even more troubling have been Chinese government attempts in other countries to prevent foreigners from learning about unattractive Chinese policies. In the US, for example, Chinese diplomats have tried to suppress programmes sponsored by certain think-tanks and universities.

They have also encouraged overseas Chinese student organisations that they support to press some universities to cancel appearances by the Dalai Lama. Despite protests from Beijing and the campus Chinese student association, University of Washington administrators did not yield, but emphasised that his presentation would be spiritual and 'apolitical'. In a more famous incident at Duke University, Han Chinese students vilified one of their group as a 'traitor' for suggesting that Tibetan students be allowed to express their opinions, and, after exposure on Chinese state television, as well as the internet, the girl's parents in China were hounded out of their home. Chinese students at Cornell University made death threats against organisers of a film programme on Tibet.

Against this background, the strict restrictions applied by the US government during the recent 'transit' stops of Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, in Los Angeles, Austin and San Francisco can be seen as the result of another, more successful mainland Chinese effort to limit Americans' freedom of information regarding important aspects of China policy.

Since the 1979 normalisation of Sino-American relations, which required the withdrawal of US diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China, the US, out of respect for mainland Chinese sovereignty, has banned official 'visits' by Taiwan's leaders. Obviously, if they were received by the White House, executive branch departments or Congress, this could be interpreted as undermining US recognition of Beijing as the only legitimate government of China and cast doubt on the carefully constructed, yet imprecise, US position that Taiwan is part of China.

Yet, under pressure from Beijing, this ban has been interpreted to also include unofficial exchanges between Taiwan's leaders and the American people, even if they take place far from Washington, and even though no principles of international law require such a broad exclusion.

Thus, with rare exceptions - the only notable one being the 1995 participation of then-president Lee Teng-hui in his Cornell University reunion - Taiwan's president, vice-president, premier and vice-premier have been prevented from 'visiting' the US and taking part in any public or semi-public events.

This has sharply limited American opportunities to hear first-hand, face to face, the views of foreign leaders who, because of their ability to provoke a nuclear holocaust with mainland China by proclaiming Taiwan's formal independence, hold millions of American and other lives in their hands. It also denies Americans opportunities to influence those leaders, who must constantly seek to evaluate the circumstances in which the American people might honour their country's commitment to defend Taiwan.

How important such opportunities might be was demonstrated by Singapore's former prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who used to spend a month or more in unofficial residence at US universities after every presidential election to gauge, and influence, American opinion.

To a modest extent, technology can overcome this barrier against unofficial visits by Taiwan's leaders. The Council on Foreign Relations arranged video conferences with president Chen Shui-bian shortly after he took office and with vice-president Lu Hsiu-lien just last year, but few other organisations have followed this precedent. Moreover, those interviews were not, and could not be, as satisfactory as Mr Ma's in-person meeting at the council in 2006, a meeting that, under current restrictions, he cannot repeat today. Nor do video events permit informal contacts or stimulate the kind of press coverage that Taiwan deserves but rarely receives.

Within a narrow band, the US has always interpreted 'transit' arrangements flexibly to reward or punish Taiwan's leaders for their perceived 'good' or 'bad' conduct. Mr Chen, who early on was treated to a cordial New York 'transit', was later exiled to stopovers in Alaska.

Given the improvement in Taiwan-mainland relations and Mr Ma's recent low-key 'transit', now would be a good time for the US to begin permitting Taiwan's leaders greater access to American cities other than Washington and to a significantly broader range of 'transit' activities.

Confining Taiwan's president to a hotel suite for brief contacts with a few members of Congress, some local Chinese-Americans, other friends and representatives of the unofficial US agency for dealing with Taiwan does not provide the transit in dignity that the US has promised Taiwan's leaders. It denies Americans full freedom to learn about matters of vital importance to their security.

Although no other nations that maintain diplomatic relations with Beijing allow Taiwan's leaders any 'transit' whatsoever, none is as intimately involved with Taiwan as the US, and none is committed to defend the island. The American people, by contrast, are on the hook and need all the knowledge they can get.

Jerome A. Cohen is co-director of NYU's US-Asia Law Institute and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York