China official calls the US 'simple,' Clinton calls out China: How honest is too honest?

Comments that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and a top Chinese official made this week suggest that candor is not always going to lead to sweetness and light.

Jason Reed/Reuters
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) listens to the closing statement by China's Vice Premier Wang Qishan during the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue at the Interior Department in Washington May 10. Wang said on Tuesday that China and the United States have agreed to communicate and coordinate more closely on economic policy and to work to ease huge financial imbalances.

It is oft repeated of the often prickly US-China relationship that the more frequently the two sides talk honestly to each other, the easier it will be for them to resolve their differences.

But is this really true?

A couple of comments that top American and Chinese officials made this week suggest that saying what they really think of each other is not always going to lead to sweetness and light.

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Wang Qishan, a deputy premier in the Chinese government, was in Washington on Monday as co-leader of Beijing’s delegation to the two-day “Strategic and Economic Dialogue,” an annual talkathon that is the cornerstone of the two nations’ efforts to understand each other.

Mr. Wang took time off to appear live on The Charlie Rose Show – a brave move for a Chinese official unaccustomed to being grilled by journalists – and as he sought to explain why China’s “ancient civilization … of the Oriental culture” was so hard for foreigners to understand he let slip a telling judgment.

“The American people, they’re very simple people,” he said.

Now, this is an opinion you hear often enough at intellectual salons in Paris. It may not even have sounded particularly shocking to the sophisticates who make up the bulk of Charlie Rose’s audience.

But while there is no doubt that the idea of Americans’ “simplicity” is especially deeply embedded in the minds of the Mandarins in Beijing intent on restoring The Middle Kingdom to its rightful place in the world, they do not normally give voice to such thoughts. That may be partly because they are too diplomatic to publicly slag off the world’s strongest superpower as a bunch of cornball hicks; but it is also because they do not often have the opportunity to do so. It is only because Wang was in Washington, talking to his American counterparts, that he did the interview with Mr. Rose in the first place.

On the other hand, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – who co-led the American team at this week’s negotiations – was scarcely more solicitous of her guests’ feelings in an interview that she gave to The Atlantic magazine.

“They're worried,” she said of the Chinese government and its harsh political crackdown to forestall any Mideast-style unrest at home, “and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand.”

“They cannot do it. But they're going to hold it off as long as possible,” Ms. Clinton added.

That may be what she thinks privately, and she may well be right. But warning your partners in what President Obama calls “the most important bilateral relationship in the world” that they are condemned to the ashcan of history is hardly calculated to inspire their trust.

Indeed, her comments smack of the taunts that Ronald Reagan used to throw at the Soviet Union, and they will probably only confirm Beijing’s suspicion that America does not really welcome China’s rise at all, whatever US officials say at events such as the “Strategic and Economic Dialogue.”

It may be that in the long run, frankness will be fruitful as America and China seek ways to get along with each other better. But in the meantime, if they are going to go on talking to each other so much, it looks as though both sides are going to have to thicken their skins.

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