Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator who was Wall Street Journal's first China Bureau chief when China reopened to the West in 1979. He now writes a weekly column for the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), China Post (Taiwan) and Globe and Mail (Canada). He's the author of three books - Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family (1988 and just re-released this month), China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record (2008) and The Li Dynasty: Hong Kong Aristocrats (1999). He spoke to RealClearWorld about China, its relationship with the U.S. and its place in the world, by telephone from his home in Hong Kong.
RCW: Are China and the U.S. getting a bit closer?
Ching: There's no question they're forging a closer relationship, especially economically. When Hillary (Clinton) was in Thailand she spoke about how the U.S. has not been very active in the affairs of Asia, missing two out of every three (ASEAN) meetings. I think she understands that now it's in America's best interest in forging a closer relationship with China, particularly with the growing importance of China both economically and politically.
RCW: Is climate change a big deal for China?
Ching: It's a big deal for the world, and China recognizes it's a big deal as well. I think Chinese officials are more receptive now to talk about climate change than they were maybe even 10 years ago. China would argue that the West - the U.S. and western Europe - has been emitting greenhouse gases for a couple hundred years and that China on a per capita basis is only emitting about a quarter of the U.S.'s output. But I think China does have a genuine interest in trying to develop its industries to be more energy efficient. I don't think China is going to be a problem for America on this front. I expect climate change will be a major topic of discussion between China and the U.S., and it's their hope to have an agreement in Copenhagen (at the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2009).
RCW: Does China want the climate change talk to distract from other issues, such as human rights?
Ching: When China was first approached on climate change, they were taken aback and they were a little suspicious. But I think they came around when Hillary went to China a few months ago and stated that she was not going to talk about human rights. (The) human rights (situation) will improve when the Chinese people decide to do something about it, and not as a result of outside pressure - the U.S. now accepts this and it also knows it's not in a position to put much pressure on China about it.
RCW: Is China also forging a better relationship with Japan?
Ching: They're better than from '01-'05 when (PM Junichiro) Koizumi went to the Yasukuni Shrine every year. None of the prime ministers have done that since, though while (Taro) Aso hasn't been to the shrine, he's sent an offering - and the Chinese don't like even that. Japan has had a succession of weak leaders since Koizumi, and in their election at the end of this month, most likely LDP will be out of power. The Chinese have taken a more pragmatic approach with Japan. (Chinese PM) Wen (Jiabao) has said that China accepts Japan's apology (on the invasion and occupation of China during WWII) and unless Japan reopens the issue, China is ready to move on. I don't believe the new Japanese government will be provocative towards Beijing.
RCW: Is reunification on the horizon for China and Taiwan?
Ching: Obviously things have changed a lot since Ma Ying-jeou (became president in May 2008). Ma won't talk about reunification even if he wins a second term, but he's open to reaching a peace agreement in his second term. China would sign a peace agreement if there's something in there for an eventual peaceful return of Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party realizes Ma is very different from Chen (Shiu-bian, Ma's predecessor), and they very much want to see Ma re-elected, so they're not going to do anything to jeopardize that. China knows not to weaken Ma, in fact they realize they need to do what they can to help Ma. For instance, Taiwan was admitted to the (World Health Assembly) as an observer (in May 2009), with China's blessing. If that hadn't happened, that would've been very bad for Ma. In 1999, after Taiwan's big earthquake, China held the ridiculous position that nobody in the world could send assistance to Taiwan without China's permission. They know better than doing anything like that now.
RCW: Has China's approach to the Taiwan issue changed fundamentally?
Ching: There's definite improvement, because unlike Jiang (Zemin, former Chinese president), who was keen on getting a timetable for reunification, Hu (Jintao) is taking a different approach - he wants to make sure Taiwan does not move any further away. So instead of talking about reunification, China passed a secession law in 2005, basically assuming that there's one China, and as long as the status quo is maintained, everything can be negotiated. That helps to lower the tensions.
RCW: Is China playing its cards right with Tibet and Xinjiang?
Ching: I don't think they're handling it well. The moment any unrest takes place, they blame it on outsiders. I think there's a way that people in Xinjiang and Tibet could be happy to identify themselves with the country, but China just won't admit any mistakes in their dealings with ethnic minorities. They always blame any problems on somebody outside, that's just really stupid. When Mao was alive, there was this slogan of "Long Live the Great, Glorious and Correct Communist Party." And while they occasionally will make "corrections" to atrocities committed in the past, they rarely admit any mistakes, which in this situation just breeds lingering resentment.
RCW: Is the Chinese regime fearful of the technological revolution, particularly in view of what happened in Iran?
Ching: This is a serious problem for the regime, though the government has developed a very sophisticated way of controlling the flow of information, censoring the media and manipulating public opinion. For example, Hu's son was involved in a corruption case in Namibia, and immediately the propaganda department put out instructions not to allow anything related to the case to flow to the Internet. Never mind that Namibia merely wants to question him, he's not s suspect but might provide important information. But the Chinese government just wants to shut it down. China has cutting edge technology on this, and other regimes, such as Iran, are learning from them. It's interesting to note that during Iran's protests, the opposition, people who were in support of Khatami and Rafsanjani were shouting "death to China" whereas the pro-Ahmadinejad side is shouting "death to America."
RCW: What is the biggest challenge facing the Chinese regime?
Ching: They really are not facing an existential threat. There are thousands of protests every year, but they're not organized. The regime would be concerned if they weren't scattered all over the country. Most people think the central government is OK. They don't love it, but they tolerate it. Most of the petitioning is against the local governments, and the local governments tend to try to catch the people, arrest them and silence them at the local level. So the central government doesn't really see the threats, nothing serious anyway. They feel they're in charge.
RCW: How is Hu Jintao performing as China's president?
Ching: Hu is unflappable. He doesn't betray any emotions. It seems to me on the whole, he's doing a good job. He's handled foreign relations and the financial crisis fairly well. When he first took over, there were hopes that he would turn out to be a liberal and somebody who would liberalize China, but that's not happening - not with his record of stifling sentiment for elections and cracking down on human rights lawyers - he's not a liberal. The big difference in the CCP between the times of Deng Xiaoping and now is that Deng was a strongman; he was the paramount leader, even if his only title was the honorary chairman of the Chinese Bridge Association. That's no longer the case. Hu may be No. 1 in China, but institutions are now more important than when Deng was around. There are now term limits. You expect a change of leadership after every 10 years. When Jiang stepped down (in March 2003) that was the first time in CCP history that the leadership changed hands, even though somebody didn't die.
RCW: You're a journalist with quite a history covering China. Tell us more.
Ching: I've been in journalism all my life. I was a reporter with the New York Times and then the Wall Street Journal, opening their first bureau there in 1979 after China's normalization (of relations with the U.S.). I took a few years off to write a book, research my ancestors, and it really was a book on Chinese history from the Song Dynasty to the present, using my family as the vehicle. Now I write three columns a week and I teach a class on China's international relations at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.