If You Want Rule of Law, Respect Ours

China's ambassador to the United States on the problems with American elections, Obama's trip to Beijing, and fighting the Islamic State. 


The election process for leaders in China is much harder than in the United States, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told Foreign Policy in an interview on Wednesday. "In the United States, you could have somebody just a few years ago totally unknown to others, and all of a sudden he or she could run for very high office because you use all kinds of media. You have all these Super PACs, or the money to support him or her," he said. "But in China, it takes much longer to win the hearts and mind of the people. You really have to work all the way up to the top."

Cui’s remarks are a rare public commentary on the U.S. electoral system by a high-ranking Chinese official. Since the two countries normalized relations in 1979, China has grown steadily more wealthy and powerful, and the balance of power has shifted accordingly. When the two countries’ leaders meet in Beijing next week, they will be doing so on roughly equal footing. Cui’s remarks reflect a China that’s more assertive and increasingly comfortable with its growing stature in the world.

During their meeting, Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping and Barack Obama will "give more substance" to what the "new type of great power relationship" means, said Cui, referring to the phrase that the Chinese now regularly use to describe the bilateral relationship. The two leaders will also discuss climate change, Ebola, counterterrorism, and probably Iran and the denuclearization of the North Korean peninsula, said Cui. "We’re ready to work with the United States" on fighting the Islamic State, Cui said. Additionally, he expects "strong encouragement from the two presidents on the mil-to-mil relationship," referring to exchanges between the U.S. military and China’s People’s Liberation Army. Overall, Cui said he was "deeply impressed by the commitment" of Americans, especially at the state and city level, to a "strong, growing and constructive relationship with China."

Advances in the relationship on cybersecurity, however, are less likely. In May, Beijing suspended the two countries’ cybersecurity working group, after the United States announced its indictment of five Chinese military officers for hacking U.S. companies’ computers — an allegation Beijing denied. China "did not walk away from the table," Cui said. "What the United States did was basically tear down this table, destroy this table. They need to restore confidence."

Cui struck an ominous note when asked about visas for reporters at the New York Times and Bloomberg, two news organizations who are facing difficulties reporting in China after releasing in-depth profiles of wealth accumulated by some of China’s current and former leaders. "If they really want to see changes, they could start with themselves," he said. "They know what to do and they know how to do it. The question is whether they have this motivation or determination," he said, without elaborating on what exactly they could do. He implied, however, if Chinese business travelers, tourists, or students faced better treatment applying for U.S. visas, U.S. journalists might have an easier time. "If you give me one kind of visa, I could do the same for you," he said.

Cui also implied that Beijing believes the U.S. State Department is involved in the democracy protests in Hong Kong — an allegation the State Department has strenuously denied. "There are individuals and groups in the United States who are really involved in the situation in Hong Kong," Cui said. Beijing hopes that it can believe the government of United States, "the most powerful country in the world," when it says it’s not involved in the protests in Hong Kong.

Since late September, Beijing has been facing a mini-crisis in Hong Kong, where thousands have protested for the right to be more involved in the election process, which is supposed to change to universal suffrage in 2017. "The issue in Hong Kong is not democracy. It’s the rule of law, whether people should respect and maintain rule of law, or whether they should try to hurt it," Cui said. "People’s normal life and social order is disrupted. This is hurting the rule of law in Hong Kong. Without rule of law, there’s no democracy."

Although Mainland China is not a democracy, Cui stressed the grueling nature of the Chinese campaigning process. When asked about Xi’s Nov. 2012 ascension to the top of the Chinese Communist Party, Cui replied that unlike in the United States, "You cannot make a national figure just overnight … you cannot just say, ‘Okay, we’ll cast a vote today and this is the election.’" He added, "This is really a long process, a much more demanding process than the political process here," referring to the political process in the United States. "In China, you cannot have somebody from a village who the next day could be a national candidate for president. That’s impossible."

The comparison between the two political systems was prompted by questions Cui said he often asks himself about U.S. perception of China. "Why do many Americans believe that they know better what China should do than we Chinese? Why don’t they pay sufficient attention to what we in China think we should do, what we believe the country should do, or in what direction that the country should be going? Why do they believe they always know better than ourselves?" he said.

Despite his criticisms of the United States, the 62-year-old Cui, a former vice-minister of foreign affairs is — unsurprisingly — a polished and articulate diplomat. Foreign Policy spoke with Cui on Wednesday, Oct. 29, for roughly 90 minutes, in one of the stately meeting rooms in the country’s embassy in Washington — a building designed, according to its co-architect C.C. Pei, "to convey the sense of importance of China and China’s role in the world today." Below is a transcript of the interview, which was conducted in English, edited and condensed for clarity:

Foreign Policy: For U.S. officials, ‘Great Type of New Power Relationship’ seems to mean that China should take on more global responsibility. What does Beijing feel that the term means, and what does it want from the United States with this new type of relationship?

Cui Tiankai: This new model is called for by the new realities of today’s world. In the past there was a zero-sum game between the major powers, especially between a so-called ‘rising power’ and a so-called ‘existing power.’ Neither China nor the United States is interested in having this repeated between us. We want to find a new way of working with each other, dealing with each other, and managing the differences between us, because we are now living in a very different world.

There is no confrontation, like we had in the Cold War years. All the major powers are members of the existing international regime.

We’re faced with a historic opportunity for the major countries to work together to maintain international stability and promote international prosperity. Economically, China’s prosperity would be good news for the United States, and in China we very much hope for stronger growth of the American economy.

It’s quite clear to us that if China and the United States can work together, we’ll both be winners. If we get ourselves into confrontations and conflicts, we both will be losers.

FP: It’s difficult for Americans, especially those from the older generation, to understand China’s new place in the world. What do you think is the best expression to describe that?

CT: There are ongoing efforts in China to define its place in the world. Domestically, modernization is still our goal. Internationally, we want to make greater contributions to global peace and prosperity. Of course, the modernization of China itself could be China’s major contribution to the world, because if 20 percent of the global population can live in peace and prosperity, the world is a much better place. At the same time, we’re ready to take up greater international responsibilities.

We can best describe it by borrowing President Xi Jinping’s term, the ‘Chinese Dream,’ which is first and foremost for the Chinese nation.

This is a tremendous effort by an ancient nation to modernize itself, to catch up with world development. At the same time, this will also benefit the rest of the world. If we had continued to have one-fifth of the global population living in poverty, and the country in chaos, I don’t think that you could expect peace and civility in Asia Pacific, certainly no prosperity, not only for the region but also for the whole world.

FP: When you talk about countries of the world being part of an international regime, can you talk about the perception of China’s efforts to build an international order that’s more amenable to Chinese interests?

CT: We stand for the maintenance of the post-World War II international order, with the United Nations system at the center. At the same time, since the world is changing in a very profound way, these international institutions also have to change, to adapt themselves to the changing world.

When many of the international institutions were first set up, China did not take a major part in them, nor did a huge number of developing countries. But they have their legitimate concerns and needs. China is contributing more and more to the growth of the world economy. Naturally, our interests and needs should be more adequately reflected in the international regime.

FP: I’d love to hear a preview of Xi’s meeting with Obama at APEC, and some of the issues that we can expect the two sides to discuss or some of the problems that they’re going to be trying to work out with this meeting.

CT: President Xi and President Obama have met on a number of occasions, and are in very close communication with each other. The two presidents will, again, reaffirm their commitment to this new model of relationship and will give it more substance.

There will be specific issues they will have to address, like how the United States and China could work together on climate change, what we should do on Ebola, counterterrorism, and maybe also some of the regional issues — the Korean Peninsula, and the Iranian nuclear issue.

Recently, exchanges between the two militaries have been moving forward quite well. I would expect a strong encouragement from the two presidents to this mil-to-mil relationship.

FP: Do you think the Ebola threat is overblown?

CT: I don’t know. You can never be too careful about these viruses. We had our own experience of SARS a decade ago.

FP: Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, recently said that China has more at stake in the Middle East than the United States does. Can you talk about some ways that China and United States can work together to fight the Islamic State?

CT: International terrorism is a threat to all of us. It is our shared responsibility to combat the threat of terrorism because they are killing people. We cannot allow this to go on unchecked. We’re ready to work with the United States and maybe others, particular the Middle Eastern countries themselves, in counterterrorism.

China has maintained good relations with the Middle Eastern countries for many years. We have growing economic relations with them and there’s a huge number of Chinese working in these countries: We have to make sure they are safe. But this does not mean that the United States should have a shrinking responsibility.

FP: Does the United States still have more of an interest in the Middle East than China?

CT: Maybe still more than China, because we don’t have any problems with the Middle Eastern countries. For the United States, it’s more complicated. You have long-standing strategic, economic, energy, military, maybe even religious relation with the region. There’s such a powerful and influential Jewish community in the United States.

FP: What specifically will China do to help counter the spread of ISIS?

CT: We have been supporting the Iraqi government in its efforts for reconstruction. A large number of Chinese technicians and workers are still there, working with the people of Iraq. We are also sending humanitarian assistance to the people of Iraq, including the Kurds.

FP: One of the biggest worries in the United States about ISIS is that they will launch a terrorist attack on the United States. What does China worry about the Islamic State in regards to Xinjiang, the restive northwestern Chinese region? Is there a real worry about an attack on Xinjiang?

CT: There’s clear evidence that the terrorists and terrorist groups in Xinjiang are closely connected with international terrorist groups. We believe that if we really want to combat international terrorists, we have to do it everywhere.

FP: What about ISIS specifically?

CT: I have no way to verify it, but there’s been media reports that terrorist groups in Xinjiang are connected with them.

FP: The chief U.N. investigator into North Korean human rights abuses wants Pyongyang tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Will China veto that?

CT: What we stress is, first, denuclearization of the entire Korean Peninsula. Number two, peace and stability. Number three, a peaceful resolution of the issue through negotiation and dialogue.

Other countries, including United States and China, should not try to interfere into the domestic affairs of North Korea. You could have your own opinion, but ultimately it’s up to the Korean people to decide. I don’t think its helpful or constructive if there’s efforts — whether in the ICC or elsewhere — trying to complicate this matter. We should focus on denuclearization and stability.

FP: There’s been reports that Xi might meet on the sidelines with Japanese President Shinzo Abe. What do you think are the chances that that meeting will happen?

CT: We will certainly be a good host. As for relations between China and Japan, the ball is now in Mr. Abe’s court.

FP: Is China glad that the United States government no longer uses the term "pivot" to describe its rebalance to Asia?

CT: It’s up to the United States to use whatever term it likes. The real issue is the essence of the policy, not the term.

The problem with this rebalancing is that it’s not balanced. There has been too much stress on the military and security aspect, stressing traditional alliances without addressing adequately the real needs and concerns of the regional countries for economic prosperity and sustainable development.

FP: Does Beijing feel that Washington and the United States still seek to contain China?

CT: We now have a very diversified society in China, with different schools of thoughts and all kinds of opinions. There are people in China who really believe that the U.S. policy is to contain China. I don’t know whether that number is growing or shrinking: it very much depends on what the United States is doing and will do.

FP: What is Beijing’s official position?

CT: We are very familiar with the U.S. position: the United States would welcome a stable, strong, and prosperous China taking up greater international responsibility. We appreciate this kind of statement. We just hope that these very good intentions would be translated into real policy.

FP: There’s been reporting from Chinese state media that external forces, including the United States, are active in the Hong Kong protests. What role does Beijing think the United States is playing in the Hong Kong democracy protests?

CT: The issue in Hong Kong is not democracy. It’s the rule of law, whether people should respect and maintain rule of law, or whether they should try to hurt it. Now, we see a situation where children cannot go to school, taxi drivers cannot take their passengers, small shop owners cannot run their businesses. People’s normal life and social order is disrupted. This is hurting the rule of law in Hong Kong. Without rule of law, there’s no democracy.

Also, I don’t think the majority of Americans are really interested in what is happening in Hong Kong. Their main concern is economic growth [in the United States] and the social problem, the difficulty faced by the middle class and the disparity between the rich and the poor, and also relations among the different ethnic groups.

I don’t think that they have any hostile views against Hong Kong or China. They want to be friends with people in China, including people in Hong Kong.

But there are individuals and groups in the United States who are really involved in the situation in Hong Kong. They could be very deeply involved. If you ask them, they might deny it, but I wonder if they can deny this with a clear conscience.

FP: Like the U.S. State Department?

CT: We look at the official statement by the U.S. government [that it is not involved], and we very much hope that we could really count on that.

FP: Do you take that statement at face value?

CT: If it’s an official statement from the United States government, the most powerful country in the world, how can you not take it seriously?

Besides, the United States has an interest in the continued stability and prosperity of Hong Kong. You have thousands of American companies operating there, tens of thousands of Americans living there.

FP: Do you have any worries for the long-term stability of Hong Kong?

CT: No.

FP: Recently, the EU and China resolved the dispute about telecommunications with Huawei. What does U.S. have to do to make Huawei welcome in the United States?

CT: All of these accusations and allegations against Huawei are unfair. Huawei is a private company and a lot of talented young people work for the company. If we really want to encourage entrepreneurship and the growth of the private sector in China, we should support Huawei.

FP: What are some of the things that Facebook could do to enter the Chinese market?

CT: For Facebook, and for other American companies, if they really want to enter the Chinese market, all of them are welcome. They should only do one thing: abide by Chinese law. That’s good enough — if they can do it.

FP: Would social media products like Facebook and Twitter be beneficial to Chinese in China?

CT: For any company to be successful, they have to meet the needs of their customers. What the consumers like, you can never predict.

FP: It does seem like Facebook and Twitter would be very popular in China if they were not blocked.

CT: I don’t know, because a lot of Chinese are using Weixin and others. They just like it and are used to it. Sometimes, when people already have the habit, it may be hard for them to change.

FP: The United States has been trying to talk to China about cyber security issues. What could Washington offer to get Beijing back at the table to have more fruitful discussions on cyber?

CT: We want assurance that the United States, as the most powerful and technologically advanced country in the world in information technology, will not hurt China’s interest with this technological advantage. Technologically speaking, the United States is much more powerful than China. The weaker one should be worried about the stronger one, not the other way around.

We had a working group between the two governments on cyber security. We did not walk away from the table. What the United States did was basically pull down this table, destroy this table. They need to restore confidence.

My American colleagues often tell me that they distinguish between cyber activities for national security or intelligence purposes and cyber activity against commercial secrets. This distinction is a bit artificial. How can you distinguish from activities that will hurt national security without hurting the nation’s commercial interests?

FP: Some people have described NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as the gift that keeps on giving to China because of all of the revelations that he’s made about U.S. cyber spying. Is that’s accurate?

CT: China — and maybe Germany and others — we have a good reason to be worried. The United States has the obligation to reassure other countries that it will not use its technological strength to violate the legitimate interest of other countries.

FP: In December 2013, China-based journalists from the New York Times and Bloomberg had real difficulty in getting their journalist visas renewed. Assuming that nothing changes between now and December, do you expect that journalists from those organizations will have problems with visas again?

CT: If they really want to see changes, they could start with themselves. The ball is in their court. They know what to do and they know how to do it. The question is whether they have this motivation or determination.

Very often, when a sovereign country grants or denies a visa to any applicant, they don’t give a reason. Many of the Chinese who were denied visas to the United States were never given a reason. And Chinese applicants have to pay a relatively large fee just to apply! If the application is denied, they don’t get their fee back, and the U.S. embassy or consulate doesn’t give them a reason.

FP: Do you think if the U.S. improved its visa treatment of Chinese, then Beijing might consider improving its visa treatment of American journalists?

CT: Visas for the general public is a reciprocal process. If you give me one kind of visa, I could do the same for you. If you deny a visa to some people, I could also do the same. This is certainly the case between us.

Fortunately, there have been ongoing discussions between China and the United States about giving longer-term visas to people who travel for business purposes or to tourists, even for students. This is a very positive development. We should grant each other longer-term visas, and more easily.

FP: The perception in the United States is that calling for freedom for people like the imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo has a positive effect, and that’s why people do it. When people in the U.S. government and the United States call for freedom for human rights dissidents, does that help the cause, hurt the cause, or have absolutely no effect?

CT: Many Chinese are puzzled that whenever someone in China who violates Chinese laws and is put on trial or even in prison, the United States government comes out and say something about it.

This gives people the impression that the U.S. government is only interested in this small number of people who violate Chinese laws — as if the U.S. government is not interested in the wellbeing of 1.3 billion Chinese. This certainly hurts the reputation of the United States. And will not help the human rights cause in China.

FP: Speaking specifically on Ilham Tohti, for example, the Uighur activist who was recently sentenced to life in prison. After his sentencing, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement saying "The United States is deeply disturbed" by the conviction. Specifically with Tohti, do statements like that help him, hurt him, or have no effect whatsoever?

CT: Our American friends very often tell us that we should strengthen the rule of law in China. Then, the next day, they come and tell us, "You should twist your law. You should bend your law to give some special treatment to any particular individual." This is really contradictory.

If you really want to have rule of law in China, then you should respect Chinese laws. If someone is punished by law or if there’s a ruling by the law, you should respect it. If you give people the impression that you can disregard the law if the United States has some special interest in any particular individual, that will not help the rule of law, neither would it help human rights in China.

I often ask myself, ‘Why do many Americans believe they know better what China should do than we Chinese? Why don’t they pay sufficient attention to what we in China think we should do, what we believe the country should do, or in what direction that the country should be going? Why do they believe they always know better than ourselves?’

FP: What do you think the answer is?

CT: I don’t have the answer. I have to ask you.

FP: Americans may think that the Chinese government is not elected by the people, Americans assume that it doesn’t represent the people.

CT: How can you say the Chinese government is not elected by the people? The only difference is that we have a different election system.

FP: In the United States, people have a far greater say in who their leader is than people in China. We don’t know how Xi was voted into office, for example — possibly a vote in the Central Committee, but we don’t know how he ascended.

CT: We have very different political systems. In the United States, you could have somebody just a few years ago totally unknown to others, and all of a sudden he or she could run for very high office because you could use all kinds of media. You have all these Super PACs, or the money to support him or her. But in China, it takes much longer to win the hearts and mind of the people. You have really to work up, work all the way up to the top.

You look at the Chinese leaders, they spend long years in the grassroots. President Xi worked in one of the poorest areas in China for many years. They really started from scratch, from the very beginning, from the bottom of the society, and gradually they move up. Every step upward, they have to win the support of the people there. They have to convince the people that they are capable of doing the job. Then they can move up.

Normally, it would take more than one or two decades for people in China to move to a very high level. This is more difficult in China. It requires a much broader popular basis for anybody to go up. It’s certainly easier in the United States.

Also, you cannot just say, ‘Okay, we’ll cast a vote today and this is the election.’ The election process is a very long process in China. You could start with a village, you can start with a town, then gradually move up to a county, to a small city, and then a bigger city, then a province, then to the central government. Every step upward is based on a kind of an election. This long process is election, and not just a vote on the day.

In China, you cannot have somebody from a village — and the next day he could be a national candidate for president. That’s impossible. In order to run in such a big country, you need the experience. You need these capabilities. You have to pass through so many tests. You cannot make a national figure just overnight. This is really a long process, a much more demanding process than the political process here.

 This article has been updated.


Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish
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