Cheney urges greater political freedom in China

Glenn Kessler
Washington Post
15 April 2004

SDP: The message applies to Singapore just as well. Perhaps the Vice-President should have a word of advice for Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong when he visits the White House on May 5, 2004.

In a speech broadcast on Chinese state television, Vice President Cheney urged greater political freedom in China Thursday, arguing that nations that permit economic progress but smother political aspirations can “breed the anger and radicalism that drag down whole nations.” He also warned that a failure to resolve the impasse over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions could unleash a nuclear arms race by China’s neighbors.

Speaking to about 500 students at the prestigious Fudan University here, Cheney lauded the economic reforms instituted by China’s communist rulers that have made this sophisticated city of 18 million one of the economic engines of Asia. But “prosperous societies also come to understand that clothing, cars and cell phones do not enrich the soul,” Cheney said.

“Economic growth is important in allowing individuals to lead lives of comfort and dignity, but material goods alone cannot satisfy the deepest yearnings of the human heart; that can only come with full freedom of religion, speech, assembly and conscience.”

Cheney’s speech, and a sometimes lighthearted 25-minute question-and-answer session with the students, was broadcast with a 1 1/2-minute time delay. But, in a rarity, Chinese authorities did not block any sections of Cheney’s appearance, unlike a speech given by President Ronald Reagan 20 years ago and an interview with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in 2001, according to U.S. Consulate officials who monitored the broadcast.

On North Korea, Cheney has offered an increasingly dire scenario during his two-day swing through China, first in private meetings with Chinese leaders Wednesday and then during his address at Fudan University. North Korea long has had close ties with China, but Cheney bluntly told the students the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons programs was essential because of “the Pyongyang regime’s past history of irresponsibility and deceit.”

Responding to a student’s question, Cheney said that “time is not necessarily on our side.” He asserted that North Korea, given its past behavior, could peddle nuclear technology to terror groups. Moreover, faced with a reality that North Korea both has a stockpile of nuclear weapons and ballistic weapons, other nations in the region “may conclude there only option is to develop their own capabilities, and then we have a nuclear arms race d in Asia,” he said.

Cheney didn’t mention names, but he was clearly referring to Japan, which has expertise in peaceful nuclear power and is China’s main rival in Asia. Cheney’s comments appeared likely to reverberate in South Korea, the next stop on his Asian tour, though many Asian experts say it’s unlikely Japan would make a decision to develop a bomb – largely because they don’t feel the pressing need to do so, given the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

Parliamentary elections were held Thursday – as Cheney arrived in Seoul – and according to exit polls the progressive Uri party that has been skeptical of the administration’s tough approach to North Korea was headed to victory. Cheney planned to meet with South Korean officials Friday.

During his speech here, Cheney touched on some of the trade disputes troubling the U.S.-China relationship, such as the administration’s campaign to convince China to adopt a flexible currency exchange rate to make it easier for U.S. manufacturers to offer goods at competitive prices in China.

“As China gains in economic strength, it also takes on new responsibilities for keeping the global economy in balance,” he said. “In this interdependent world, nations have a responsibility to lower barriers to imports, protect intellectual property rights and maintain flexible, market-driven exchange rates.”

But large sections of the speech were aimed at prodding the Chinese leaders on the limited political freedoms in China. In contrast to some major addresses by U.S. officials – such as by President Bush in 2002 or Reagan 20 years ago – Cheney devoted little of his speech to explaining American attitudes, instead focusing sharply on China and its transformation.

Some of his language on political liberty was couched in general terms, such as when he discussed the administration’s rationale for pushing democracy in the Middle East. But at other points, he directly contrasted the gap between China’s economic and political freedoms – and the dilemma that poses for China’s rulers. He specifically challenged the Chinese to look at the experience of their Asian neighbors, where he said “rising prosperity and expanding political freedom have gone hand in hand.”

“Freedom is not divisible,” Cheney declared. “If people can be trusted to invest and manage material assets, they will eventually ask why they cannot be trusted with decisions over what to say and what to believe. The insights that foster scientific discovery are not suddenly lost when the topic turns to society’s ills.” Freedom, Cheney said, “is something that successful societies, and wise leaders, have learned to embrace rather than to fear…Freedom has a power all its own, requiring no propaganda to find recruits, and no indoctrination to keep believers in line.”

Cheney returned to his theme even when discussing joint efforts to fight terrorism. In an apparent reference to China’s crackdown on the Falun Gong movement, Cheney said, “The war on terror must never be used as an excuse for silencing legitimate expressions of political dissent.” Chinese authorities have portrayed the spiritual group as a quasi-terrorist sect that is out to destroy modern civilization.

The students, asking polite and respectful questions, did not pick up on Cheney’s theme of democracy, choosing instead to ask about economic and regional issues, such as the U.S. sales of arms of Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.

To laughter, however, one student showed a keen understanding of inter- administration politics. “It is said you are the the most powerful vice president in U.S. history,” she asked. “I ask, how do you play a role in the Bush administration?”

“That is not a question I had anticipated,” Cheney said.

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