The Trouble With China

On this Veterans Day 2012, my thoughts turn to China, in the theater where I served more than 40 years ago. It seems odd we call it a theater, as if we are staging a show. But perhaps that is an apt description for the productions waged from the bunkers at the Pentagon and Beijing.

For several years, from late 1969 to early 1971, I flew on combat missions along the China coast and over Vietnam, Laos and the Gulf of Tonkin.  As the lead Chinese linguist, my job was to make sure we recorded the chatter on the ground and in the air, understanding clearly how they were defending us. Thus, we gained more of the “Air Order of Battle” that defined China’s military aviation capabilities.

It was a routine job but I had to be on my toes for out-of-the-ordinary chatter, particularly from the MIG pilots who scrambled to defensive patterns as we flew along the coast. If a pilot announced, “I am locked on my target,” or some such hostile action, I must tell the pilot to begin evasive maneuvers with our EC-135, the old Boeing 707, in the face of an attack.

But that was the worst case. We never had an incident because there was never a provocation. We accepted their escort cheerfully; we may have wiggled our wings. Today, bloodless drones prowl the coasts of Iran, and other hot spots. Americans are working cooperatively with China across a number of fronts, despite ongoing animosity. Plus, there are eyes in the sky.

But during the Vietnam War, China was the broad opposition. Nixon had yet to make his surprise trip to Beijing and there had been little exchange. The hostility was expressed by MIG pilots as quotes from Mao’s Little Red Book, such as, “Mei-kwo dzung-t’ung shih jih lao-hu. Mao zhuxi xue, wan wan xue.” (‘The American president is a paper tiger! Long live Chairman Mao,” and pardon my romanization of the language). To which I would write on my notepad, “prop,” for propaganda. Ho-hum.

While we don’t get a lot of quotations from Chairman Mao nowadays, propaganda is something we can still count on from the current ruling Chinese Communist Party, which is meeting this week to pick new leadership. The meetings are cloaked in secrecy, mostly aimed at its own people. As the Washington Post reported today:

“In recent days, Chinese authorities have banned certain books from being displayed, increased surveillance and house arrests for activists they consider troublemakers, and blocked some foreign news media, including the Web sites of the New York Times and Bloomberg News after stories about the massive wealth accumulated by leaders’ families.”

The Party leadership has gone to lengths to deny official corruption even though the system itself promotes insider dealing among officials in government, military and the industrial complex. After all, this is a command economy that props up the Chinese currency, subsidizes exporters, and allows industry to operate without environmental, safety or worker rights’ protections.


Meeting with human rights activist Harry Wu at the AFL-CIO in Washington. A few years later, Wu was arrested when he arrived in China legally and detained several months before an international campaign won his release. (Photo by Bill Burke)

As an advocate for American workers and their unions, I have been a harsh critic of the regime in Beijing – from Mao’s megalomania to Hu’s devious embrace of American capital and technical acumen to gain advantage in trade. Unfair trade by China has cost millions of American jobs. It’s not surprising to me that recent efforts to hack into U.S. government, military and financial communications have been traced to China, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

As much as I may not trust Chinese leaders, Party poohbahs and military brass, I have the utmost respect for the Chinese people and their culture. They are victims of a regime that is authoritative and cruel, but they possess a resilient spirit and serenity that I admire, as a student not only of the Chinese language but also the philosophies under which they live — Confucianism. Taoism and the 19th and 20th century evocations of Chinese internal martial arts – particularly, t’ai-chi, which I practice religiously every day.

Taoism is a rational approach to spiritualism — it makes sense to me — and sometime during my Air Force tour it quickly supplanted Roman Catholicism, my childhood indoctrination, as a guiding principle. I no longer embrace the concept of heaven and hell, or the vengeful god of Abraham, and I learned to find my way by meditating on the balance of mind and body, of my life in the universe.

I admire the Chinese artists, academics and democracy activists who risk their lives to speak out and act up. I’ve met some of them, including Harry Wu, a man who spent 19 years being “re-educated” in the Chinese labor camps and has devoted his life to exposing this gulag through his Laogai Research Foundation, and fighting for reform. A few years after we met in 1993, he was arrested trying to get back into China and spent months in custody before an international campaign forced his release.

Surveys show that Americans are inclined to blame China trade practices for many of our economic problems, particularly job loss. This is a fair assessment, and both Obama and Romney agreed they would crack down on China if elected. It would be unfair, however, if anti-Chinese forces begin to demonize, or stereotype, the Chinese. The Chinese people have a different history and culture, and we can learn much from each other as we seek to be good stewards of our planet and our humanity.

Few events reflected our common dreams more than the democracy movement in Tienanmen Square in 1989. The pro-democracy students even created a paper mache replica of “Lady Liberty” as a symbol for their movement. It was inspirational to see the brave man who defied tanks in the street, and all the students who demonstrated and proudly posted on Democracy Wall. It was the beginning of a movement to challenge the despotic rule of the Chinese Politburo, the syndicate that runs China with a greedy iron fist.  Sadly, the leaders of the movement were crushed under the tanks.

The world was watching, and the Chinese Communist Party failed the test of history. But it’s not over. As the Politburo plays its musical chair game this week, anointing the newest princeling, I salute the millions of Chinese who are resisting, in large and small ways, the oppression of the regime. A new order is in the wings. It’s only a matter of time.

Thanks to System of a Down, and their Armenian political sensibilities, for helping to capture the magic of a moment in time that we can only hope foreshadows the eventual fall of the old men of the Chinese Politburo: