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Hyperion April 9, 2001

#32 Why won't China back down?

A friend of mine asked me yesterday what I thought of the China situation. He was referring to our (America’s) military personnel, who at this point, remain in China, unable to return to us. At first glance, it does seem puzzling. On the surface, China has everything to lose and not much to gain with the attitudes and actions they have displayed thus far. China is obsessed with getting the 2008 Summer Olympics; the United States could kill that deal cold. China wants to get into the GTO, an international trade group, because it would help their economy. We hold the power to scuttle that as well. In addition, they sell far more products to us than we do to them, and losing the advantage of having Most-Favored-Nation status with us, or worse, losing our market (and probably others as well), would hurt them much more than it would hurt America. In other words, politically and economically, we can make life very difficult for the Chinese, if they continue this course. So then, why persist? There are several theories given by experts, probably all of them somewhat right. China is upset by our aid to Taiwan, which the Chinese consider a renegade island but we recognize as a nation. China was unhappy that we had surveillance planes, though internationally legal, off their shores “listening” to them. China has a slow and ponderous bureaucracy, which we cannot begin to relate to, that makes any decision delayed. Finally, there may be competing attitudes in the Chinese government on what to do, which would further slow the situation down.

All of the above reasons are valid and legitimate, but I think that there is another one worth consideration: The Chinese Government does not want to lose face. What does that mean? Well, if you are challenged in the schoolyard to a fight, and you back down, you look bad. That seems simple and silly, but we Westerners do not understand the level of this world-view that permeates the East. I am not saying it is right or wrong, just that it is. Two historical examples illustrate what I am talking about:

Starting April 9, 1942, some 70,000 captured U.S. and Filipino troops were marched 63 miles to a prisoner-of-war camp by the Japanese. Along the way, some seven to ten thousand men died, because of everything from starvation to bayonets. War is cruel, but this treatment of captured forces was utterly barbaric. The reason lay in Japanese thinking. To the Japanese, surrendering was far worse than death, and the Japanese soldiers saw the American and Filipino soldiers as lower than dogs, for giving up rather than fighting to the death. This Eastern mindset is why, later in the war, Truman elected to drop the bomb on Japan rather than invade. The Japanese refusal to ever surrender would have cost millions of lives, if the U.S. had invaded Japan rather than Nuke them. Even after the first blast, it took another atomic bomb three days later, before even the Japanese commanders would see that they would lose their entire population if they continued their course, and finally surrendered.

In October of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union came very close to nuclear war. We found out the Soviets had nuclear missiles in Cuba, just a few miles from Florida. We demanded they be removed, and Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, refused, sort of like that fight in the schoolyard. You see, in May of 1960 Khrushchev had promised his people he would defend them with nuclear weapons, and if he backed down now he would lose face. What makes this more maddening is this: at the time, America thought that any war, nuclear or conventional, would be a stalemate at best, possibly destroying the earth. This thinking relied in large part on Soviet propaganda. In truth, in 1962 and for years to come, America would have won any war with the U.S.S.R. every day of the week, and twice on Sundays. Khrushchev knew this, and yet he was willing to risk annihilation of his country rather than back down. Eventually Kennedy agreed to remove our missiles in Turkey (close to the Soviet’s borders), and Khrushchev could remove the Cuba missiles while saving face.

I hope these two examples make it clear what I am saying. Rightly or wrongly, the mindset of the East is just fundamentally different from that of the West. And this, more than anything else, may be what is driving China today.

Wishing Peace to us all,

April 9, 2001


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