Bush's Speeches of Candor

George W. Bush is not one of my favorite American presidents, but I do applaud him for

giving two speeches concerning China that are indeed candid, balanced and courteous, and which are grounded in a profound belief in universal values (liberty and human rights) – speeches that say a lot about the level of self-confidence of the nation that the speaker leads. Compared with the Chinese government’s hackneyed and obtuse rebuff line (to the Thailand speech) that regards any criticism of its human rights record as unwelcome interference in China’s internal affairs, Bush’s speeches appear far more intelligible and appealing to a reasonable man.

If Bush’s Thailand and Beijing speeches can be described by four Chinese words, they would be: 不亢不卑 (not arrogant, but not diffident).

The fact that he chose to use a harsh tone in his speech in Thailand just one day before his arrival in China shows his determination to let China know in unequivocal terms America’s stance on China’s less-than-ideal human rights record, which is expected of him by the Americans. At the same time, he seemed to understand the Chinese mentality about the importance of being given “face”, especially at her “coming-out party”, and hence he avoided using that same tone when he landed in the host country, so as not to rouse resentment (or hurt the feelings) of the Chinese leaders and people.

His Thailand speech (the part about China is near the end), while making no excuse for insisting that “American stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents and human rights advocates and religious activists”, took the pragmatic “for your own good” approach in stressing that trusting the Chinese people with greater freedom was the only way for China to develop her full potential. Bush made it clear that his speaking out for press and speech freedoms, openness and justice was not to antagonize the Chinese leaders, nor to impose America’s beliefs on China. This comment shows that Bush is highly sensitive to the ferocious nationalistic emotions expressed in recent months by China’s angry youth and netizens towards what they consider as “China-bashing” by Western media. He also acknowledged that while change is inevitable in China, only China will decide what course she will follow, and change will arrive on her own terms and in keeping with her own traditions and her own history, implying that America has no intention of meddling.

Following the trenchant Thailand speech, Bush gave a much more toned-down speech at a new embassy opening ceremony in Beijing. A lot of thought seemed to have gone into the arrangement of presentation for Bush’s Beijing speech – for example, Bush the senior was made to give an introductory note, just to add a warm nostalgic touch to the atmosphere and dissolve any tension that might have been present. Both father and son, like many American leaders, know how to capture the audience by the skilful use of humor.

One thing that the Western media and citizens have often been accused of by their Chinese counterparts (or at least the angry Chinese youth and netizens) is that the former always choose to ignore the latter’s unique cultural characteristics and to focus on her shortcomings and deficiencies despite her spectacular progress in the last few decades. As if in response to that particular accusation, President Bush referred to China as the “home of an ancient civilization with a grand history” and gave her due credit for her past contribution to humankind in the arenas of art, literature, commerce and philosophy.

He then started to dwell on the common interests of the two countries, referring first to the cooperative war efforts during World War II, then to the modern day cooperation in the areas of economic development, fighting pandemic diseases and coping with natural disasters, and then to common aspirations in improving the environment and helping developing countries.

While Bush stressed the need for future cooperation, he did not forget to press home the point about the need to allow Chinese citizens the freedom of expression and worship, which he thought would only help Chinese society to become more prosperous and more peaceful.

Lastly, Bush remarked that in building a relationship of trust and respect between the two countries, candor is the key.

If the Chinese leaders can finally come around to Bush’s candid argument that “those who aspire to speak their conscience and worship their God are no threat to the future of China”, and honestly allow what all Chinese people deserve - true freedom of speech, press and religion, then perhaps the Olympics can be said to have brought something constructive and positive to the Chinese society.