Why China is on our side

February 25, 2008

I went to a talk the other day about China…the Olympics…human rights…Darfur recently. Here’s what struck me:

Some people see the world divided up into two teams. On one side, there’s the dictatorships and their tyrannical leaders (sturdy Kim Jong Il in goal); on the other there’s the democracies (George Bush marooned on the right flank).

Internally, the division makes sense. So calling China a dictatorship gets at the brutal way the Chinese regime treats its own people. When it comes to foreign policy, however, the black-and-white view can only be misleading.

Democracies make cruel and nasty foreign policy just as effectively as dictatorships. The history of American colonialism in Latin America show this all too clearly. So does the behaviour of Britain and France after WWI, as Pankaj Mishra said recently in the LRB: “in Paris, Lloyd George and Clemenceau demonstrated that leaders of democracies could be just as brazenly imperialistic as military dictators”.

China’s human rights record is related to its foreign policy – but the link is not nearly as important as some people (alright, Nick Cohen) would have you think.

In this case, as so often, black-and-white thinking is simply muddle-headed. For all the wrong reasons, China is already on our team.


West Wing reference: Series 7, “Internal Displacement”; after a dinner date with Danny, C. J. decides to sort out Darfur.


A Revisionist Thanksgiving

November 21, 2007

Not being American I have no particularly strong feelings about Thanksgiving (aside from a weakness for pumpkin pie) and I’ve only ever eaten one proper Thanksgiving dinner – after which I had to lie down for four hours. In fact, the bulk of my knowledge about the holiday derives solely from the West Wing.

Yet I do feel strongly about historical accuracy – and it’s a happy coincidence that the biggest Thanksgiving story of the year has, to my mind at any rate, a Jed Bartlet link.

According to the Washington Post we have been misled for years as regards the origins of the famous annual pre-Thanksgiving presidential turkey pardoning. The picture below has formed the basis of the near-universal belief that it was President Harry S. Truman who initiated the ceremony in 1947. But new research has come to light indicating that Truman was merely accepting a turkey as a gift from the National Turkey Federation rather than pardoning a condemned bird.

Truman Turkey

Shocking as it may seem, the first turkey pardoning actually took place only in 1989 on the first presidential Thanksgiving of President George H.W. Bush. What’s more, no-one really knows why he did it. Speculation has so far been muted, but I’m sure that once more people hear this story the public outcry will force the former president into making an explanation.

Unlike in the West Wing where C.J. was faced with the dilemma of which Turkey (out of two finalists) to have pardoned, it seems that the current (real life) president is perfectly happy to pardon turkeys in pairs. This year’s lucky gobblers were ‘May’ and ‘Flower’ – better names, the president quipped, than those suggested by the vice-president: ‘Lunch’ and ‘Dinner’.