Hu visits France

January 30, 2004

By International Herald Tribune

This is definitely the season for courting China. Last month, it was Prime Minister Wen Jiabao who got the imperial treatment in Washington, replete with a fife-and-drum show, a visit to the Lincoln Bedroom – and a presidential warning to Taiwan not to rock the boat. This week it was the turn of President Hu Jintao, who is also head of the Communist Party, to be wooed by France, and wooed he was. Chinese flags festooned the Champs Elys饳, the Eiffel Tower was bathed in eerie red light for the Chinese new year, and, yes, President Jacques Chirac proclaimed Taiwan’s plans to hold a referendum on independence to be “irresponsible.” As a bonus, Chirac said he knew that human rights were one of Hu’s priorities.

The Socialist and Green opposition jumped all over Chirac, with many deputies boycotting Hu’s appearance at the National Assembly. But it’s hard to blame the French government. China is the world’s current El Dorado, and Hu landed in Paris with a heady shopping list. That is important for France, which currently ranks 14th on China’s list of importers. The lesson is simple, and familiar: A strongman with money is a partner.

That is the way of the world, we are tempted to proclaim with a sigh, and everybody gains from more trade. The Hu-Wen team, moreover, is an indisputable improvement on the Communist leaders who’ve come before. China is booming economically – at least its cities are – and there is far greater openness in society than in decades past. Hong Kong enjoys freedoms that would have fetched a Soviet satellite a quick invasion, and China is using its economic clout abroad wisely.

But there’s something demeaning when leaders who are usually so happy to advertise their high principles, like a Chirac or a George W. Bush, turn so obsequious before money. Hu needs the Western trade as much as the West needs China’s, and it should come with at least a quiet, dignified note that we have not forgotten Tiananmen, or the Dalai Lama, or followers of Falun Gong, or any of the other victims of a system that is still undemocratic and oppressive.

Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune