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  • The Clash of Ideologies
  • Richard Schifter (bio)

There was a great deal of hope in 1989 and 1990 that the world could finally look forward to a period of peace and tranquillity. But this was not to be. We are once again in times of great international tension.

Some analysts of current events have spoken of a clash of cultures, of the rejection by non-Westerners of the attributes of Western culture, of a struggle that pits "the West against the rest" along the fault lines that separate one culture from another. That was indeed the argument that was advanced to me in 1991 by a Chinese official. A US delegation had come to Beijing for a discussion of a variety of issues. Among them was the performance of China in the field of human rights in the wake of the Tienanmen Square massacre. I was then serving as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs and in that capacity had come to engage the Chinese foreign ministry in a discussion of human rights conditions in China.

My discussion of human rights was held with an official with no particular background in the field, who had evidently been selected to meet with me merely as an accommodation to our wish to discuss human rights in Beijing. In that discussion I most certainly did not get any meaningful response to the points I raised. Once we had gone through the ritual of a meeting, my Chinese opposite number and I walked to the large hall where the plenary session under the leadership of the Chinese foreign minister and the US secretary of state was to take place. As we awaited the arrival of the other participants in the meeting, my new Chinese friend offered some informal comments on the conversation that we had just completed: "What you are trying to do," he told me, "is impose Western ideas on China. That won't work." [End Page 12]

I responded by saying to him that, as I saw it, the West had given rise in the past two hundred and fifty years to two different sets of ideas about the structure of government, namely, the idea of liberal democracy that was the product of the Enlightenment, and Marxism-Leninism. "Your trouble," I said to the Chinese official, "is that you picked the Western system that does not work. Look at the success of Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan. And in the United States, students with Chinese names can often be found at the top of the lists of high school and college graduates. It is Leninism that's holding you back." It is worthy of note that in the years since my conversation, a great deal of Marxism-Leninism has ended up on the Chinese ash heap of history.

My Beijing experience contrasted sharply with another meeting I had that same year: a meeting in my office in Washington with a delegation from one of China's neighbors, Mongolia. The Mongolian communist government had fallen the previous year. I had been astounded by the changes that had occurred in Mongolia in 1990, when this theretofore highly centralized communist state installed its first freely elected government. That this should have happened in a country wedged between the communist Soviet Union and communist China, far away from the centers of democratic thought, was truly amazing. My first questions to the delegation were, therefore, "What happened in your country? How did the idea of democracy get to you?"

I received a clear answer: "We sent our best students to foreign universities, but we could send them only to the universities of countries friendly to the Soviet Union. So they went to Warsaw, Prague, and Budapest. They saw the changes there and came back with ideas about freedom."

It is thus evident that the fault lines of civilizations did not stop the ideas of freedom from vaulting across these fault lines to land in Ulan Bator. Nor have these fault lines prevented the gradual thawing of the Chinese system, which is now most certainly quite different from the dictatorship of Mao Tse- tung. And then let us also consider the many other major countries...


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pp. 12-23
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2019
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