It’s safe to say that students at the Foreign Affairs College of the People’s Republic of China probably haven’t heard many lectures like the one they heard Saturday from U.S. House Speaker and former history professor Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich told the class of about 100 future diplomats that China’s effort to provide economic freedom without political freedom is doomed, insisted that freedom “is a right bestowed by our Creator” and declared that, in an age of instant and widespread electronic communication, diplomacy was increasingly public and no longer “defined solely by secret negotiations in small rooms.”
He also referred to what Chinese call the “defensive war” or “war of liberation” in Korea during the 1950s as an “invasion” and an “occupation.” And he quoted from the Magna Carta, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
The bluntest language yet from a senior American official came the same day that Chinese President Jiang Zemin described recent improvements in Sino-U.S. ties as like “sunshine after rain.”
And while the speaker insisted that the talks he had Friday with top Chinese leaders were friendly, that didn’t stop him from skewering many of the sacred cows of Chinese diplomacy.
One student took issue with the possibility of congressional moves to impose sanctions if Beijing curbs freedoms in Hong Kong after the territory returns to Chinese sovereignty. Reciting a familiar line in Chinese diplomacy, the student said that would violate China’s principle of noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs and was a domestic Chinese concern.
“You’re right,” Gingrich said. “China has the right to eliminate all freedoms (in Hong Kong). But we have the right to react to that.”
Declining to lay aside American concerns about human-rights practices in China, Gingrich said Americans are “not defined by being white or Asian or black. We’re defined by freedom. So if you say, ‘Let’s have a relationship but please don’t talk about freedom,’ I can’t speak. I have nothing to say.”
Gingrich added, “We do not see our insistence on freedom … as an inappropriate intrusion into another country’s internal affairs. We see it as the greatest gift we can offer the world.”
Gingrich said Chinese are “dramatically freer now than 20 years ago,” able to choose their own clothes, entertainment and often employment.
But he also said China hasn’t gone far enough. “Any effort to provide a partial freedom to any people, to tell them that they can be free in one sphere but not in another, will ultimately fail,” he said. “China’s leadership needs to understand that political freedom must accompany economic freedom.”
The words were almost identical to those used by dissident Wei Jing-sheng, now serving his second jail sentence, this one 14 years long. But Gingrich did not mention the names of any of the estimated 3,000 or more political prisoners in China.
Some of the students seemed impressed by Gingrich. “He’s attractive,” said one student afterward. “I wonder whether other members of Congress are as open-minded as he is.”
Others weren’t won over. “I think his views on religious and political freedom are toward the extreme,” said a first-year student. “The thing we need most is not so much freedom. We need to develop our economy and stability.”
Gingrich’s impassioned explanation that the United States understands the emotional significance of the return of Hong Kong for the Chinese impressed the students. He compared it to what Americans would feel if Savannah or San Francisco were separated from the country, then returned.
But many students remained unconvinced by his rationale for Congress making its views felt on Hong Kong freedoms after the British colony is handed over to China on July 1.
The speaker had his share of cross-cultural gaffes and awkward moments. He badly mispronounced a Chinese phrase, and when he asked for a show of hands from the room of how many students had quarreled with their parents, no one responded since Chinese students are rarely asked such questions. “Am I allowed to ask that in China?” he asked.