When Chinese diplomats in San Francisco get ants in their pants over a Taiwan-and-Tibet themed mural painted on a building in Oregon owned by a US citizen of Taiwanese heritage, the true face of China’s “soft power” and “peaceful” rise becomes apparent — China’s power is never going to be soft, and its rise will never be peaceful.
The story from Oregon was first reported in a local newspaper in Corvallis, where the mayor of the small college town was quoted as telling concerned Chinese diplomats that the US was a country based on freedom of speech and — paraphrasing here — not under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. The two diplomats drove back to San Francisco with their tails between their legs and reported the arrogance of the Corvallis mayor to their superiors.
The news story did not end there. Picked up by the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters, the Corvallis mural brouhaha went global.
Both wire stories, without any editorializing, painted an accurately negative picture of how China’s so-called “soft power” works and how it, in this case, was trying to bully US mayors with threats and bribes. It did not work and now all the world has seen once again just how sinister Beijing is.
“China pressures Oregon city over businessman’s mural” was AP’s headline. The Reuters wire story went with pretty much the same thing. There are not enough ways to say how repugnant China’s actions are.
In a not-so-diplomatic letter last month, the Chinese consulate general in San Francisco said that the mural had apparently “caused strong resentment from the local [ethnic] Chinese community and Chinese students studying in [Corvallis].”
There are just 1,600 ethnic Chinese studying at Oregon State University this year as undergraduates and graduate students — and not all of them are from China. Some come from Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan.
Asking the Corvallis mayor to take “effective measures” to remove the mural — which depicts Chinese cops beating Tibetan demonstrators and Tibetans setting themselves on fire, along with scenes of Taiwanese defiance of Beijing — the two Chinese officials got an earful and were told that not only were they working in the US and not in China, but that the mural was protected under the First Amendment. Given the circumstances, she told the two hapless diplomats that she had no authority to order its removal.
The letter from the Chinese officials to the Corvallis mayor went to efforts to underline the current good ties that exist between Oregon and China, including upcoming visits to China by the state’s governor and a delegation of state legislators, also underlining the need not to jeopardize those relationships.
That is how China operates in the free world. From the UK to Canada, from France to Germany, anywhere that China posts its diplomats, it wages war against Taiwan, artist and activist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) and Tibet — among others. That is playing hardball, that is demagoguery, that is the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in action and hardly represents either soft power or a peaceful rise.
It is not just China that gets upset when US citizens exercise their right to freedom of speech. A similar incident happened in New Jersey earlier this year, when a group of right-wing lawmakers from Japan flew to the US to lodge a protest against a small local memorial set up in a New Jersey park which paid respect to the South Korean “comfort women” — a euphemism if ever there was one — who were forced to serve as sex slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
The memorial was paid for and erected by a group of Korean-Americans in New Jersey who were merely excising their US right to free speech and freedom of expression. However, when the Japanese diplomatic corps found out about this memorial, they tried to bully the mayor of a small town in the state to have the memorial taken down. The Japanese were told the same thing that the Oregon mayor told the Chinese: This is not your country.
This is not the end of these diplomatic gaffes. Again, somewhere in the US or Canada or the UK or Australia, Chinese diplomats will take offense to something or other — a documentary film festival featuring a movie about Ai, for example, or a new mural spotlighting Taiwan’s freedom and democracy as a sovereign nation — and angry letters will be sent out, followed up by telephone calls and personal visits. These things will happen again and again in Western nations, and each time the beleaguered Chinese diplomats will return to their offices red-faced and seething with anger.
This whole situation will not end until the PRC ceases to exist, and that day is coming, within this century for sure.
One day, China will be history and the mayor of Corvallis will be remembered as a hero. She stood up for what is right in the world — and for Taiwan, too.
Dan Bloom is a freelance writer in Taiwan.