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Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Myanmar moves forward, China takes a step back


LOS ANGELES -- Fleeting images can become perceived realities. For example, images viewed positively by the American public allow U.S. political leaders to unlock foreign-aid funds -- and business leaders to go forward with ambitious foreign-investment schemes. From this perspective, Myanmar, long-spurned by American human rights groups, seems to have advanced one step forward recently, and China, long wooed by U.S. business, looks to have lost a troubling step.

Myanmar's hated military regime -- known as the State Peace and Development Council, or SPDC -- is seen as not merely brutal and repressive but also manifestly incompetent. Myanmar's economy is almost as moribund as that of North Korea, the current prevailing standard of gross national nonproduct.

But Myanmar's public image could change dramatically with the long-awaited release of the majestically serene Suu Kyi from house arrest and political isolation earlier this month. This fearless prodemocracy leader offers her countrymen a realistic new hope that Myanmar's days of darkness are numbered. Suu Kyi, now emerging from 19 dreary months of home confinement, vigorously vows to be more than a political symbol and will instead push for the transformation of her country into a robust democracy.

Suu Kyi has the standing, both at home and abroad, to do just that. She is revered by her people as the sainted daughter of Aung San, the hero of the country's 1948 independence struggle; internationally, she is known as the 1991 Nobel Peace prize winner with a special vision of her country -- and of all Asia.

Westerners hope that she will take a rightful place in the current impressive gallery of major female national leaders in Asia, from President Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in the Philippines. If she does -- if the cranky generals actually possess the wisdom to work with her, not against her -- Myanmar, though facing massive developmental and infrastructure problems, could break out of its long decline.

The opposite image is emerging in China, and it is immediately worrisome and potentially serious. It is best captured in the title of a disturbing essay in a recent New York Review of Books, perhaps America's leading literary weekly publication: "China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier."

The author is distinguished Princeton Professor Perry Link, and his thesis is that Beijing seeks to intimidate dissent and criticism not only on the mainland and in the recently acquired Hong Kong but also among dissidents, critics and otherwise politically neutral academics operating at major universities in America.

Those academics evidently fear that the Beijing government will deny them visas for entry, opportunities for mainland field research or access to archives. Writes Link, a widely respected scholar who is anything but a China-basher: "How often such things happen and what kind of self-censorship results are difficult things to measure. . . . People are reluctant to speak about them (no scholar likes to acknowledge self-censorship) . . . because the crucial functions are psychological and sometimes highly subtle. They happen within the recesses of private minds, where even the scholar may not notice what is happening."

Wary observers of China's ways have for years, of course, been warning of self-censorship in Hong Kong, that deliciously bustling entrepot of commercialism and noisy opinion of all stripes. Such self-censorship would work against the idea of letting independent-spirited Hong Kong be Hong Kong, rather than a clone of Beijing. This semi-independence concept was forcefully advanced by the late Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong's successor as China's maximum leader, and enshrined in the slogan "One Country, Two Systems."

But is Beijing duly honoring that wise conceptual legacy? Recent events at prominent Hong Kong news-media institutions, including the highly influential newspaper South China Morning Post, may offer fodder, unfairly or not, for the Link hypothesis that Beijing simply cannot resist the temptation to hammer down the party line beyond its borders.

"The role of Beijing's censorship is demonstrably harmful," concludes Link. "It contributes to distortions both in Chinese perceptions of the West and in Western perceptions of China."

It would be a grave mistake for Beijing to continue on any such censorship path, however subtle. Instead, today's Chinese leaders need to respect the compelling wisdom of Deng just as today's Myanmar generals need to accept the transcendent importance of Suu Kyi.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser.


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