Come again, Uncle Xi

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Come again, Uncle Xi


Bertil Peterson

It has been a few weeks since Chinese President Xi Jinping and his glamorous wife Peng Liyuan boarded a jet at Seoul Air Base and flew home after a much ballyhooed two-day visit to the South Korean capital that produced virtually no actual news, although local media regurgitated glowing pronouncements from Korean and Chinese government officials and business leaders. Honestly, the visit was more significant for what was not said.

President Park Geun-hye and Xi expressed concerns about Japan’s move to expand its military reach and undermine the 1993 Kono Statement on comfort women, and China’s CCTV reported the two leaders agreed to hold a joint ceremony next year to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Korea from Japan’s colonial rule. Xi said his country and South Korea have a common interest in making sure Japan acknowledges its wartime past, neglecting to mention China’s responsibility for the devastating war that left Korea divided and reduced to rubble.

Both leaders vaguely expressed their opposition to the “nuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula, though Xi did not see fit to mention North Korea, which possesses the only nuclear weapons on the peninsula, in large part because of the long political and economic support of Beijing. Mao Zedong once called the China-North Korea relationship as close as “lips and teeth.”

During a business forum at the Shilla Hotel in central Seoul, big names from Korea’s biggest businesses genuflected to China’s nouveau riche, especially Alibaba CEO Jack Ma of e-commerce giant Alibaba, Baidu CEO Robin Li and Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei.

“Chinese businessmen looked so different from our first meeting a few years ago,” gushed Oh Young-ho, CEO of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra). “Ma told me Korea has grown a lot, but I wanted to tell him, ‘You have grown a lot more.’”

In an attempt to verbalize the gravitas of the occasion, President Park pronounced it “the first business forum attended by the leaders of the two countries since diplomatic ties were established.” There were media references to the forum as “historic.”

Representing Korea were Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Jay Y. Lee, Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Chung Mong-koo, Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin and Kumho Asiana Group Chairman Park Sam-koo.

Korea’s business moguls showed off some of their latest high-tech products to the Chinese leader. Samsung brought along its 105-inch, curved UHD TV, the largest in the world.

But LG was the recipient of what may have been Xi’s most definitive pronouncement of his visit. According to a statement from the company, the Chinese president was taken with the company’s 77-inch curved UHD OLED TV, saying, “The screen is very thin.”

But neither that observation nor any of the other non-stories emanating from Xi’s visit could be sent to China via Korean mobile instant messaging services KakaoTalk, Line and MyPeople. They were blocked before the Chinese leader set foot on Korean soil.

And that’s the problem.

China is at the forefront of a changing world order largely because of the sheer size of its population and resulting economic might. But the bottom line is that the People’s Republic has not changed much. Not really.

For all its new prosperity and leadership ambitions, China is run by a paranoid elite so insecure it deployed the “Great Firewall” to prevent Internet communication during what amounted to little more than the most routine of state visits.

At home, that paranoia manifests itself in absolute disregard for basic human rights. China continues to relentlessly suppress religious groups of all kinds, from Buddhism to Falun Gong to Christianity, and persecutes political dissidents of all stripes. One of the most brutal regimes in the world in Pyongyang owes its very existence to Beijing.

Sadly, when large amounts of money are involved, human dignity often becomes an afterthought. Xi and his entourage were reminiscent of the wealthy uncle who is sometimes polite, but frequently degrading, dismissive and mean-spirited. Because he is rich, no one in the family ever challenges him.

It was ironic that the Korean mobile messaging services were blocked just a month after the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Three days ahead of the anniversary, Internet users in China were unable to access Google’s search engine, Gmail, Calendar, Translate and YouTube.

If dialogue between Seoul and Beijing is inevitable, it is essential that it be honest and straightforward. The Chinese government’s persistent efforts to silence free and open communication speak volumes about the underlying priority of the country’s Communist leaders: Stay in power at all costs.

The two countries share a long and complicated history and myriad common concerns, but Korea is light years ahead of China when it comes to a functioning democracy and safeguarding the basic human rights of its people.

Riffing on Mao’s words during Xi’s visit, Bank of China Chairman Tian Guoli said, “China and Korea are close neighbors, like a mouth and tongue.”

Maybe so. But the tongue must take every opportunity to speak the truth about respecting and protecting the dignity of all human beings, and the mouth needs to listen.

*The author is business editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

By Bertil Peterson

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