One unpleasant little side story to the commemoration of the 9/11 attacks has been the reluctance of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to invite representatives of Taiwan to his city’s ceremony. One Taiwan citizen and at least eight other Taiwan natives died in the attacks last year; five Taiwanese banks had offices in the World Trade Center. A large group of relatives and other people is coming to New York from Taiwan this week to pay tribute to the victims. Dozens of other countries whose citizens died, including communist China, have received invitations to the city ceremony; yet at the time of writing (Sunday afternoon), Taiwan still has not.
On Saturday evening, an official at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Taiwan told the Taipei Times that the New York City government had “verbally agreed” that Taiwan representatives might take part in the commemoration, but the Taiwan affairs office in New York has yet to receive a formal invitation. It is further understood that Taiwan’s representatives will be welcome only if they sit apart from representatives of U.N. member countries. (Delegates from Taiwan held China’s seat at the U.N. until 1971, when Communist China took it over.) Whether Taiwan’s flag will be flown with those of the other nations at the ceremony is still, if you will pardon the expression, up in the air.
Reporting on this shameful little dispute, Friday’s edition of that excellent newspaper The New York Sun said that the failure to invite Taiwan was a result of Mayor Bloomberg’s wish to be in line with the State Department’s “one China” policy, according to which Taiwan is “represented” by mainland China — a country that has ruled Taiwan for just 4 of the last 107 years, and to which a majority of Taiwan people nurse feelings of hostility and fear (partly as a result of that 4-year experience). The State Department, in turn, is striving not to give offense to China, which snarls and blusters in a most ill-mannered fashion if anyone dares to suggest that Taiwan is anything other than a temporarily-detached piece of the Motherland.
You don’t have to be a fan of the striped-pants crowd at State to concede that they have a point here. The organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy is, as we all now know, the War on Terror. That principle, for reasons some of which I have touched on elsewhere, dictates that we remain on good terms with China. And that creates some acute moral dilemmas. Who, for example, is “we”?
As a matter of national policy, obviously the “we” who ought to stay on good terms with China includes the State Department and its officers, and probably the rest of the federal government, too. At the other end of the scale, it obviously does not include private citizens who are not employees of State. I cannot see that we ordinary Americans are under any moral obligation to mute our individual criticisms of China’s unelected rulers, however much the War on Terror requires their assistance. Open airing of private opinions, with all points of view being heard, is the very rock on which our democracy is built. To surrender that, in any cause, leaves us with nothing to fight for.
In between State at one extreme, and private citizens at the other, though, there are a lot of gray areas. What about a municipality? Should New York City bow to the wishes of the Chinese communists, for the sake of national policy? I don’t think this is a trivial question, and to that degree I understand Mayor Bloomberg’s position. (Though I can’t help contrasting it sadly with the friendly public reception given last year by Bloomberg’s precessor, Rudolph Giuliani, to the visiting president of Taiwan, Chen Shuibian. When the communists protested, Rudy told them, in that inimitable way he had, to go get intimate with a duck. Ah, Giuliani!)
The best argument that New York City should kowtow on this matter, is an argument from the stupidity and political backwardness of Chinese communism. The argument goes like this: The communists have erected a unitary dictatorship, in which no other power centers are permitted, and in which all political authority proceeds downwards from the center. If the mayor of a Chinese city makes some pronouncement on international affairs, you can be sure that he has got it approved by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. You can, in fact, be 99 percent sure that he is making that pronouncement not on his own initiative, but on instructions from the nation’s foreign ministry, and in words written by them. It was under the rule of another communist, Joseph Stalin (still honored in China), that a Russian dictionary defined the word “initiative” as: “Seeking for the best way to carry out an order.”
Our country is not like that. Political power does not flow down from Washington D.C. It flows up from the people, from our cities and counties to our states, and thence upwards to the federal departments. Unfortunately, China’s rulers are chronically unable to comprehend this. You can see from their official commentary and protests that they assume our political arrangements are like theirs. Any time a U.S. Congressman initiates some motion on Taiwan or Tibet, the question posed in the Chinese media — and undoubtedly the question at the front of the minds of China’s leaders — is: “Which faction in the administration has put him up to this?” Those who conduct their own affairs in the style of a criminal conspiracy naturally assume that everyone else does the same. As Aristotle pointed out, nations gaze out at the world beyond their borders through lenses shaped by their own internal practices. (In his book We and They, Robert Conquest noted the obsession that late-Soviet rulers like Brezhnev had with locating the command center of capitalism. “Where is it organized from? Who’s giving the orders? …”)
A decision by Mayor Bloomberg to admit representatives from Taiwan to the 9/11 commemoration will therefore be seen in Beijing as a slap in the face from George W. Bush. This is, of course, stupid of them; but as much as we may laugh at their stupidity, if that stupidity has consequences for our national interest, it should be taken into account.
Set against this argument is one from our own national character. Our self-image, part of our fundamental personality as a nation, is that of a free association of free citizens, holding aloft the standards of human liberty, constitutional government, justice under fair laws, and rational economics. A key purpose of gatherings like that to be held in New York on Wednesday is the affirmation of that self-image, a re-dedication to our national ideals. It is not for nothing that the Gettysburg Address is so revered by Americans. Abraham Lincoln could, on that occasion, have delivered a routine dulce et decorum est military-funeral oration (as Edward Everett, the principal speaker at Gettysburg, actually did). Instead, Lincoln spoke directly to the point, placing the deaths of the Union soldiers clearly in the context of this country’s national identity and purpose.
That argument, it seems to me, is decisive. Our need to be ourselves at such a time, to honor our most cherished and fundamental beliefs, easily overrides the call of expediency, even strategic expediency in the national interest. It is too much to hope that oratory of Lincolnian quality might emerge at Wednesday’s New York ceremony. We should at least insist, though, that those great ideals for which America stands, and for which brave Americans are fighting as I write, be re-affirmed proudly and openly at such an event. In particular, we should insist that Taiwan, a nation that shares our ideals, and strives to put them into practice, not be insulted by exclusion from our ceremonies of commemoration, when communist China, a nation that mocks those ideals and spits on them, is courteously invited.