Thursday, June 07, 2007

Beware the cult of engagement

by Curry Kenworthy

I love Japan. Each free nation in Asia is infinitely precious, and Japan is one of several beacons of light in that region of our world.

As my bookcase testifies, I'm a big fan of Doraemon. (As well as a fan of his favorite snack, Dorayaki, which at times I've often eaten almost as enthusiastically as the cat-shaped cartoon robot himself.) I like Japanese noodle soup, and yakisoba too. (In fact, I've eaten noodle soup in Narita airport, where Wei Jingsheng recently had a surprising experience.)

Japanese influence on worldwide art, entertainment, and technology has been stunning, and its culture is fascinating. From creating trends in cell phones and electronic devices, to changing the face of characters in our cartoons and games, to igniting global crazes for inexplicable but cute fashions like Hello Kitty, to providing many of the cars we drive, and even to fielding walking, talking robotic servants, Japan has made its mark during the decades of reinventing and rebuilding after the Second World War. Its traditional philosophy and martial arts have also provided interest and influence in the world. The Japanese seem to lend a unique style to everything they do. I once saw a documentary on business in Japan showing a fast-food franchise where a customer might receive one of dozens of different styles of greeting based on the perceived type of customer.

But freedom is by far the most important characteristic of modern Japan. That island nation is not only shining a light in Asia, it also is an important military and cultural ally of the free world.

That's why it was a bit depressing to receive alerts from the Wei Jingsheng Foundation about Wei's detention by the Japanese government, preventing him from attending a Tiananmen Square commemoration event in Tokyo, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech.

Wei Jingsheng finally was released, a few days later, and is now out of customs and in Japan. (Update: and he's now on the way back home, if all goes as expected.)

I'm not sure exactly what chain of decisions led to Wei's detention. We may hear more about that, or it may remain somewhat obscured. But since it was a problem for this man to step out of Narita airport before June 4th, but not a problem to step out into the streets of Japan after the event had safely passed, it's reasonable to assume that this was the issue.

Whether China asked Japan specifically to detain Wei, or whether Japanese officials imagined that it would be the polite and cautious thing to do, and whatever reasoning was invoked in the process, I think someone has been listening to the dangerous lies of the engagement/appeasement cult theology.

This is the idea that keeps popping up everywhere, that the enemies of freedom, human rights, and so on can be placated and turned into our bosom friends if we just dialogue, give a little, listen to their demands, and treat them like decent people. Even if they are ruthless dictators, mass murderers, or wild-eyed radicals looking to blow themselves up in your presence. So, if we detain Wei for just a few days, it won't hurt Wei much, and China's government may hate us a bit less, right?

I'd say wrong, on both counts. China's leaders will still despise Japan, and the latest word is that Wei's health hasn't been so good.

Engagement sounds nice, I know. We like a positive-sounding approach. It also reflects the attractive idea of high expectations leading to positive behavioral outcomes. But we need not only high expectations, but realistic expectations, which make sense based on what we know from previous observations. Expecting a hardened criminal to become your buddy and the pillar of your community if you pat him on the back and give him a little of what he demands is a flaky dream. We all know better. And while engagement may be positive-sounding in rhetoric, its results are negative in practice.

Engagement generally only changes the people who are trying to do the engaging. Like a cult, its ideas can appeal to good, well-meaning people. They dream of easy solutions and polite, politically-correct interactions to defuse problems. They start to blame themselves (and others) for aggressions on the other side--absent any real provocation, they imagine that not giving in to unreasonable expectations is itself provocation and aggression. It can all sound so persuasive at first. The next thing you know, you find yourself doing strange things. Like providing development aid to a neighbor who builds up a dangerously capable military force and keeps hyping up popular opinion campaigns against you. Or like detaining Wei Jingsheng for a few days when he comes to give a speech.

We shouldn't pick on Japan in particular, of course. Not by any means; this cult of engagement has been all around the political circles of the world. I'm sure these pernicious beliefs were at work (as well as the government-as-god tendency that develops as our nations become increasingly socialized) when Wang Wenyi was detained in the U.S. for interrupting an event to speak out against a terrible dictator. Which do we hold more sacred, the integrity of the rituals enacted at our political events, or the notions of liberty and justice upon which a nation was founded? U.S. policy is riddled with mistakes deriving from these cult-like beliefs, from the One China policy to the free trade fiasco. Many other countries have gotten taken in by the cult, too.

So, this is not about Japan-bashing. To the contrary, this is about telling our dear friends in Japan to keep shining a light in Asia, and that means not listening to the insidious teachings of the engagement/appeasement cult. It won't help you, and it's dangerous. It leads to policies that weaken and undermine free nations while empowering those who threaten them. And there's a pattern everyone should notice by now: placating the bullies never results in attaining their respect. It only places them in control and gives them, if possible, even more disdain for those they manipulate. When you're dealing with geopolitics, such ideas can have terrible consequences. Engagement is not only a strange belief system, it's potentially suicidal.

Curry Kenworthy is an advocate for China and world freedom. His writings on China issues can be found at

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