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Harmony without Uniformity

by Elizabeth C. Economy
January 22, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Internet speech was noteworthy for a number of reasons—but what struck me most was her comment that principles like information freedom aren’t just good policy connected to American values; they are universal. I like the sound of that.

The remark drew me back a few months to a talk on U.S.-China relations given by one of the most articulate and thoughtful members of China’s senior leadership, where I also heard something I liked. He proposed a solution to our challenging bilateral relationship that was presented in a particularly elegant form: harmony without uniformity. In other words, the United States and China don’t have to agree on the full range of policies, we can co-exist peacefully with our differences.

At the time, the idea of harmony without uniformity made perfect sense. In fact, it seemed nicely grounded in American sensibilities, such as “we can all go along to get along” or “we can agree to disagree.”

Weeks later, though, I found myself thinking that his idea was rather fundamentally flawed. In fact, it made no sense at all. Harmony in international relations emerges out of uniformity—in purpose, principles, policies, or actions. And indeed, there is little harmony in our relationship with China on issues such as Internet freedom and censorship precisely because there is no uniformity in purpose, principle, or action.

But if my favorite Chinese princeling is wrong, so too is Secretary Clinton. Internet freedom is not a universal value (check out China, for instance), and wishing it were so won’t make it so.

So is there any way to avoid yet another train wreck in U.S.-China relations? Secretary Clinton’s speech pretty much says it all: our leverage boils down to the Chinese people themselves insisting on change because they recognize the value of freedom and transparency and the Chinese leaders yielding to the wishes of the people. That might take a while.

Of course, there is another possibility. If China’s leaders decide that “harmony without uniformity” is more than a pretty-sounding bumper sticker, they might test drive it at home. That would be the greatest boon of all to Internet freedom in China.

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