Brown's China game plan steers clear of human rights issues

Published: Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Apr. 10, 2013 - 9:59 am

BEIJING – Gov. Jerry Brown opened his trade mission to China with a news conference here today, and the bank of Chinese television cameras on hand suggested his marketing value is high.

"America is seen as the land of choice and freedom, and California is the headwaters for that experience and that cultural spirit," Caroline Beteta, president and chief executive officer of the tourism group Visit California and a member of the state's delegation to China, said before Brown arrived.

"That really is the positioning, and this governor certainly is the embodiment of that."

If Brown is the embodiment of choice and freedom, however, he certainly isn't talking about it. In authoritarian China for a week of meetings, agreement signings and promotional events, Brown said he would not speak with Chinese officials about human rights. Nor is he expected to address Tibet, intellectual property rights – China is a major source of counterfeit and pirated goods – or other politically sensitive matters.

The third-term Democratic governor told delegates and administration officials accompanying him on the trip Tuesday that his only concern is business.

"I know there are a lot of politics that go on in Washington, but we're from California and we're not interested in politics," Brown said over a lavish dinner at the China Club, a former palace in Beijing, China's capital. "We're a green state, and we like greenbacks."

Brown's single-mindedness is like that of any number of governors doing business in the world's second-largest economy. Unlike presidents or secretaries of state, governors face little pressure to offend their Chinese hosts, and little upside in doing so.

Yet Brown has a long history of social advocacy, and expectations may be different for a former Jesuit seminarian and the chief executive of the nation's most populous state.

"I think it's pretty shameful of him, to be honest," said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "It's kind of like, has he forgotten who he was? Jerry Brown, the first time around as governor, he would never have said anything like that."

When Brown announced last year that he would make the trip to China, then-state Sen. Tom Harman, R-Huntington Beach, urged Brown to address the country's trading practices and human rights.

Brown demurred.

"I'm leaving that to (President Barack) Obama and (Secretary of State John) Kerry," Brown told reporters before leaving for China. "I'm more limited. I'm just a mere governor."

When Brown was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, he met the communist revolutionary Xi Zhongxun, the father of China's current president, Xi Jinping. In 1976, Brown called for an "increased normalization" of U.S. relations with China, but in the most recent of his three failed campaigns for president, in 1992, Brown took a harder line.

"American trade with China needs to be linked to human rights progress," the Associated Press quoted Brown saying at the time. "We should not be buying products from them that are made by prison slave labor."

Now 75 years old and harboring no ambition for higher office, Brown appears to have left such rhetoric behind. In his office last week, he acknowledged "tensions between the United States and China," but he said California "is not in that geopolitical domain."

"I think we can be a good bridge to keep open the very friendly and positive relationship," he said.

Upon arriving at the Grand Hyatt Beijing this week, business representatives and state officials accompanying Brown were advised on various aspects of Chinese etiquette by the Bay Area Council, the business group helping organize the trade mission. Among other things, they were told that the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 remain a "sensitive" issue but that the Chinese would appreciate discussing business and the environment.

Human Rights Watch has complained of "sharp curbs on freedom of expression, association and religion" in China, while the U.S. Department of State in its most recent report on the subject described a continuing "deterioration in key aspects of the country's human rights situation."

The report raised concerns about efforts to silence dissidents, control the media and limit free speech.

Brown met in Beijing today with the country's commerce minister, Gao Hucheng. He and Chinese commerce officials signed a nonbinding agreement to promote economic development in the two countries before Brown addressed reporters at the Hunan Hotel.

"I'm here because we're putting out the welcome mat," Brown said, "and we're very sincere about that."

Brown was expected to meet later today with other Chinese officials before a reception at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Former Gov. Gray Davis, Brown's chief of staff when Brown was governor before, said Brown's approach to diplomacy abroad is one he practiced, too.

For a governor to lecture a country he is visiting would not only be ineffective, Davis said, but inappropriate.

"Just to go around and tell countries that they should be doing this and shouldn't be doing that … I thought was self-serving and not particularly appropriate," he said. "If you're so offended by it, don't go to the country. … When you're over there, I think common courtesy and humility would argue for just working on projects from which both countries can benefit."

Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Center for Labor Research and Education, said it might benefit Brown to discuss human rights issues with Chinese officials, perhaps affording him a "deeper understanding."

Like Davis, however, Wong cautioned against lecturing. Wong, who is also vice president of the California Federation of Teachers, said the United States has its own shortcomings to attend to, including economic inequality.

"I don't think that it should be a situation where the governor should be making determinations and judgments," Wong said, "or going in with a preconceived idea of what is going on in China."

At the dinner Tuesday night, Brown marveled at the pace of construction in China, a feat made possible at least in part by the country's one-party rule. Brown suggested – however wistfully – that it is a lesson he could apply in California.

"Boy, you've done a lot of building," said Brown, who last visited the country in 1986. "When I get back to California, the bulldozers are going to roll."

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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