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With Enemies Like These…

by Jeffery N. Wasserstrom on Feb 20, 1997

Jeffery N. Wasserstrom

Looking back over the stories relating to China that have appeared on the front pages of newspapers in this country during the last twelve months is a strange experience. One of the most striking things is the sheer diversity of topics with a Chinese angle that have captured the attention of Americans, ranging as they have from the furor last summer triggered by comments about Beijing’s human rights record made by Bob Costas during his coverage of the Olympics, to the Sino-Japanese dispute last fall over which country had the best claim to a group of small islands located in the East China Sea, to the flurry of speculation this past week over how Deng Xiaoping’s death may affect the People’s Republic and our relations with its leadership.  

One curious thing to note about the past year’s wide-ranging crop of China stories is that in at least two noteworthy cases, famous people ended up benefitting from, rather than being harmed by, being singled out for criticism by Beijing. The pair in question, Taiwan’s President Lee Teng-hui and Disney CEO Michael Eisner, are individuals who otherwise have little in common. Nonetheless, looking back over the last twelve months, each would be justified of asking of the Chinese Communist Party’s leaders: “With enemies like you, who needs friends?”

Thanks to both the speed with which news stories become obsolete in this end-of-the-millennium period and the rapidity with which the contours of Sino-American relations can change, the Taiwan Straits crisis of early 1996, which  other’s countries planned for the near future) than those associated with Taipei (where it was feared only months ago that Beijing missiles might fly and the U.S. be brought into a war).

Given the circumstances, in order to make sense of Lee’s status as both a victim and beneficiary of Beijing’s wrath, a brief reminder is in order of what the crisis of a year ago was all about. In a nutshell, it began with the Chinese Communist leaders expressing displeasure at the prospect that the Nationalist Party would remain in power on Taiwan, which was about to hold its first open presidential election. Propaganda volleys were launched from both sides, American warships moved toward the region, and some missiles were indeed fired from the Beijing side, though not at targets. One result of all this was that Lee Teng-hui won the presidential election quite handily, even though he was the candidate of the once dominant but now increasingly unpopular Nationalist Party.

One of the keys to his victory was, ironically, that the confrontation with Beijing gave him a chance to stake out a solid and respectable middle ground in Taiwan politics. He stood between those pushing for reconciliation and those arguing for a definitive break from the People’s Republic.  He seized this opportunity, and managed to seem diplomatic and careful, while also appearing as someone who could not be cowed by bluster from across the Strait. All in all, he came out the biggest winner in the confrontation. 

The advantages that Eisner gained from having Beijing single out Disney for censure are in some ways stranger and even less direct, but they have the advantage of being easier to describe. This flap began with the Chinese Communist leaders threatening to break off negotiations with Disney for the building of Orlando-style theme parks in the People’s Republic, unless Eisner gave up his intention to distribute a film about the Dalai Lama’s life directed by Martin Scorsese. At first, it looked as if this feud in the making would hurt the American entertainment giant. As it turned out, however, by refusing to be cowed by the pressure and saying it would not move to limit distribution of the movies, Disney came out ahead in at least two important ways.

The first, and arguably much less important, thing that Eisner and company gained was free publicity for Scorsese’s film. Any fear that the movie, with its potentially obscure subject matter, would end as a complete disaster at the box office have now been allayed, since many will see it just to find out what all the shouting was about.

The second, and much more significant, benefit for Disney has been to burnish the corporate image. Before this flap with Beijing, Disney’s once glittering reputation had taken a series of painful beatings, thanks to everything from its sue-happy approach to trademark infringements to complaints from the multicultural left and the Christian right about the content of some of the movie it produced. Now, however, this has been turned around dramatically.

Yes, already new bad publicity about the company is surfacing, as tales are being told about Disney products being made by people laboring in unsavory conditions (in China and other countries), but on the whole 1996 was good for the company’s image and Beijing deserves much of the credit for this. You just can’t buy p.r. any better than those editorials that appeared in the Washington Post (“Mouseketeer Diplomacy”) and the New York Times (“The Mouse Makes a Stand”), which suggested that the Clinton administration could learn a thing or two from Disney about putting principles above profits in dealing with China.

It is certainly not always good to end up the target of Beijing’s wrath, as the handing down of harsh sentences last fall to two brave dissidents and political gadflies, Wang Dan and Liu Xiaobo, reminded us. Nonetheless, as the cases of Lee Teng-hui and Michael Eisner showed, in two of the oddest China stories of 1996, as long as you are far enough away that Beijing leaders can only bluster at you from a distance, not put you behind bars, there can be much worse enemies to have than one who, when aiming across the seas, usually tends to end up doing no more than shooting himself in the foot.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, a writer for the History News Service and the author of "China's Brave New World -- And Other Tales for Global Times" (2007).