The campaign has really, honestly, finally started between President Obama and Mitt Romney. While there will be lots of talk in the next few months about the economy and social issues, foreign policy will continue to engender debates. The refrains — how to deal with the likes of Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, or Russia — will pit the White House against Romney’s eclectic team, whose foreign policy suggestions amount to the ABO doctrine (Anything but Obama). Each side will monologue, dialogue, and even mosh-pit about the challenges facing our nation’s security.
It will be interesting, all this talk, but world affairs are much more complicated and even inspiring than just hearing ourselves speak endlessly. What we have to do is listen harder. The future of China is a perfect example. Forget Obama and Romney and who has the better policy toward the superpower to the East. A dissident and architect reminded us this week that it isn’t always about us.
In a nation like China, there is no single narrative. Of the two men, one is from the struggling human rights community and the other from the highbrow world of design; they share little in common but a desire to make the place they call home more responsive, more lawful, and even more beautiful. They aren’t talking to us, necessarily, but to their homeland, as it prepares for new leadership by the end of the year.
The blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, whose escape from house arrest led to a diplomatic showdown between the United States and China, is now talking from his temporary home at New York University School of Law. His New York Times opinion piece on Wednesday will be followed by a Council on Foreign Relations talk on Thursday. Both will give ammunition to detractors of China’s regime, including the human rights advocates who consider trade with China to be enabling repression.
But that isn’t what Chen Guangcheng is saying; he’s calling attention to human rights abuses, but also working within the system to change it. He addresses his belief in the rule of law to the incoming 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party: “I hope its new leaders will use this opportunity wisely,” he wrote in the Times. He will find out in person; at considerable risk, he promises to return to China.
As Guangcheng was preparing to speak out, architect Wang Shu was receiving the coveted Pritzker Prize in a ceremony in Beijing. He is the first winner from China to receive the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for the built environment. Wang Shu designs buildings, most notably the Ningbo Contemporary Art Museum, that hope to harmonize local needs with respect for China’s ancient culture. His design for the Xiangshan Campus of the China Academy of Art pointedly used 2 million tiles from demolished traditional houses for the exterior of the campus buildings.
Over 20 million rural dwellers moved into China’s crowded cities last year alone, and how China handles the influx will have a lasting impact on its urban fabric as well as its heritage. China has, for good and bad, an unimaginable opportunity for urban planning; Wang Shu is trying to reconcile the unique traditions of the past with future development.
And he, too, wants his government to recognize that it has an opportunity to use this power wisely. At his acceptance speech, he condemned China’s demolition frenzy. “People tend to think the higher the buildings are, the more modernized we are. Do we really need this? As the world becomes more urbanized, it not only tears down the identity of cities, but also the lifestyles we used to live.” In the audience, as Mr. Wang spoke, sat Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who is set to take over later this year.
Both the dissident and the architect view the transition of leadership this year in China as an opportunity for them and their nation. It should remind us that American exceptionalism isn’t about whether we are the best, or say we are the best, for the next few months of campaign season. It is better measured on how well we, too, can readjust to changing circumstances. Sometimes that will require listening, more than talking, to the conversations that are occurring in places as different, but possibly as dynamic, as China, or Europe, or the Middle East.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter