As the train rushed through the Chinese countryside, he leapt to his feet in the swaying compartment to declaim with astonishing recall and great passion Martin Luther King's speech beginning "I have a dream..." The young man, encountered by chance on a journey across southern China a few years ago, was a graduate of the Shanghai Foreign Languages Academy, a protesting student in that city at the time of Tiananmen and, as one of the country's new entrepreneurs, already on the way to making a fortune out of cellular phones.
Arrested and briefly detained, he had become a businessman rather than the official he would almost certainly have been only a few years earlier. But the cellphone proselytiser had in no way reneged on the democratic hopes that had sent him out onto the Shanghai streets in 1989.
That moment on the train allowed one to see how much Chinese ideas of personal freedom are bound up with their understanding of America and its possibilities. And their understanding, also, of how far America has fallen short of those possibilities. The reformer Kang Youwei, born in 1858, reflected that even though slavery had been the issue over which America fought their civil war, "To this day the American people do not admit the equality of black people," as they still did not when King spoke.
These intertwined ideas of America - an inspiring vision of freedom, but an imperfect and sometimes contradictory reality - have always run in educated Chinese minds as a counterpoint to the more visible political and diplomatic manoeuvres of the two countries over many years. After all, the appearance in Tiananmen Square of a papier maché model of the Statue of Liberty was one of the events that infuriated the elderly leaders trying to control the situation from the government complex of Zhongnanhai.
And, after all, the men behind the recent release of the Tiananmen Papers, which show how those leaders debated, dithered and finally did the worst possible thing, chose American scholars as their helpers in a dramatic effort to reopen the debate on democracy in China. The issue which Zhao Ziyang, the loser in 1989, raised when, according to the Tiananmen Papers, he told the other leaders "If the party doesn't hold up the banner of democracy in our country someone else will, and we will lose out" has still not been settled.
This is the broader moral and cultural background to the clash between American superpower and Chinese regional power seen in episodes like that of the American spy plane. The two touch one another at certain interesting points. The American instinct is to see a crisis of this kind in terms of the plight of individuals - the captured American crew and their families and, in this case, the missing Chinese interceptor pilot and his family. President Bush's direct expressions of sympathy to the wife of Wang Wei, the lost pilot, may well have infuriated the Chinese government. They seem to have responded by having her write to the White House asking for a state apology.
"In the eyes of the Chinese leaders" according to one experienced Chinese observer, "apologies in a situation like this are not due to individuals but to the state. For the American president to go over their heads to address a Chinese citizen was quite out of order." Out of order, that is, because it emphasises that individuals have rights, rights which sometimes must outweigh governmental considerations.
It is the same point the US made this week when it tabled a resolution critical of China at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Yet, even if the Chinese government remains wedded officially to the state to state view, they too must defer to the modern preoccupation with individual fate, and did so with many hours of programming on the search for Wang Wei. This resembled less the old socialist hero model of coverage than the American model of reality TV, noted John Pomfret of The Washington Post.
The rights of individuals, the principle on which Chinese and western governments, although not necessarily the Chinese and western peoples, differ most sharply, have come to shadow almost all the critical issues. The future of Taiwan, the most critical question before the two countries, remains a strategic question but has also become, in effect, a question of human rights.
Since the 1972 Shanghai communique, in which the US acknowledged the one China policy, the moral basis for resisting China's claim on Taiwan ceased to be that nationalist China was the legitimate government of the whole country and certainly ought to prevail in the small portion it still controlled. It has been, instead, simply that a majority of individuals on that island do not wish to be ruled by Beijing. As Taiwan has become more democratic, the argument from rights has become more and more convincing, at least to the west and perhaps, at an underground level, in China as well.
The complexities of the relationship between China and America have deepened since Bush came to power. In both countries there are men in positions of responsibility and influence who would be comfortable with a more adversarial situation, although not one so hostile as to undermine an economic intimacy of great value, for different reasons, to both sides, or to drive China back into isolation from the world.
Nevertheless, a rightwing American government, acting in part in defence of human rights, may in the process be strengthening the conservative elements in the Chinese party, government, and military which are least likely to advance those rights in China. That same American government, while professing a desire that China be brought fully into various world bodies, may in fact end up limiting that engagement. Because the Bush team made it so clear, during the election campaign and in the first weeks of power, that they intended to be tougher with China they may already have narrowed the options for the more liberal figures in the Chinese ruling class. That said, it was clear before Bush's victory that both the American and Chinese military establishments were shaping policies that made a degree of confrontation more likely. Hainan has only been a rather earlier confirmation of this than expected.
Now comes the decision on Taiwan arms. It is more likely after Hainan that the Bush administration will decide to supply the weapons that Taiwan wants. No matter that the weapons will not be deployed for six or more years, and no matter that Taiwan's somewhat rundown armed forces may not be able to use them all that effectively. Taiwan understandably wants a signal of American resolve, and it could well get it. Unhappily, what may buttress confidence and democracy in Taiwan could well restrict the prospects for political reform and change in the Peoples Republic, leaving unsettled for even longer the issue that Zhao Ziyang raised so sharply in 1989.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001