No one is expecting Gov. Jerry Brown to visit China on a trade mission and then lecture his hosts on their human rights record. Just imagine how a California governor would respond if he hosted a foreign delegation that lectured him on, say, conditions in California's prisons.
But Brown's flippant comments on China's human rights record have created a messaging problem of the other extreme. They've left the impression that California and its governor are willing to overlook China's treatment of dissidents in a groveling bid for greenbacks. While Brown didn't intend to send that message, many Californians, and several human rights activists, are rightly questioning his choice of words.
As expected, Brown was asked about his position on China's human rights record soon after arriving in Beijing this week. He responded that business is his sole focus.
"I know that there are a lot of politics that go on in Washington, but we're from California and we are not interested in politics," Brown said during a lavish dinner at the China Club, a former palace in China's capital. "We are a green state, and we like greenbacks."
Yes, we like foreign investment, and yes, Brown is wise to establish a closer relationship between the Golden State and China. Under its "going out" policy, China increased its direct investment overseas from $5.5 billion in 2004 to $65 billion by 2011. Brown rightly wants California to land its share of that money and more, given our geographic and economic advantages over some potential suitors.
But there are ways for an elected leader to court Chinese business without creating the appearance he condones China's totalitarian practices. This is one of those moments when Brown could learn something from his predecessor.
During a visit to China in 2005, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not explicitly lecture Chinese officials on their brutally tight hold on power. But in an address at Tsinghua University, Schwarzenegger sent an unmistakable message of liberty to the students assembled.
"Each of you has the power of the individual within you. You have the power of your dreams within," Schwarzenegger said. "You are young; you are educated; you are the very best China has to offer. ... Imagine what can be accomplished if the dreams of China's 1.3 billion individuals could be unleashed."
To his credit, Brown delivered a speech Thursday in Beijing that was both forceful yet respectful of Chinese sensitivities. It concerned the environment. Speaking at the same university where Schwarzenegger spoke eight years earlier, Brown argued that it is in China's long-term interest to reduce its carbon footprint and clean up its air.
"The problem of dealing with climate is not an optional kind of problem," Brown said. "It's mandatory. There is no escape. Nature doesn't play games."
If California and China could build a stronger environmental partnership, the benefits could be immeasurable. California has the expertise, technology and experience of having fostered growth while cleaning the air. The more California can do to help China reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, the more we can forestall the worst expected impacts of climate change, both here and worldwide.
But as Brown well knows, it is also in China's long-term interest to open up its society and unleash the aspirations of its 1.3 billion people. During the first days of his trip, there were opportunities for Brown to send that message. There still are.