Chinese diplomats headed to Syria as violence persists

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Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi meets with former Brazilian President Lula da Silva. Yang's been avoiding articulating a clear position on Syria for China, but it's heading there to, it say, try and end the violence. (Photo by Antônio Cruz

A Chinese envoy headed to Syria on Tuesday, bringing China's call for an immediate ceasefire directly to leaders there.

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China said all parties in Syria, the rebels and Syrian government officials.

Time was when China didn’t get involved in international affairs, beyond funding various Southeast Asian Communist insurgency groups in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now, as a growing world power, China does weigh in. In the case of Syria, it has used its power to block international intervention that would oust President Bashar al-Assad.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was asked about China’s position on Syria.

“On the issue of Syria, as you know, not long ago, a leading official of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs made a statement on this issue. He set out a six-point proposition and proposal on handling resolving the issue of Syria,” Yang said.

This was a curiously coy answer, given that Yang is the most senior official in the Foreign Ministry. Indeed, even the original Foreign Ministry statement on Sunday, with the six-point proposal, didn’t name the so-called “leading official” in the Foreign Ministry. What it did was call for all parties to cease all acts of violence, and resolve their differences through dialogue.

The Chinese envoy went to Syria to try to promote such dialogue. But he’s expected to talk only to the government side.

China has long been friendly with that government — selling it arms, purchasing oil, and exporting billions of dollars worth of Chinese goods to Syria each year. It has reason to want Assad’s government to remain in powr.

Many Syrians have reason to want it to go. Refugees fleeing the city of Homs have told stories of atrocities committed by government troops. One woman told the BBC her family witnessed a massacre of 36 men and boys from one village. She said her own son’s throat was cut; he was 12.

By now, an estimated 7,000 Syrians are believed to have been killed since the start of the uprising about a year ago. Senator John McCain said on Monday that he thinks it’s time for the United States to step in.

“The United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria, especially in the north, through air strikes on Assad’s forces,” McCain said. “To be clear, this will require the United States to repress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country.”

The White House has said President Barack Obama doesn’t agree that this is the best way forward.

Still, McCain’s proposal sounds a lot like the action that the United States took in Libya last year.

China’s leaders didn’t like the precedent set in Libya – that a people could rise up against their government, and a UN Security Council resolution could allow foreign air strikes to support them against that government.

“We oppose anyone interfering in Syria’s internal affairs under the pretext of ‘humanitarian issues,’ ” the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Sunday.

And yet, when Premier Wen Jiabao opened this week’s National People’s Congress – China’s annual 10-day exercise in guided democracy – he painted China as a champion of global peace.

“We will work tirelessly with other countries to advance human civilization, improve the well-being of people in all countries, and build a harmonious world of enduring peace and common prosperity,” Wen said.

And also, it appears, of enduring authoritarian governments, regardless of how much their populations want them gone. 

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