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Welcome, President Xi. Now about those dissidents…

A portrait of Xi Jinping by a French artist Credit: Thierry Ehrmann (Abode of Chaos)/Flickr

In Seattle, it’s déjà Henry Kissinger all over again. Like Woody Allen’s Zelig, Kissinger is the omnipresent figure who inserts himself into historic grip-and-grin photos, shape-shifting to the times.

The former Secretary of State, then 55, met in Seattle with Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping in February, 1979, during the first Northwest visit by a Chinese head of state. A 2008 HistoryLink essay notes that Deng cancelled a Port of Seattle boat tour to meet privately with Kissinger, the architect of President Nixon’s 1972 opening to China.

Tuesday evening, Kissinger, now 92, will bookend history, attending a Seattle dinner for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Kissinger’s presence gives expression to sturdy genes and, a wee ominously, the triumph of realpolitik. It was the Kissinger-Nixon era of realpolitik that jettisoned ethical considerations and embraced international politics as it is—messy injustice and all.

No one is more emblematic of power politics or at odds with idealism in foreign affairs. For Kissinger, human rights are ancillary.

As Kissinger said to Nixon when freedom for Soviet Jewry became a concern in the early 1970s, “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy. And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.”

During Deng’s ’79 visit to Seattle, Chinese human rights didn’t register. It was the apex of the Cold War, and the enemy of America’s enemy was our friend. Deng had personally suffered during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-’76, and was a captivating figure. It was still 10 years before the horror of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

Northwesterners were giddy. As the Everett Herald reported at the time, Deng “was the hottest celebrity Seattle has seen since the departure of King Tut, and the best draw until the coming of Neil Diamond.”

A lot has changed in Sino-Northwest relations over the past 36 years. Trade has flourished, with Washington exporting more than $20 billion in goods to China in 2014. During Xi’s visit to Everett’s Boeing plant, the company is set to announce the opening of a Chinese factory to complete production of 737s. Rumors of a pending deal quickly triggered an angry response from at least one state legislator who believes the deal violates the spirit of the Legislature’s $8.7 billion keep-the-jobs-here tax break for Boeing.

Over time, the higher ed sphere also has grown. In ’79, the University of Washington’s then-School of International Studies felt the influence of longtime Professor George Taylor, a committed anti-Communist who taught in China during the 1930s and launched the UW’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies. Fast-forward to today, as the UW partners with one of China’s leading research institutions, Tsinghua University, to offer a masters degree in technology innovation—greased with a $40 million donation from Microsoft.

If only technology and the Internet advanced political liberty, as nearly everyone assumed it would. Journalist Evgeny Morozov noted in his 2011 book, The Net Delusion, that, in practice, bad-guy governments harness the web to squash free speech and propagandize. Freedom is inverted, sometimes with the willing or implicit assist of Western companies.

While high-tech honchos bearing gifts meet with Xi in Seattle this week, they might recall the infuriating case of Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, whose cooperation with the Chinese government led to the arrest and 10-year prison sentence of Shi Tao, a dissident journalist and poet.

So, what happens when Northwest passive-aggressives confront an authoritarian from a massive country with cultural ties extending from British Columbia to Oregon?

As the Sunday Seattle Times headline declared, “The nice Washington has welcome mat out.”

Bill Gates and Gov. Jay Inslee can be welcoming and nice, but also hand Xi a list of political dissidents such as Ilham Tohti and Liu Xiaobo, and demand their release. Consider former Washington Gov. and Ambassador to China Gary Locke, who exhibited backbone standing up for blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng. Locke was critical in corralling Xi to visit Seattle in the first place.

Make no mistake: Microsoft has leverage. Boeing has leverage. Northwesterners have leverage. Or are we all Kissingerian realists now?

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