MotherJones JF93: Go to China

The Bush administration never fully dealt with the most basic foreign policy question: does the United States still have an obligation to help promote democracy abroad.

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Dear President-elect Clinton:

To underscore America’s commitment to democratic values and to the “special relationship” that exists between China and the United States, I suggest that shortly after your inauguration you announce that you intend to go to China. Since you have recently seemed to be reevaluating George Bush’s China policies, your trip to Beijing would be as bold a diplomatic initiative as Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip.

Why take such a risk? First, you will not only underscore your intent to improve relations with the People’s Republic, but you will also be granting Chinese leaders that important element of dignity and face upon which their concessions so often hinge. Second, you will be able to meet with some of China’s younger, more liberal leaders to lend them encouragement and international credibility. Finally, your visit to China will create a dramatic backdrop against which to make a major foreign-policy statement demonstrating your commitment to the principles of an open society.

Your statement in Beijing should be broad enough to serve as a guide to the policies that all foreign governments can expect your administration to follow regarding such issues as human rights, international arms sales, nuclear proliferation, and environmental degradation. Moreover, by generalizing your agenda, you will avoid creating the impression that China was singled out for punitive treatment.

Your talk should reassure Chinese leaders that the United States hopes to cultivate stronger ties with a China emerging as Asia’s next economic powerhouse and as a key player in the world community. But you should also make it clear that “normal relations” no longer include overlooking China’s egregious human-rights abuses, specifically its imprisonment of dissidents in a massive gulag and its firing on crowds of unarmed people trying to air grievances.

The current tensions in Sino-American relations raise a number of fundamental foreign-policy questions never fully dealt with by the departing administration. George Bush’s China policy certainly did not demonstrate an American commitment to democratic values around the world. In fact, what stood out about Bush’s policy of “constructive engagement” was its timidity.

Bush argued that taking a confrontational stand against China would have encouraged hard-line Chinese leaders to return to the isolationist policies of the Maoist era. He felt that if we could keep China open through foreign trade and investment, commercial pressure would help China evolve into a more decentralized, open society.

But does the development of a market economy inevitably lead to the creation of a democratic political system? In China’s case, freer markets have led to some relaxation of state control. But China’s economic reforms have been motivated by domestic imperatives that have little to do with any inherent sympathy for political liberalization. Even the most hard-line of China’s octogenarian Marxists, many of whom were sidelined in the October 14 Party Congress, understand that the future of communist rule in China depends on developing an economic base strong enough to assuage popular dissatisfaction with the government.

Although free trade and a more capitalistic economy may lead to greater political reform in the long run, this will be a very slow process, and in the meantime many Chinese will be harassed, jailed, tortured, and sometimes even executed for exercising their democratic rights.

In any case, it is surprising that Bush allowed himself to be intimidated by China’s threats to turn inward. Were the Chinese leaders really likely to impose such isolation on themselves? The United States is China’s largest single foreign market, accounting for 26 percent of all Chinese exports. Given how desperately China needs the hard currency derived from this trade, such threats call to mind a gunman running into a bank and crying out, “Give me all your cash, or I’ll shoot myself!”

Shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre, President Bush dispatched National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft on two secret missions to Beijing, despite having declared that all high-level contacts with China would be halted. The photo that Beijing released afterward, of Scowcroft cheerfully toasting Chinese party officials, encapsulated the sorry debacle of Bush’s China policy.

Scowcroft’s visits convinced China’s leaders that the United States would give in to their implausible threats, essentially turning our bilateral relationship into a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. Equally damaging, the Bush policy put us on the wrong side of an important symbolic issue, signaling to other countries that the United States was retreating from its commitment, as “leader of the free world,” to stand up to autocratic regimes.

U.S. support for democratic values can yield all sorts of payoffs, During your campaign, you often noted that democratically inclined countries make more reliable diplomatic partners and are far less likely to engage in armed conflicts against one another. Furthermore, a society that denies its people their basic rights for an extended time often explodes into chaos, leaving a wake of global economic and political instability, which can be far more damaging to U.S. interests than any passing antagonism over human-rights standards.

From a moral and practical standpoint, it makes sense for the United States to accept some responsibility for shepherding the world toward a more democratic future. The end of the cold war has provided us with an invaluable opportunity to take up this task in a more ecumenical way. We need a new, overarching policy vision to replace the principles of anticommunist “containment” outlined by George F Kennan (alias “X”) in his famous 1947 “Foreign Affairs” article. A much broader range of country-specific policy alternatives should be brought to play when tempering the abuses of repressive, totalitarian governments. Your administration might begin by compiling an inventory, of all the measures that could be used to promote democratic ideals in foreign countries and arraying them in order of relative cost, degree of assertiveness, and political riskiness.

At the low-risk, low-cost end of the spectrum are various forms of moral suasion. Despite significant lapses over the years, the office of the U.S. president is still the world’s preeminent podium for censuring oppressive regimes. President Reagan often cited Soviet dissidents by name in his speeches, and while in Moscow he actually invited some of them to join him at Spasso House for a meeting. By similarly referring to specific imprisoned Chinese dissidents, you could remind China’s leaders that the international community has neither forgiven nor forgotten their abuses. Another low-cost, low- risk option would be to support current congressional efforts to set up an Asian equivalent to Radio Free Europe. You could also push the G-7 powers to issue joint communiques expressing international concern about the human-rights records of China and other countries.

More punitive measures available to you include enforcing selective restrictions on financial aid, technology transfers, military-hardware sales, and high-level diplomatic contacts between the United States and China. If these steps fail to yield results, you could always ask the World Bank and other multilateral lending agencies to include human-rights provisions in their lending programs.

There is also the option of restricting China’s Most Favored Nation preferential-trading privileges. MFN is a powerful diplomatic tool, and we should not use it in a hasty or cavalier fashion. But if China, or any other country, refuses to respond to our entreaties, MFN should, of course, be considered. Given its high volume of exports to the United States, China is particularly vulnerable to the loss of its MFN trading status. President Bush vetoed every bill passed by Congress that would have linked China’s trading privileges to progress in the areas of arms control and human rights. The most recent of these would have imposed higher tariffs only on exports from Chinese state-owned enterprises, thereby penalizing China’s government without harming the private, entrepreneurial sector identified with long-term hopes for democratization.

You have already spoken of renewing China’s MFN status on a conditional basis; if you find the recent bill unacceptable to you, you should work promptly with Congress to develop one that is.

At the most forceful extreme of our policy spectrum are measures such as severing diplomatic relations, imposing absolute sanctions on trade and investment, setting up economic and cultural embargoes, imposing international quarantines backed by force, and, finally, intervening militarily. Nobody recommends adopting any of these last options with regard to China, but they do exist and have been used in the past to demonstrate the depth of U.S. resolve when dealing with unusually recalcitrant, totalitarian regimes.

In diplomatic relations with China, U.S. efforts to promote democratic objectives will succeed best when articulated in a manner that spells out both our long-term expectations and the quid pro quo terms we can expect in our relationship, and that makes clear U.S. determination to back up unmet demands with increasingly severe measures. The Chinese government’s concessions to recent U.S. demands for the lowering of trade barriers demonstrate the effectiveness of dealing from strength. Beijing officials at first blustered, bluffed, and threatened retaliation, but, when convinced of our resolve, made concessions almost across the board rather than risk forfeiting a commercial relationship with the United States.

Ironically, our trade deficit with China (which is expected to total $19 billion in 1992) gives us enormous leverage when negotiating with Beijing, because for the Chinese the benefits of cooperation far outweigh the costs of any concessions they might be forced to make.

In the final analysis, it is simply not enough to speak casually about advancing the cause of democracy in China while still conducting business as usual. Now is the time to seize the post-cold-war opportunity to reunite U.S. foreign-policy goals with our most closely held political ideals.

Orville Schell, a longtime China observer, is working on a book about post-1989 China. This article was extracted from an interview done with Todd Lappin.


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