China Abroad and Guns at Home

December 28, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York. -- As 1993 ends, the headlines are about danger in Russia and sex at home, specifically at the president's home. Those are big stories but not the biggest. I think the big stories of 1993 were China abroad and guns at home.

''You are treating China as if it were an aid-dependent Third World country,'' said Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, in a November interview with Business Week magazine. ''Is that sensible?''

No, it is not. This is the year we discovered (or should have discovered) that the People's Republic of China is going to be a bigger trade partner (and problem) than Japan. When the final trade balance figures for 1993 are calculated, the unfavorable (to us) trade gap with China will probably go over $20 billion, reaching a point of more than half our unfavorable gap with Japan.

Soon the China trade gap will be greater than the gap with Japan; then it will double the Japan gap and keep growing -- because for a time there will be few other societies able to match the numbers, the skills and the low wages of Chinese workers.

Official statistics of the gap with China understate the real situation, because much of the stuff we've bought this Christmas and every other day of the year labeled ''Made in Hong Kong'' or ''Made in Japan'' or Thailand or Taiwan is actually made in the People's Republic.

Two other things to remember:

* Hong Kong will become part of the People's Republic in 1997, giving the mainland Chinese new access and insight into the ways of capitalism, and as much as $1 trillion in investable capital, according to figures compiled by Citibank.

* Overseas Chinese control hundreds of billions of dollars more in investable capital in other Asian economies, from Indonesia to Thailand, and much of that money will appear in mainland China -- at least until those mainland Chinese no longer need middlemen to show them the way into free markets.

The Chinese market, though, is not free. The people running China (who banned satellite television dishes last month) have no intention of voluntarily opening it to placate Western theoreticians of capitalism. The great trade challenge for the United States during the next decade or so will to avoid making the same series of mistakes we made in dealing with Japan as it emerged into a world economic power.

There are lessons to be learned from Europeans and from the Japanese, too, in the business of demanding that imports into the United States be linked to American exports to China.

Ironically, another story in the issue of Business Week in which the Lee Kuan Yew interview appeared also touched a nerve with me. The magazine reported on the activities of Peter Edelman, who is serving as co-chairman of the White House Interagency Group on Violence. When I first met Mr. Edelman, he and another young man, Adam Walinsky, were the brash and liberal intellectual stars on the staff of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Then, they both were trying to deal with the inequities and horrors of poverty by brainstorming liberal solutions to the hard problems of the poor in America, particularly the black poor.

Now, Mr. Edelman is trying to deal with violence, and Mr. Walinsky, a New York attorney, is the driving force behind Police Corps thinking, promoting plans to recruit the best and the brightest young people into police work by offering free higher education to those willing to pledge part of their lives to law enforcement.

Times change, and so do young men. There was a significant change this past year in American consensus thinking on crime and violence. Guns made the difference -- guns used without thought, conscience and, often, consequences to the shooters. There are so many weapons now in the hands of far younger men who seem almost totally alienated from the old values that Americans are acting like people attacked by terrorism.

And we are under attack. The new terrorism is symbolized by assault weapons in the hands of psychopaths, sociopaths and men young enough to still be legally considered children. No one, it seems, feels safe; we are in a land where mini-massacres of strangers are becoming commonplace -- and we are all strangers in random killings.

Guns and China are both problems for government and, for now, the United States does again have activist government. Those are the two big stories, and soon enough we will be looking to big government to begin confronting big problems (and opportunities) in the name of the rest of us.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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