All We Can Do Is Let China Be China

March 15, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles. -- In the phrase official Washington uses when it is confused, we are getting ''mixed signals'' from China. The masters of Beijing release a dissident here and arrest two over there. They speak softly on trade and carry their big stick on Tibet and other subjects of concern to Americans, including the shipment of arms all over the world and the use of prison labor to make products for shipment to the United States.

We get even, so to speak, by sending mixed signals back.

Last week Secretary of State Warren Christopher traveled through Asia saying that if Chinese human-rights violations continue, the United States will probably cancel China's most-favored-nation status -- essentially threatening to raise tariffs on the booming China-to-U.S. trade from the current average of 8 percent to something like 40 percent.

But at the same time the State Department withdrew its objections of the past six months to the launching of an Australian communications satellite (made in the U.S. by Hughes Aircraft) on a Chinese rocket. And the Defense Department let it be known that it is interested in closer ties to the Chinese People's Liberation Army -- perhaps joint training or peace-keeping missions.

President Clinton, who during the 1992 campaign accused his predecessor, President Bush, of ''coddling China's dictators,'' now sends out administration officials (Assistant Defense Secretary Charles Freeman in this case) to dismiss such words as nothing but the ''strong rhetoric'' of domestic politics. But then, last week, he said that he ''strongly disapproves'' of Chinese politics, meaning new dissident arrests. Once again the White House leaked the word that Mr. Clinton would love to call China's bluff on human rights.

I, for one, am not sure where he got the idea that the Chinese bluff. Perhaps he learned that by reading history. He was, after all, just a tot when Gen. Douglas MacArthur called China's bluff in 1951, and hundreds of thousands of the men of the People's Liberation Army crossed the border into Korea to engage American soldiers and Marines.

We never seem to get it right with China. ''The booby nation,'' Ralph Waldo Emerson said of China in the 1840s. A century later, American politicians called the Chinese communists' ''bluff'' after World War II, sure the ''Reds'' would never come to power. When they did, those same politicians and their successors were sure Red China was nothing but a Soviet satellite, a junior partner in monolithic communism. Then the television generation of American politicians were just as sure democratization had come to China in 1989 -- until the tanks of the People's Liberation Army rolled into Tiananmen Square.

China, history indicates, does what it wants to do. Or, in some of these recent events, the people running China do whatever they believe is necessary to maintain control and order inside their borders -- without regard to the sensitivities of the Voice of America or Amnesty International.

Many of us, including President Clinton, are not pleased by that. But what can we do? In a recent conclave of former secretaries of state in Washington, one of them, Edmund Muskie, said that a single word should encompass all policies and official American attitudes toward China: ''pragmatism.''

Unfortunately, Mr. Muskie is right. As Secretary Christopher arrived in Beijing, the United States seemed ready to recycle a couple of tired old foreign policies:

* We are considering cold war, beginning with trade sanctions, because we cannot accept what we cannot change about the way China's rulers govern their own people. That is what we did with the Soviet Union in the late 1940s.

* We are unwilling or unable to treat trade as plain old dollar-for-dollar business while we are still China's principal customer, allowing our trade deficit with the Chinese to double and redouble year after year. That is what we did (or did not do) with the Japanese in the late 1960s -- and only realized too late that the American working class had been decimated and we no longer had trade leverage because we no longer manufactured what we were buying abroad.

Our signals are mixed on China because however much we wish it were otherwise, we do not have enough power to make them live by our rules. There is also a chance that they, like the Japanese, will soon be rule-makers themselves on a world scale.

Today's economic projections are sometimes tomorrow's jokes, but the World Bank has projected that ''Greater China'' -- that is, the People's Republic, Taiwan and Hong Kong -- will have net imports of $691 billion in the year 2002, compared with $521 billion for Japan. And that same year, eight years from now, the bank projects a Greater China gross domestic product of $9.8 trillion, larger than the projected United States GDP of $9.7 trillion.

Maybe, maybe not. But certainly the time has come to accept the Chinese for what they are -- and they are not going to be Americans -- and to get tough with them on trade, not because of human rights but because of the future importance of U.S.-China trade itself.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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