China Policy as Musical Comedy

September 04, 1994

If Richard Nixon's policy toward China was grist for grand opera, Bill Clinton's gyrations could be the stuff of musical comedy. The latest scene featured America's chief official huckster and secretary of Commerce, Ron Brown, who took along 24 Fortune 500 CEOs on a trade mission in which his much-touted "commercial diplomacy" netted contracts estimated at $6 billion.

Let's make it clear that we approve of these efforts to make China (in Mr. Brown's words) "a commercial ally and partner," though his attempt to play the "Energizer bunny" was a bit excessive. His approach is far preferable to Secretary of State Warren Christopher's grim undertakings, since abandoned, to chastise the Beijing regime on its human rights record and presume to impose U.S. standards on a civilization 6,000 years old.

Even if one accepts the State Department's efforts to measure ** human rights by the treatment of a few high-profile dissidents rather than spectacular increases in the economic well-being of China's people, Mr. Brown wins. Fewer dissidents were picked up during his visit last week than on Mr. Christopher's ill-fated journey in 1993.

In the interim, President Clinton junked his campaign-inspired threat to cancel so-called "most favored nation" trading relations with China (actually, just normal trade ties) if China did not clean up its act. During the transition, the State Department's assistant secretary for Asian affairs, Winston Lord, criticized the very policies he and his boss had concocted, saying they were turning the U.S. into "an international nanny, if not bully."

Mr. Brown, always ready to push an advantage, jabbed in the needle at the end of his "profoundly positive" China trip. "You can adopt a 'feel good' policy which causes you to have the ability to make strong statements," he said. "Or you can adopt a pragmatic, common-sense policy which helps you achieve your goals." So much for Foggy Bottom!

As if to answer critics suggesting he was indifferent to human rights matters, which he denied, the secretary quoted President Clinton as saying that "of all the international challenges the U.S. currently faces, the development of a long-range relationship with China might be viewed by history as one of the most important."

In our view, this administration does not have to wait for history. Mr. Clinton was stating the obvious, even if it was not apparent to him while he and Mr. Christopher were pushing emotional hot buttons that neither helped dissidents nor led to the kind of relationship we need with China.

The zigs and zags of U.S. policy and the contrasts in personality of American policy-makers must be a constant source of puzzlement to Beijing officialdom. Our advice is not to take these inscrutable Americans too seriously. Everything is subject to sudden change based on domestic politics. Consider it musical comedy, not grand opera.

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