The Prisoner of Wuhan

July 16, 1995

U.S. relations with China will be difficult for the foreseeable future, and vitally important. China is a demographic giant undergoing enormous economic growth. It has a Communist ruling class hanging on to monolithic power while instituting capitalism, a contradiction that cannot endure. Nor can the tension between China's theory of centralized decisions and reality of regional autonomy. Anxiety-prone bureaucrats are trying desperately to stabilize the authority of Jiang Zemin as successor to the failing Deng Xiaoping.

This explains China's overreaction to the Clinton administration allowing Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui to attend a Cornell University alumni reunion as a private citizen. That was not symbolic recognition of Taiwan (U.S. administrations agreed with both Chinas that there is only one), though Beijing saw it as such.

And it explains the huge case China has made of dissident Harry Wu, now a U.S. citizen. Mr. Wu was allowed into China, seized and taken to his old home town of Wuhan for trial on charges of betraying state secrets to foreign organizations. The secrets are prison labor. The organizations are human rights watchdogs and the Customs Service.

Official insecurity explains why China's regime takes serious offense at the glib provocations of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and why it chooses to interpret U.S. recognition of Vietnam as encirclement of China rather than as the logical next step in U.S.-Vietnamese relations. This paranoia and mutual annoyance can get worse.

China may sell nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems to rogue regimes. China is bellicose about boundary disputes in the South China Sea that could provide cheap wars against Vietnam or the Philippines. The ultimate scenario for uneasy rulers in need of external crisis would be a costly war to absorb Taiwan. Meanwhile, China's peaceful absorption of Hong Kong will take place on schedule the year after next.

Harry Wu is doing for China's prisons what Alexander Solzhenitsyn did for the Soviet Union's. He excites admiration. He deserves every protection from U.S. consular officers that international practice allows. But he does not get to dictate U.S. posture toward the world's third greatest power when nuclear proliferation and the peace of East Asia are at stake. The U.S. needs to maintain dialogue with Beijing on a raft of issues, most dealing with its international conduct.

Organizations and businesses can suggest to China the harm of its behavior. The United Nations should give strong consideration to rescheduling the conference on women set for Beijing in September, because of inadequate facilities for the nongovernmental portion of the conference. China would understand such messages.

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