Now Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff and his hosts in Beijing can get down to the real problems in Sino-American relations. They are serious enough, and reflect the clashing values and priorities of the two societies.
The most difficult are China's own nuclear testing; its sale of strategic weaponry to such countries as Pakistan and Iran; China's belligerent method of pressing claims to islets and seabed in the South China Sea to which other nations have competing claims; fairness of trade, and China's huge advantage in the trade balance between the two countries; and the current U.S. attitude toward Taiwan, which five previous U.S. presidents have called part of China.
These are too thorny to be cleared up in one diplomatic visit. But the rapid conviction of Harry Wu of spying, followed ritualistically by his admission of guilt and expulsion from China -- as the United States had sought -- removes him as an obstacle to clear vision of the real issues separating the two countries. As such, it is a message that China is not seeking a crisis in relations with the U.S. for its own sake or creating needless barriers to improvement.
Mr. Wu's activities in China would not be considered spying in the U.S. But China does not have free expression. Photographing prison labor on export products for publicity abroad is likely to be an infraction of China's law. Mr. Wu is a valiant fighter for human rights in his homeland who spent 19 years at hard labor in China and risked his life again and again to crusade against China's version of the old Soviet gulag archipelago. He deserves the admiration of fellow Americans. He will, no doubt, resume his relentless campaign.
But Mr. Wu does not get to control the future of Sino-U.S. relations as though the issues in Mr. Tarnoff's brief are less important than his welfare and mission in life. Nor can U.S. citizenship become a protective cloak for activities in China that would mean prison for any Chinese doing them.
China's leaders acted insecurely as Deng Xiaoping marked his 91st birthday in seclusion. President Jiang Zemin deals with a set of powerful ancient generals with little grasp of the outside world, the strong regionalism mushrooming in their country or even the capitalist economics they are trying to marry to Communist politics. It is a dangerous time, but at least Harry Wu is not the reason why.