China American fantasies Near trade war shows limits of our influence.

June 23, 1996|By Ian Johnson

WASHINGTON — BEIJING -- Just like last year, the United States and China went to the brink of a trade war and then stepped back, with both sides claiming victory.

The result this past Monday was another agreement to protect intellectual property rights -- the pirated music, software and movies that one can easily buy in Chinese cities and, thanks to exports from China, throughout Asia.

"This is the fourth IPR agreement since 1989, most of which have been honored in the breach," said James Feinerman, a law professor and China specialist at Georgetown University. "It's deja vu all over again, again."

Cynicism may be the natural response to this year's trade spat, but it highlights one of the most difficult foreign policy problems facing the United States: how to deal with a country that it sees only as a reflection of its dreams and hopes, rather than the more complicated -- and less malleable -- place it really is.

According to Acting U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, Washington's policy now is to jawbone China into submission. Just as U.S. officials needed more than 40 trips over the past 15 months to secure this past week's accord, so too will other problems be tackled.

In a way, this makes the current U.S. policy toward China a slow-motion version of the 19th century missionary movement. Back then, missionaries tried zealously to Christianize the world's largest heathen nation. Nowadays, Christianity has been replaced by democracy and market economics, the absolute truths that Americans believe they must promote or face damnation.

Especially since the Tiananmen Square massacre of demonstrators in 1989, U.S. policy has been based on the assumption that it is America's burden to liberate the Chinese from their government -- that like a prisoner trying to qualify for parole, China must show some sort of quantifiable improvement in its behavior each year in order to meet America's approval.

Not that China is an entirely blameless victim of another country's delusions.

U.S. demands that it close pirate factories are largely reasonable and in China's long-term economic benefit. If foreign software and ideas are always ripped off, how will China ever develop its own advanced technologies?

Insecure Chinese leaders, however, see trade disputes as a litmus test of toughness. No one dares buckle to the Americans or give a straight answer -- thus the annual agreements which may not necessarily be followed or which the central government is too weak to genuinely enforce.

Because of this, China is in the unenviable position of looking like either an international scofflaw -- ignoring agreements it makes with other countries -- or a country too disjointed to enforce its own laws.

As U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord put it in April, the current government in Beijing "is the most difficult regime I've seen in 25 years."

That said, however, U.S. policy toward China is still driven by overblown assumptions of America's ability to influence the world's most populous nation. Its policy on intellectual property rights illustrates this confusion.

Since last year's IPR accord was reached, China's enforcement of it has been haphazard. While it is more difficult to find pirated products in Chinese stores or on street corners, factories have been producing bootleg compact disks and CD-ROMs at nearly full tilt. Most of the production goes overseas, offering wealthy Asian consumers the chance to buy cut-priced products when they might otherwise buy full-priced products.

When Monday's deal was announced, U.S. officials said factories were being closed and Chinese inspectors would monitor the remaining factories to make sure they produced only licensed products.

While a useful start, this is only a small change over the current arrangement. As in the past, U.S. officials will have to take Chinese officials' word that they have closed the factories and that the inspectors are not being bribed. Truly independent verification will not exist.

This is not surprising -- what country willingly allows another country's officials to poke around its companies? But it does guarantee that piracy will continue and that further negotiations and trade war brinkmanship are likely.

Ultimately, what will change China's attitude toward pirating is what changed many other countries' attitudes: China will very slowly develop its own intellectual property that its own people will have a vested interest in protecting.

It's worth noting, for example, that not too long ago, Hong Kong was the legendary pirating capital, where fake Rolex watches, Levi jeans and popular books could be bought. While factories making these products have been closed down in recent years, it has only been late in Hong Kong's economic development.

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