Can U.S. foreign policy afford morality? It must! Horror: The human abuse policies of China and other totalitarian states are ,,susceptible to pressure - if it's tough and consistent.

The Argument

February 02, 1997|By Craig Eisendrath | Craig Eisendrath,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The atrocities of Chinese history since the 1949 takeover by Mao Tse-tung's Communist Party bear comparison with those of Hitler and Stalin. These horrors, which continue only somewhat abated today, pose a terrible dilemma for U.S. policymakers: Can the United States actively show its revulsion and effectively press for reforms without destroying its trade relations or driving China into greater conservativism and belligerency?

I believe the United States can pressure the Chinese on a wide range of issues and thereby foster more progress on human rights and democracy. But the issues must be chosen carefully, and the United States must be consistent and willing to act, not just bluster.

The horrors of recent Chinese history are undeniable. Jasper Becker's forthcoming "Hungry Ghosts" (The Free Press. 352 pages. $25) exhaustively documents the state-induced famine of in which from 30 million to 40 million people perished. Becker, Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post, argues that this calamity was created not by nature but by the imposition of collective agriculture on a deeply resistant people, by blindly stupid agrarian policies, and by the deliberate starvation of millions of modest to prosperous peasants.

Ironically, the famine mimicked the class warfare conducted by the Soviets during Stalin's first Five Year Plan of 1928-1932. Indeed, Becker makes clear how the Chinese learned nothing from the Soviet disaster, which eliminated the enterprising kulaks while regimenting Russian peasants, who were desperate own their own land, in massive state farms that persistently failed to produce.

Internal dissensions caused by the disastrous Chinese famine, Becker shows, led to Mao's fratricidal Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, which mimicked the destruction of the Communist Party by Stalin during the great purge of the late 1930s. But the Cultural Revolution cut much deeper into Chinese society, and killed many times more people.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Harrison E. Salisbury, in his gossipy but powerful "The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng" (Avon Books. 544 pages. $12.50), shows how Mao could indeed act as an imperious emperor. Insulated from criticism, uninhibited by law or constitution, influenced by self-seeking advisers, adrift in concubines and drugs, Mao deliberately set in motion the Red Guards who terrorized a nation.

In 1979, Deng Xiaoping, China's present aged and ailing ruler, came into power relatively untainted by the Cultural Revolution but deeply complicit in the imposition of arbitrary state power and the denial of human rights. Some of Salisbury's best writing depicts the most recent example of Deng's politics - the 1989 suppression of student and worker protest in Tiananmen Square.

What is less well-known is the extent and cruelty of the Chinese prison system, which rivals any in the contemporary world. Journalist Kate Saunders' recent "Eighteen Layers of Hell: Stories from the Chinese Gulag" (Cassell. 254 pages. 16.95) claims that "Since the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949, more than 30 million people have disappeared within the bamboo gulag," and that "Six to eight million people in China today are forced to carry out hard labor in camps across the country. ..."

This is the China with which the United States continues to trade and conduct polite diplomacy, prompting repeated calls from human rights groups and some outraged members of Congress for economic sanctions, particularly the trade-ending withdrawal of Most Favored Nation status.

Yale-trained economist William H. Overholt holds that this action, however morally satisfying, would slow the forward momentum of the Chinese economy of the last 17 years. Overholt, while decrying the continued abuse of human rights, believes China's incredible economic advances are creating the preconditions for democracy and sees human rights and democracy making modest gains.

Investment vs. sanctions

In his "The Rise of China: How Economic Reform is Creating a New Superpower" (Norton. 431 pages. $143), Overholt credits Deng's policies with giving China's 1.2 billion people an economic growth rate of more than 10 percent, the world's highest.

In direct contrast to the Soviet Union, China, under Deng, returned its farms to the farmers, encouraged foreign investment, and gave priority to light and medium industry. In contrast to post-communist Russia, China carefully paced price liberalization and privatization while maintaining governmental authority and building up strong banking and marketing institutions.

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