The policy must be to subvert China

April 17, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- The interval between the challenge of coping with the declining bear, the Soviet Union, and that of coping with the rising dragon, China, has been history's intermission. However, the curtain will soon rise on the next act of the drama of democracy's challenge to dictatorship.

Soon Congress will vote on renewal of China's most-favored-nation status. And at midnight June 30 there will occur an event for which there is no historic parallel -- the quiet passage of one of the world's greatest cities, Hong Kong, from freedom into subservience to a dictatorship.

Talk of China's emergence as a superpower may seem premature. Two decades of rapid economic growth have not cured the relative primitiveness of China's economy, its military (technologically backward and outnumbered 2-to-1 by the armed forces of China's seven largest neighbors) and its provisions for modernity, ranging from the rule of law to public health measures.

Supposedly, one-quarter of all the construction cranes operating the world are operating around the clock in one Chinese city, Shanghai. In the last 20 years 300 million Chinese have been raised above the international poverty line. But as many remain below it. The Economist magazine estimates that the 50 million ethnic Chinese in the Southeast Asian diaspora may possess wealth equal to that of the 1.2 billion Chinese in the People's Republic.

China's air is sickening: One-quarter of all deaths are from lung diseases. And much of China's economy is feudalism leavened by anarchy. Business Week estimates that half the 110,000 state enterprises lose money. The National Journal reports that 50 million of the 120 million employed in those enterprises do no useful work. Still, the fact that the China market has been a beguiling chimera for a century (last year China took less than 2 percent of U.S. exports, one-third as much in dollar value as Taiwan) does not mean it must always be that.

An empty pedestal

The problem of modulating the turbulence surrounding China's emergence as a superpower may be the largest question of American life for a generation. But U.S. policy toward China calls to mind Tchaikovsky's description of Brahms' music -- ''a pedestal without a statue.'' And the policy debate resembles a semantic quibble: ''engagement'' versus ''containment.''

Engagement means a frankly de-moralized policy of commercial and cultural dealings which supposedly will, in time, produce the sedation and then the liberalization of China. Containment means skepticism about any early reform of China's domestic tyranny, and diplomatic and military planning against China's expansionist aspirations, as they can be inferred from China's diplomacy and military procurements.

What the schematic clarity of the dichotomy between engagement and containment obscures is this fact: Whatever the tactics, the strategic aim of U.S. policy is, and must be seen to be, the subversion of the Chinese regime. The only debate concerns the optimal mixture of contacts, incentives and competitions -- commercial, diplomatic, military -- to hasten the dissolution of China's apparatus of repression.

President Clinton has referred to China as a ''former'' communist power, but most of the people living under Leninism in 1987 still are, in China. And its political evolution may not be up toward pluralism but down toward some ''early-20th-century fascism.''

So say Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro in their book ''The Coming Conflict With China.'' China's fascistic attributes include cult of the party state, a state dominated by the army and allied with financial interests dominated by the party, and ''a powerful sense of wounded nationalism . . . a belief that there are historical grievances that have to be addressed, an intense, brittle, defensive kind of national pride, and a powerful suspicion of foreigners.''

China shares borders with 14 nations and currently has land or sea disputes with 24 nations. If an aggressive China seeks pretexts, it can concoct numerous Danzigs and Sudetenlands.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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