Absence of freedom is no longer overlooked

October 30, 1997|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- If China's object were to plunge U.S.-China relations into a polar frost, Jiang Zemin would be a suitable instrument. Before embarking for America, he explained for Americans' benefit that Einstein's theory of relativity, applied to politics, somehow puts American and Chinese notions of political liberty on a moral par. He said that what China has done to Tibet is analogous to Lincoln's emancipation of the slaves. And, for good measure, Mr. Jiang dusted off that hoary Communist standard about ''the most fundamental human right'' being ''adequate food and clothing.''

Mr. Jiang is not an imbecile and probably does not really think, as his statements for American consumption suggest, that Americans are imbecilic. Perhaps he says such aggressively offensive things because that is what people do in the final stages of defending the indefensible.

The indefensible

That is what -- here is an analogy for Mr. Jiang (or his programmers) to ponder -- apologists for the South's slavocracy did in the last two decades of its existence. They argued, with a vehemence inversely proportional to their intellectual serenity, that slavery was morally preferable to the North's system of free labor -- that slaves were better cared for than wageworkers. Such arguments arose from the desperation of representatives of a doomed system.

China's regime is probably in the last two decades of its existence. It is making a wager it is likely to lose: that it can hermetically seal its political system from the contagion of the social prerequisites of economic dynamism -- broad dissemination of information and decision-making, contract law and its ethic of promise-keeping, property as a basis of the individual's zone of privacy and sovereignty.

The point of maximum danger, for the Chinese people and perhaps for the larger world, will come when the regime realizes that it drew the wrong lesson from its correct diagnosis of the crumbling of the Soviet Union's satellite system and then of the Soviet Union itself. The diagnosis was that dissidents backed by an international apparatus for focusing attention on human rights can have an influence vastly disproportionate to their numbers. The wrong lesson that China's leaders have drawn from this is that if they are sufficiently ruthless about tightening the screws on dissent while they loosen restraints on entrepreneurial ferment, the regime can retain its equilibrium.

China's leaders are perhaps encouraged in their delusions by those Americans whose moral stance toward China can best be described as crackpot cosmopolitanism. Time magazine, in which Mr. Jiang put on Lincoln's stovepipe hat regarding Tibet (''We have fundamentally resolved the problem of slavery there''), offers this astonishing locution: ''The 1989 Tiananmen episode, one of China's most divisive modern tragedies . . .'' Think about ''divisive'' as a characterization of that ''episode.''

For years political pilgrims went to China and (in Sen. Pat Moynihan's acerbic description) came home more impressed by the absence of flies than by the absence of freedom. But today's apologists are not innocents abroad, they are sophisticates at home, lecturing Americans about the relativity (Einstein again?) of things.

Speaking of village elections in which perhaps 300 million Chinese participate, but in which there are no opposition parties and most candidates are selected by the authorities, Sen. Dianne Feinstein says, ''More people vote in China today than do in the United States.'' She proposed a U.S.-Chinese commission to study human rights problems in both countries, ''both Tiananmen Square and Kent State.'' The Weekly Standard, which collects such examples of moral equivalency reasoning, notes the preposterousness of equating a breakdown in discipline among Ohio National Guard riflemen with the unleashing of tanks as government policy.

But President Clinton should try to develop with China something akin to the Helsinki accords, by which the Soviet Union was enmeshed in a process of developing standards and accountability regarding human rights.

What became the Helsinki process began under President Ford, who ratified the accord at considerable cost in mistaken disapproval from conservatives. President Carter made it central to U.S. policy and President Reagan made it part of the Cold War endgame. Mr. Clinton should try to continue, by enlarging, that tradition.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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