Saving China with Richard Gere and company

November 05, 1997|By Richard Reeves

NEW YORK -- Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up putting change into envelopes for Christian missions in China and praying for the souls of people in that far land. It was God's work, saving souls whether they wanted to be saved or not. Now, all these years later, I think we might consider a 27-word China policy based on a prayer I remember this way:

''God, grant me the courage to change what needs to be changed; the serenity to accept what cannot be changed; and the wisdom to know the difference.''

I have been in China often enough during the past 20 years to be frustrated by that nation's unfathomable pride in a history that enshrines the worst kinds of cruelty, and to be appalled by the thuggery of the country's leadership. But I have been more impressed by the tremendous improvement in the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese in that time. It is possible to argue that China is more peaceful, more prosperous, healthier and more hopeful than it has ever been.

There is a deep ocean of ignorance on our side, too. Older and wiser, I hope, I know that we cannot ''save'' China or the Chinese, any more than they can change us. I don't want to hurt the feelings of too many good and sincere American souls, but China is not going to be saved or humbled by us, even with Richard Gere and Brad Pitt on our side.

Rights and wrongs

Many Americans, including many at the highest levels of government, feel compelled to preach to China about wrongs such as child labor and religious persecution, and rights such as freedom of speech and assembly. But that compulsion to speak out for the right may be doing more harm than good -- not an unusual result of public piety.

The government of Jiang Zemin and the old communists is not going to permit political speech or assembly for a very simple reason: They will be overthrown if they do. That was what was happening at Tiananmen Square when the troops moved in on students demonstrating for democracy. To Americans and to some of the Chinese students, it looked like the beginning of revolution or civil war.

Actually, Tiananmen was about succession. Who will replace the communists and when? The students represented the future. Obviously young Chinese elites would like to speed up the overthrow of the old order and, probably, their eventual rise to political power. Obviously Jiang Zemin would like to prevent or slow down the coming of that new order.

Whatever you think of the Chinese communists, they have united China as it had never been united before. (At issue to foreigners like us is whether Taiwan and Tibet are part of China.) They did that with a ruthless political program built on pride, terror and force. But it has been done -- and if it is undone, the largest country in the world could be reduced again to what it usually has been, the terrain and domain of warlords and missionaries of Christianity and capitalism.

''More than once in this century, the United States has misunderstood China's domestic conditions . . . '' begins a sensible and restrained report titled ''The Chinese Future'' just published by the Pacific Council on International Policy at the Rand Center for Asia-Pacific Study. ''The leaders of China cannot take the unity of the country for granted.''

Indeed, China is more than the new skyscrapers along the coast from Hong Kong to Shanghai. China is hundreds of millions of desperately poor people who have endured and survived more famine and terror than even the cruel and blundering communists could imagine. Thirty-five million Chinese live in caves. One hundred million or more men, women and children, skilled in only the most basic kinds of agriculture, are roaming the countryside, camping at the edges of the cities or around railroad stations.

Which brings me to child labor. It helped make the United States the great prosperous country it is today, a country that no longer needs child labor. Now, happily, we are a country of child welfare laws, day care centers, kindergartens and nannies. But, once upon a time not so long ago, there were American children in the coal mines, children in the fields, children in garment factories helping the country grow -- and, more important, helping their families survive.

It is disorienting for an American, who would love to preach the cruelty of child labor, to be in China. Because what you see is families, even whole villages, leaving what little they had in the interior, going east and south to the Pacific in hopes a child working in a factory can earn enough Yankee dollars to buy food and maybe even medicine for the grandparents.

Judge not, lest ye be judged. I remember that, too, from Sunday school long ago.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 11/05/97

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