A two-eyed view of today's China

June 25, 1998|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- President Clinton's arrival in Beijing brings to a climax the two countries' attempt to manipulate the political affairs of the other. The Chinese expect to exploit Mr. Clinton's visit to cover over their policies of internal repression and implicitly endorse their ambition to become the dominant power in Asia.

They will see in it validation of their recent discovery that the way to deal with the United States is not through the State Department or the White House, but by directly or indirectly financing political parties and election campaigns, and by persuading U.S. corporations doing business in China to lobby on China's behalf in Washington.

The Clinton administration and most of the U.S. policy community believes, on the other hand, that the link to America is so important to China's leadership that those leaders will shape their own policies to preserve or strengthen the link.

Blind faith

Washington, and U.S. business, have also convinced themselves that democracy and markets will in any case dominate China's future, producing steadily improved relations with America. This faith in inevitable progress rationalizes the administration's policy of compromising on political and human rights issues so ++ as to promote China's market opening to American manufactured products, agricultural exports and services.

If democracy does not in the end prove part of the package, Washington will be sorry, but will make the best of it. It has already decided to make the best of China's avowed "technical" inability to broadcast Mr. Clinton's speeches live, thereby tolerating Chinese censorship of the president's statements.

Washington has a simple, dominating objective: open markets. This follows from the overpoweringly seductive prospect, or fantasy, of 1.185 billion Chinese consumers of U.S. goods and food products. American enthusiasm was evident in the air flotilla that conveyed more than a thousand officials, journalists and business leaders, guests of the president, to the Chinese capital.

China's objective is to obtain implicit U.S. endorsement as Asia's leading power (at Japanese, Indian and Russian expense).

There is nothing sinister about this. Primacy in Asia is a normal ambition for the Chinese leaders, imposed by China's history and national self-conception since antiquity. As for the United States, its business is business, as Calvin Coolidge bleakly remarked.

China today is very far from democratic practices or a market economy. Its resistance to globalization and the international marketplace is why its economy and currency were spared the worst consequences of the Asian crash of the past six months (and why, last week, China could maneuver Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin into supporting the sinking Japanese yen -- thereby protecting, for the moment, the competitiveness of Chinese exports).

China's actual future is quite unforeseeable. The government headed by Jiang Zemin is a Communist party oligarchy at a time when Communism has lost all serious meaning in China. Its legitimacy is no longer ideological or revolutionary. It rests on the fact that so far it has kept order in the country, presiding over an economic boom while containing the negative consequences of that boom. That it can go on doing this is open to serious doubt. Even if it succeeds, it is even more doubtful that this will really be enough to assure a successful future for China.

A recent newspaper report quoted an American academic as saying that President Jiang Zemin is staking his reputation in Chinese history on success in establishing a strong and lasting relationship with the United States. This may be how it looks in JTC Washington, where the automatic assumption is that the United States is the center of the political universe, around which other peoples orbit, seeking favor.

Considering history

China, historically, has considered itself the "Middle Kingdom," to which others are tributary. China's future depends on what the Chinese themselves do to re-establish not only their political nation, but also their civilization as one central to the human experience -- which is what it was in the past. Mr. Jiang's place in Chinese history will depend on that.

G. F. Hudson, in his classic history of China's relations with Europe, quotes a proverb from the Chinese 16th century, which says that the Chinese alone possess two eyes. The Franks (the westerners) possess one eye. All the other inhabitants of the earth are blind.

Two intersecting views cross one another in China today. There is Mr. Clinton's, confident of America's global preeminence, yet anxious, for domestic political reasons, for China's trade and favor -- and therefore, in a measure, in the position of suppliant. There is the view of the Chinese, seeing in their dealings with Washington a step toward recovery of their own pre-eminence, lost since the Manchu decline began two centuries ago. Whose is the two-eyed view?

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/25/98

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