. . . but Clinton displays right touch

July 06, 1998|By Richard Reeves

SAG HARBOR, N.Y. -- Watching from afar, it is a thrill to see the president of the United States doing so well in China. Most of us have had our ups and downs with William Jefferson Clinton, but he is "us" -- past the water's edge, one man is America.

On a fundamental level, the real job of a president is to bring out the best in the American people -- and, therefore, to show the best of us to the rest of the world. President Clinton did that last week, and it has been fun to watch. For the first time, really, he has been able to display his astonishing political skills in a far place. His instincts about China, its future and its past, have turned out to be far better than the attitude of political critics on both the left and the right.

American rights

"Human rights" is an attitude. It is not quite all things to all people, but it is not universal, either. Americans have earned the right, or have the luxury of defining, human rights as political, embodied in the rights of free speech and freedom of assembly -- in the town square or park of Lexington Green, in churches or in Tiananmen Square.

In much of the rest of the world, however, human rights must be seen as more basic and more complex, beginning with the right to food and medicine, the right to clean water, the right to travel, the right to some kind of domestic tranquillity. It is futile to preach about child labor in places where putting children in the fields, and factories, too, is the only way families survive.

I am no advocate or apologist for the current pseudo-communist and crumbling totalitarian leadership of China. From the top down, Chinese leadership is brutal and venal by my standards. The massacre of students in Tiananmen Square nine years ago, I think, was part of a battle for succession. The younger elite of China thought that they had accumulated enough power -- global television being part of that power -- to overthrow the old, ignorant Communist leadership. They were wrong in that, and many paid for bad timing with their lives.

The regime survived. It still does, and is willing to use whatever power it can mobilize to hold on for one more generation, one more year, one more day. As Mr. Clinton charmed China and much of the world, Agence France-Press reported that it had learned that Chinese prison guards in Tibet had killed at least one monk and five nuns and wounded dozens more in breaking up a peaceful protest against Chinese destruction and rule of the old mountain theocracy.

Assuming the worst to be true, from famine to mass murder, from Mao to Mr. Jiang, China is in the best shape of its long history. This is not an easy country, a billion people now living on hard territory, with only 15 percent of the land usable to grow food. The communists have united and largely pacified a country of warlordism, often by acting as warlords themselves. Now they seem to be capable of feeding the nation, and life expectancy in poorer regions has doubled. They have even been willing to accept the disorder created by giving people freedom to travel -- a freedom that has produced millions of migrating families, sometimes whole villages, seeking work for parents and for children, too. Except for rights cherished by Thomas Jefferson and you and me, hard men in Beijing, against all odds, are modernizing the biggest country in the world.

Something in common

Mr. Clinton, from a poor place in our mountains, seems to have a feel for all that, even a feel for the elaborate manners of the Chinese as the equivalent of the candor prized by Americans. Perhaps that is because he grew up in a part of the United States where manners count more than truth.

Once again, our virtuoso of politics and nuance has baffled his opponents and critics. He is to microphones and cameras what Michael Jordan is to basketball and backboards. Good for him. Good for us.

The president, who will retire young in little more than two years, is looking for a legacy. He could do worse than using his time and skills to settle the place and role of the United States in the world. I hope his next stops are Iran and Cuba.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/06/98

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