China's friends

April 20, 2006

Hu Jintao - president of China, its commander in chief and head of its only political party - arrives in Washington today for a formal lunch with President Bush. From Iran, Darfur and North Korea to currency, trade and human rights, the leaders of the world's two great powers have an overflowing plate of big issues on which to chew. But on this visit to America, Mr. Hu's most important meal may have already taken place - dinner Tuesday with the world's richest man, Bill Gates, and a raft of other major-league CEOs desperate for greater access to China's 1.3 billion consumers.

Such access comes at a price: One must first qualify as a friend of China. Back in the 1960s, when the insanity of Mao's Cultural Revolution was raging, a parade of European intellectuals were feted in Beijing and honored with the friend-of-China label after each blindly declared he had witnessed a Communist utopia in the making. Over the decades, foreign China experts of all stripes have fallen into the same trap, trading access to the inner workings of the Middle Kingdom (on which their careers heavily depended) for a too-light view of Beijing's aims and actions. Thus Mr. Hu's much-quoted warm comment to Mr. Gates - "Because you, Mr. Bill Gates, are a friend of China, I'm a friend of Microsoft" - can be easily read, on the flip side, as a cold threat.

Microsoft, of course, is just happy that Beijing is vowing to do more to crack down on China's rampant piracy of software, much as another big Seattle corporate giant, Boeing, is just happy for China's $5.2 billion order last week of 80 planes. The compliant friendship accorded to China in the process does not extend just to such messy matters as human rights but also to fundamental economic problems between the two countries. One good example: The long and growing list of Beijing's friends in corporate America includes some of this country's biggest multinationals whose massive investments in Chinese manufacturing platforms pit their financial self-interests against the critical U.S. national interest in pressuring China to allow its undervalued currency to appreciate.

With so many powerful and uncritical U.S. friends at its side, China comes to today's White House lunch with advantages that help it slough off U.S. pressures for change on multiple fronts. Having been critical of the Bush administration for not sufficiently rising to the global challenges of China's long-term emergence as a world power, we have some sympathy for the president as he attempts today to move Beijing closer to U.S. interests. China enjoys this status quo. It's thriving, economically and geopolitically. And it has the friends to show for it.

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