Blunt-Instrument Approach Tripped Up Bush in China


Ronald Reagan got off on the wrong foot with the Chinese, hinting that the United States might renew official relations with Taiwan. George Bush has started his dealings with Beijing on a sour note over human rights, an area where the Chinese have made substantial progress but do not like being baited. It is inexplicable that the opening moves by the last two U.S. administrations with China have been badly handled. We learn so slowly.

It took Reagan more than 18 months to bring his relationship with Beijing back to an even keel, but once he did it proceeded with admirable success. With skill and forbearance on both sides, Bush and the Chinese will do as well, but only if both remember that certain issues carry enormous political weight in both countries and must be approached with enormous care. Taiwan and human rights are the most important of these.

To be blunt, the human-rights issue was handled with little sophistication on either side. The President’s wish to convey support for human rights in China is admirable but was also driven almost hour-by-hour by concern over how it was playing back home rather than how to persuade the Chinese. Nor is it always smart to raise specific individuals onto pedestals to make a point, although Americans don’t seem to relate to human-rights issues unless they are personalized in some charismatic figure.

Washington officials are not saying whose idea it was to invite dissident physicist Fang Lizhi to Bush’s dinner for the Chinese president and premier. The parallel with Andrei Sakharov must have seemed too much to resist. It was a bad idea. Can anyone imagine a visiting foreign leader in the 1960s going out of his way to invite Jerry Rubin or Jane Fonda to an official Washington dinner for Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon?


Fang is unquestionably an admirable man but he is no Sakharov. He has not been imprisoned or tortured. He is not being exiled, as his ubiquitous presence around Beijing indicates. He is primarily a very visible, vocal gadfly. A good thing to have in China, but not necessarily someone Bush, on his first visit to China as President, had to embrace. Other Chinese have been badly mistreated, and Bush could have expressed (and perhaps did) his concern about the issue, particularly since the Chinese have subscribed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Observance of many of these rights is at the C to C+ level at best. Chinese leaders do not like being prodded on this and they made that clear. But the broad trend line over the last decade has unquestionably been up, and it would have been useful if Bush had noted that, as well as observing that much remains to be done.

Chinese dissidents have been to the American Embassy in Beijing where continuing contact has been maintained with a broad range of Chinese intellectuals and political figures. If the President wanted to demonstrate his personal endorsement of human rights, he might have had his secretary of state meet over tea or drinks with Fang Lizhi as well as other Chinese intellectuals and artists, and “dropped by” to pay his own respects.

There is a blunt-instrument school of diplomacy and a fine-edge school. The invitation to the Chinese leaders to rub elbows directly with Fang and the handling of the human-rights issue on the trip seemed hewn from the former.


The Chinese behaved with little better grace. Annoyed at the invitation having been extended to Fang, they employed a bunch of “Get Smart” tricks to keep him away from the dinner. The handling of this process was bad enough, but it went out of control when the President personalized the issue with a public rebuke at the airport rather than in a private manner. It was the “last word” on the trip to the chief Chinese farewell-bidder, Wu Xueqian, a former foreign minister, the vice premier in charge of all foreign-affairs issues for the government, a senior party leader and a strong supporter of good Sino-U.S. relations.

Like the famous James Thurber drawing in his “war between men and women” series, the Chinese and the Americans were left glaring at one another:

“Well, I’m disenchanted.”

“We’re all disenchanted.”

The Chinese have been dealing with the United States long enough to understand that human rights, freedom of speech and religious freedom are part of the American political baggage that every President carries with him, at least in the last decades of the 20th Century. The Chinese may not like it, but it is something they must adjust to, like pickets protesting about Tibet or abortion or numerous other issues in front of their U.S. and U.N. missions.

And the United States has dealt with the Chinese long enough to understand that there are more offensive ways and less offensive ways of making our views clear on such issues. We do not appreciate senior foreign visitors to the United States lecturing us in public on homelessness, drug addiction, crime in the streets and racial incidents. We may not try to censor their dinner-invitation lists, but the point is that both sides need to know what is enough--1989 China is not 1979 Argentina.

Bush went to China three months before Mikhail S. Gorbachev is to visit Beijing. The Chinese had gone out of their way to make it clear that they welcomed the President’s coming and to reassure him that Sino-U.S. friendship was a vital one. Our trade amounts to $13 billion. We actively cooperate on security. We have strong interests in working to achieve common objectives in many foreign-policy areas, from Cambodia to nuclear non-proliferation.

There is little doubt that after a short interlude the sensible men who look after the basic policy interests of both countries will ensure that the strengths in the relationship overcome whatever ill-feeling was left by the last 24 hours of the President’s visit. But it is absolutely essential that the new U.S. Administration keep in mind when dealing with China, and with all other Asian nations, that in discussing differences, subtle is better than blunt and private is better than public confrontation. Unless we don’t care about the consequences.