TURMOIL ON TOP : A World of Changing Leaders, Struggling Governments and Strange Bedfellows : China: Push for Reform, Not Rupture

This is one of a series of articles for The Times by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger

Both houses of Congress, after extraordinarily cursory debate, have voted overwhelmingly to impose sanctions against China, well beyond measures already taken by President Bush. Such a vote in direct opposition to a popular President with considerable experience in Chinese affairs is remarkable.

It was also unprecedented. I cannot recall U.S. sanctions invoked against a major world power in reaction to events entirely within its domestic jurisdiction. The only comparable precedent--the Jackson-Vanik Amendment designed to spur Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union--backfired and only withheld additional benefits; it did not withdraw existing benefits as do congressional sanctions against China.

To avoid any misunderstanding, let me summarize my own response to the events in Beijing. No government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators who blocked the area in front of the main government building. In China a demonstration of impotence in the capital would unleash the lurking regionalism and warlordism in the provinces. A crackdown was therefore inevitable. But its brutality was shocking--even more so were the trials and Stalin-style propaganda that followed.

Still, China remains too important to U.S. national security to risk the relationship on emotions of the moment. The United States needs China as a possible counterweight to Soviet aspirations in Asia, and needs China to remain relevant in Japanese eyes as a key shaper of Asian events. China needs the United States as a counterweight to perceived ambitions from the Soviets and Japan. In return China will exercise a moderating influence in Asia and not challenge America in other areas of the world. These realities have not been altered by events.

Anyone familiar with the history and attitudes of China will therefore share the reluctance of Bush--a humane and compassionate man--to launch the United States on a course both dangerous and indefinable. At least two questions need to be addressed:

Why should Congress challenge a relationship that has enjoyed bipartisan support for nearly two decades?

What is to be achieved by Congress?

Current passions result in part from television coverage. The media described events accurately enough but TV could not--by its nature--supply the historical or political context (Ted Koppel's ABC special being an important exception).

What happened in Beijing was not a simple morality play. What began as a student protest for greater popular participation in government fused with an intraparty struggle about the pace of reform--factions headed by deposed General Secretary Zhao Ziyang versus groups surrounding senior leader Deng Xiaoping. I have known Zhao for nearly a decade. He is a dedicated reformer who developed a framework for price reform, indispensable as a move to market economics but politically risky because it was bound to raise prices. But I also know Deng as a reformer and a good friend of the United States. I remember seeing him in Beijing in 1975, when he stood up against the Gang of Four on behalf of ties to America--a warning to those who now claim China has no place to go regardless of sanctions.

The caricature of Deng as a brutal tyrant thus seems unfair to me. For 15 years, he has been reform's driving force. He introduced aspects of market economics and sought to institute a more predictable judicial system. His tragedy is that he has been too successful economically, too hesitant politically. He has been too committed to communism to recognize that free-market economies cannot be instituted by a totalitarian Communist Party; but he was also too committed to progress to abandon a course bound to undermine one-party rule.

Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has sought to construct a power base outside the Communist hierarchy, specifically in the Supreme Soviet. By contrast, Deng, survivor of the Long March, sought to forestall the decline of Communist power by reforming it. He first tried to subject every party member to review; then he restricted the hierarchy to essentially conceptual tasks.

Both efforts failed: Weeding out members aborted because it had to be administered by the very people that had to be removed. Reducing the role of the party created a vacuum, especially after Deng moved Zhao from prime minister to the office of general secretary.

As a result, Zhao's reform program, difficult in the best of circumstances, foundered. Trapped between a government he no longer controlled and a party indifferent to his policies, Zhao appealed to groups beyond his normal reform constituency. In early May, two weeks into the student upheaval, Zhao contradicted Deng before the Asian Development Bank, insisting that the student protest was a serious matter. Two weeks later, welcoming Gorbachev, Zhao stressed that Deng was making all key decisions. This was generally seen as an attempt to place blame.

By then the protesters had support beyond the capacity of student groups. Tens of thousands would not have survived day after day without food, basic sanitation, communications equipment and medical care. Access to Tien An Men Square was no longer controlled by government.

While most of the grievances were real, no government is likely to preside supinely over its own demise. For two centuries China's overwhelming domestic problem has been national unity. In the Chinese perception, ever since the 19th-Century Opium Wars, foreigners have systematically nurtured disunity to despoil China. At my first meeting with Prime Minister Chou En-lai on a secret trip to China in 1971, he expressed--to my amazement--a conviction that Japan, the United States and the Soviet Union each harbored desires to divide China.

No doubt Deng and his associates remembered that during the Cultural Revolution the student Red Guards created by Mao Tse-tung spawned so many competing groups under one banner that the army had to rescue coherence from these autonomous satrapies.

I support the appeals for moderation from the recent Western summit meeting and the measures Bush has already taken to express concern. But what would be the goal of going further in a situation of such complexity? To punish Beijing for past actions now irrevocable? To promote what the United States might regard as the reform faction? Does the United States really want to commit to overthrowing the government of China?

To go further than steps Bush has already taken would only court a show of impotence. One day punitive sanctions will fail, if only because China cannot undo past actions, and geopolitical realities will dictate a U.S.-China rapprochement. By then, however, an essential element of U.S. policy could be in tatters.

Some observers argue that pressure must be brought on the Beijing government lest we antagonize the emerging forces in China. But does the United States know enough to identify these forces or understand how to help them? Would student success in Beijing have brought democracy or civil war? France's 1989 anniversary is a reminder that the course of revolution cannot be deduced from the proclamations of its creators.

U.S.-Chinese relations have lately prospered because America stayed aloof from the impenetrable thicket of Chinese domestic politics. The United States has been perceived as committed to eternal Chinese goals: territorial integrity and the people's well-being.

Such an attitude is all the more important now because Chinese change did not end with events in Beijing. I believe Deng's statement that he remains committed to economic reform; reform is the theme of his long life and the cause of his personal suffering. The hesitation eight weeks before the crackdown--including meetings with student leaders--demonstrates the leadership's reluctance to take measures likely to undermine China's recent international prestige.

Chinese leaders must realize, or their successors will learn, that economic reform is impossible without support from educated groups that supplied some of the upheaval's fervor and from workers who furnished much of the muscle. Thus, as so often in Chinese history, the rhythm of life and of common sense is likely to produce some practical solution. It would be extraordinarily unwise for the United States to disengage at such a moment or to adopt policies interpreted by Beijing as attempts to overthrow the government.

Advocates of additional sanctions claim that China's need for U.S. help is so great no sanction would jeopardize the relationship. That could be a dangerous illusion. Chinese leadership might conclude that American intervention was intolerable, producing a new Chinese xenophobia.

The challenge goes beyond Tien An Men Square. The President's refusal to be stampeded will in the long run serve American national security as well as the values America cherishes.

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