One year has passed since the tragedy of Tian An Men and China's hard-line leadership shows few signs of weakening. In fact, there are indications that Deng Xiaoping and his associates have strengthened their domestic position since last June. Many Western states have moderated their punitive policies toward the Beijing regime, whose top leaders now travel to Japan, the Soviet Union and Third World nations. So much for the notion that the Chinese are being led by an isolated, hated clique of conservatives barely clinging to power.
Isn't it time to get serious about China, recognize who its leaders are, what kind of environment influences its policy decisions today and determine as a nation what we really want and can realistically obtain from our relations with that country?
Unfortunately, there are few signs that this is occurring. President Bush apparently remains committed to the notion that overriding strategic and economic interests motivate both the Chinese and the American leaderships. Hence his decision to continue most-favored-nation trading status for China. The sharpest critics of the President's policy in Congress and elsewhere remain committed to the idea that the "butchers of Beijing" deserve to be punished by a United States dedicated to the defense of human rights, at whatever cost to our interests. Hence their outrage in response to the President's decision.
Both sides in this debate continue to be ruled more by their own internal passions and expectations than by a realistic assessment of the external situation. Some of the strongest proponents of the "human rights first" position are China experts shocked and angered that the Chinese leadership not only abruptly ended what they had believed was an irresistible trend toward democratization, but also killed or brutalized many of their Chinese associates.Among supporters of the President's policy are individuals who ascribe a strong element of Realpolitik to the motivations of the Chinese leadership. The Chinese are seen to be primarily influenced by the cool, dispassionate pursuit of their regional interests and thus are ultimately responsive, on a quid pro quo basis, to positive overtures from the United States, as in the ultimately embarrassing Scowcroft trips. Such thinking runs to the absurd lengths of openly justifying U.S.-China policy partly on the basis of countering America's most essential Asian ally, Japan.
Deng Xiaoping and his aged colleagues are not born-again democrats gone temporarily astray or frustrated Asian Metternichs or Gorbachev-style moderates. They are revolutionaries who attained power through a process of ruthless, often violent struggle extending over more than five decades. They also seek to reconfirm the traditional notion (accepted by many ordinary Chinese citizens) that the state stands as a single, unified center of unchallengeable authority and that the alternative to such a regime is chaos, misery and exploitation at the hands of the foreigner.
Such men have always had a keen appreciation of the use of violence and tradition in the defense of the party and their personal position within it. This was as much the case when Richard Nixon first went to China as when troops were sent into Tian An Men Square. Why the shock and outrage? Do we really believe that increased sanctions and more strident speeches decrying their barbarity or, conversely, conciliatory gestures geared to appeal to their sense of strategic interest will prompt these men to comply with our wishes? They know that to do so could lead to the collapse of their system and the loss of their lives. Or are we relying on the "fact" that unnamed reformers are poised to dislodge such leaders if we give them enough support? The events of the past year certainly don't suggest this.
China is strategically located to exert long-term influence over one of the world's most crucial areas, particularly concerning such issues as stability on the Korean Peninsula and evolution of the security debate in Japan. More important, China is the only nation outside Europe that by location, willingness and capability can serve U.S. interests by countering the Soviets, still our most serious strategic threat.
The most useful course of action for the United States is to openly recognize who the Chinese leaders are and what they can and cannot do, and at the same time act in a manner that preserves American dignity and yet fully reflects the undeniable importance of China as a nation. This does not mean that we abandon the students and the democratic movement, or that we associate ourselves with the present leadership. It does mean ordering our priorities on a more realistic basis.
To unambiguously affirm that the United States' China policy is closely linked with our overall approach to Asia, we should for once make a genuine attempt to establish regular and formal consultations on China with at least the Japanese government, if not our key European allies, rather than simply assume that we are all competitors.
Administration officials should stop lecturing Congress on the wisdom of its approach to China and the supposed depth of the President's experience and admit that past quid pro quo overtures were a mistake and will not be repeated. President Bush also should bring his top Asian experts more fully into the policy loop. Congress should tone down its rhetoric and work with the President to forge a game plan which recognizes that while human-rights issues are important, they should not be the centerpiece of U.S. policy. If we attain such goals, perhaps the second year after Tian An Men will witness more success in U.S. policy than did the first.