U.S. Worried That Hong Kong Issue May Sour Relationship With China

Three weeks ago, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, President Clinton's deputy national security advisor, was sitting in his White House office, musing about his hopes for improving American relations with China. Then he ticked off some of the things that could go wrong.

At the top of the list was Hong Kong. As the deadline of July 1, 1997, approaches for the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty, the administration has grown increasingly worried about the possibility of turmoil--riots, arrests of democracy advocates, a clampdown on the press, a mass exodus of refugees--in East Asia's financial capital.

"There are two or three things that could set us back into a downward spiral [with China]," acknowledged Berger, who last week was promoted to national security advisor. He ran through the possibilities: some new controversy over Chinese weapons proliferation, or some new dispute between the United States and China over Taiwan.

Or Hong Kong. "If they [Chinese officials] mishandle the Hong Kong reversion and it does not go reasonably well, that will sour our relationship in a serious way," Berger asserted.

Indeed, it is fair to say that Hong Kong has become the new (and, in a sense, the only remaining) human rights issue for the Clinton administration.

At this point, it seems, there is virtually nothing China could do to political dissidents inside its borders that would cause the administration to take action against Beijing in any way.

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The Communist Party leadership has jailed Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan, the two best-known leaders of democracy forces in China, for extensive periods of time. The administration effectively has looked the other way. It puts out statements condemning China's repressive conduct but does not change any of America's policies toward Beijing.

For Hong Kong, however, the administration seems to be sending out signals that U.S. policy could be affected by Chinese actions. It is hardly an accident that Clinton has set no date yet for the state visit he is planning to make to Beijing. Administration officials seem to want to make sure that a bad Hong Kong transition does not turn a China trip into an embarrassment for the president.

The White House solicitude for what happens in Hong Kong next July is admirable. But in a way, the administration may be missing the larger point, just as Americans sometimes do with China.

Americans seem to love quick, head-on conflicts that have clean and clear resolutions. Then they go on to something else. In China, by contrast, conflicts often have no resolution and negotiations are continuous. Americans think that a deal and a handshake are the end of negotiations. Chinese view a deal as the prelude to further negotiations.

Thus, with Hong Kong, the Clinton administration seems to be preparing to judge Beijing's conduct by whatever happens in a single week or two after the British flag comes down and the Chinese flag is unfurled next July 1.

If China does not lock anyone up or close down any local newspapers during those days of intense world attention (when there will be more than a thousand reporters from around the world on hand), the administration will be relieved and probably will turn its attention elsewhere.

For China, by contrast, the return of Hong Kong will be a long process, in which the first week of July 1997 will be only the beginning.

Administration officials might look, and then look again, at the supposed triumph that the Walt Disney Co. scored over China a couple of weeks ago. It illustrates well the vastly different perspectives that Americans and Chinese have toward conflict.

In the American point of view, the dispute arose and ended quickly. American newspapers reported that China was trying to pressure Disney to restrict distribution in the United States of "Kundun," a Martin Scorsese movie about Tibet and its religious leader, the Dalai Lama. Chinese troops occupied Tibet in 1950 and the Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959.

The suggestion from Beijing was that authorities might clamp down on Disney's future business endeavors inside China.

Within a few days after the newspaper reports appeared, Disney said that despite China's protest, it would go ahead with distribution of the movie. American newspaper editorials and cartoons praised Disney's willingness to stand up to China. But Americans also seemed to assume that they could judge the entire conflict and Disney's dealings with Beijing in just a few days' time.

Is that true? From the Chinese perspective, the public flap over "Kundun" was just one round in a long negotiating process with Disney.

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If Disney fails to promote and advertise the movie vigorously, will anybody really be able to prove it? What about Disney's willingness to make movies in the future on subjects or themes China dislikes? We cannot answer such questions yet and, until we can, we will not know for sure whether Disney really resisted Chinese pressure.

The point is not to take credit away from Disney. Rather, the point is that Americans are a bit too quick to crow about their supposed victories in dealing with China. Even after a dispute with China is settled, it often takes time to see what the outcome will be.

In February 1995, U.S. trade negotiators prided themselves on working out a deal with Beijing to stop China's pirating of compact discs, movies and computer software. The only problem was that China did not carry out the agreement and U.S. trade officials found themselves back in China a year later, negotiating the same issues all over again.

The Disney episode also underscores another lesson for the administration about the future of Hong Kong.

U.S. officials and other Americans worry that Hong Kong's future may be put in jeopardy by the prospect of overt, direct political repression. Yet China's willingness to use commercial pressure to achieve its objectives, as it tried to do with Disney, could turn out to be just as much of a threat to Hong Kong.

China already has demonstrated that it knows how to use its economic muscle in Hong Kong. A year ago, China's state-owned aviation corporation, which both regulates and operates airlines, threatened to set up a new carrier to compete against Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong's leading carrier. It abandoned the effort last April only after Swire Pacific, the British-controlled parent company of Cathay, yielded its majority stake in the airline by selling some of its shares to Citic, China's investment arm.

For the moment, administration officials are busying themselves with some of the practical problems raised by the Hong Kong transition. With less than seven months to go, for example, the United States still has no formal agreement permitting it to continue operating the American consulate in Hong Kong.

During his trip to China last month, Secretary of State Warren Christopher got verbal assurances from Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen that the consulate can keep going. But he got nothing in writing. China is offering a consular agreement that provides the standard, minimum legal protections. The administration wants a stronger accord.

Similarly, the United States still has no concrete deal that will permit Navy ships to continue making port calls in Hong Kong. Some Pentagon officials suspect that China may try to restrict the port calls and use them as leverage to extract some form of concession from the United States. American ships have been visiting Hong Kong about 55 to 80 times a year.

The visits are likely to continue, although possibly in reduced numbers. Still, the prospect of those port calls raises some interesting possibilities. Would China welcome a port call to Hong Kong by an American aircraft carrier that has just been sailing in the waters off Taiwan, as two American carriers did at the time of Taiwan's presidential election last March?

During the next few months, the administration will have to deal with some of the broader questions about Hong Kong's future. A law called the Hong Kong Policy Act, for example, will require the administration to report in detail to Congress next March on how China seems to be living up to its 1984 agreement to let Hong Kong preserve its economic system and way of life. China's promises of autonomy for Hong Kong are supposed to last 50 years, until 2047.

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There is no doubt that the administration is keeping a close eye now on what China does in Hong Kong. It will be watching even more carefully next July. The question is whether it will still be watching a year from now.

The International Outlook column appears here every other Monday.

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