How Much Influence Can U.S. Have in China?

Maurice J. Meisner is the Harvey Goldberg Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His most recent book is "The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism, 1978-1994" (Hill & Wang)

Nothing is so terrifying in world affairs today than the specter of war between the United States and China. The demise of the Soviet Union left the United States the world's sole military superpower, though one with a steadily shrinking share of the global economy. The only potential challenger to U.S. dominance, at least in foreseeable decades, is China, a rising power with the world's second-largest economy--one that, at current rates of growth, will surpass the U.S. economy, in sheer size, within a generation. It must be assumed that China's military power and international political influence will grow commensurately.

There is no grand design for war on the part of either the United States or China. The leaders of both countries are aware of the disastrous consequences that would result on both sides of the Pacific. But it is not fear-mongering to warn of the danger, about which little is publicly said. The potential for war was demonstrated in vivid and frightening fashion early this year when China tested missiles off the shores of Taiwan for a second time--and two U.S. aircraft-carrier battle groups were dispatched to waters near China. It takes little imagination to envision how such incidents--or ones occurring in Korea--could inadvertently escalate into large-scale warfare, especially in the atmosphere of mutual distrust and demonization that has enveloped Sino-U.S. relations during the first term of the Clinton presidency.

After four years of growing tension and hostility between the two countries, it is with no small measure of relief that one learns that President Bill Clinton and Chinese leader Jiang Zemin have agreed to exchange state visits over the next two years, and that regular high-level contacts (such as the visit of China's defense minister last week) are being resumed. Yet, rather than welcoming these small but promising steps in fostering peaceful relations between the world's two most powerful countries, a host of U.S. commentators, politicians and human-rights organizations have condemned the coming state visits as a betrayal of American ideals and as an abandonment of support for democratic rights in China. The critics span the political spectrum from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), on the far right of the Republican Party, to human-rights activists associated with what remains of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

It is unlikely that Helms, who still harbors the illusion that communism in China has something to do with socialism, can be convinced that the People's Republic today is, in many respects, no less conservative than the right-wing dictatorships he has found so congenial in years past. But perhaps human-rights activists will recognize the limitations of the U.S. government promoting democracy in China--and why it was inevitable that Clinton, like his predecessors, would delink economic issues from human-rights concerns.

It is one thing--and certainly worthy--for Asia Watch and other human-rights organizations to expose the repressive practices of the Beijing regime and do what they can to alleviate the plight of the victims. But it is naive to expect that the government of the United States will or can join the crusade. For the fact of the matter is that Washington lacks both the practical means and the moral authority to meaningfully support democratic rights in China.

As has been demonstrated time and again, U.S. interventions in human-rights cases have served little more, in the end, than to exacerbate both official and popular Chinese nationalist resentments against foreign intrusions. Only the democratic and social struggles of the Chinese people themselves will advance human rights in China. But such struggles are undermined when the leaders of the Communist regime are able to blur the differences between themselves and the people over whom they rule by parading under a nationalist banner protesting foreign interventions in the internal affairs of the Chinese nation.

Furthermore, such interventions are not only counterproductive for democratic movements in China, they also clash with the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy in East Asia and elsewhere, which is maintaining a framework of political stability that permits the United States to pursue its economic and strategic interests. To the imperative of stability, democratic goals, however sincerely believed and pursued, have always been subordinated. This was true of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War--hence the support for so many repressive regimes during those years, however distasteful those regimes may have been to policy-makers. And it remains true today.

Thus, the proclaimed U.S. goal of promoting human rights in China is a policy fraught with contradictions. For example, what the United States seeks in China, beyond a stable and non-expansionist political regime, are markets, cheap labor and opportunities for capital investment. These the Chinese government, which also places a high value on "stability," has amply provided. But democratic rights in China, to be meaningful, must include the elemental right to organize free trade unions, one of the most sensitive and potentially explosive issues in Chinese politics today. Yet free trade unions would signal the end of a cheap labor force tamed by the communist state, a prospect distressing to both U.S. and Chinese business interests.

Given the choice between human rights and profits, it is almost inevitable that Washington, in the end, will opt for the latter, if only for practical reasons. For while there is much the U.S. government can do to promote profitable economic relations with China, there is little it can do to promote Chinese democracy, even given the best of intentions.

In addition to these pragmatic concerns that traditionally have governed U.S. foreign policy, Washington lacks moral credibility on human-rights issues in China for a variety of historical reasons, but principally because of its prolonged political and military support of the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek, first during the civil war on the Chinese mainland and then in Taiwan for a quarter century until the early 1970s.

By almost any standard of judgment, the Chiang Kai-shek dictatorship in Taiwan in the 1950s and '60s was even more repressive--and, indeed, more efficiently repressive--than the current post-Maoist regime in Beijing. Yet, the United States afforded Chiang Kai-shek not only recognition, trade and friendship but also military protection and billions of dollars in economic and military assistance. Rarely was anything officially heard about the absence of democracy and massive violations of the most elemental human rights. For most Chinese who are familiar with the unhappy history of Sino-American relations since the 1940s, U.S. government interventions on issues of human rights will carry little moral weight.

Yet, Washington does have one great moral responsibility in its relations with China. And that is the responsibility to strive to prevent war between the two countries, and thereby preserve the human right that, while not all, must surely be first and foremost: the right to life.*

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