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Clinton’s ‘Berlin Wall’ Theory on China Steeped in Paradoxes

With an offhand remark at his last news conference, President Clinton laid bare the assumptions that underlie the administration’s current approach to China--and, at the same time, all the problems and contradictions inherent in his policy.

Let’s call it Clinton’s “Berlin Wall” theory about China.

He told the news conference that liberty is bound to increase in China over time. “I don’t think there is any way that anyone who disagrees with that in China can hold back that [liberty], just as eventually the Berlin Wall fell,” he asserted. “I just think it’s inevitable.”

In other words, Clinton was saying, China’s deeply repressive political system is bound to open up, or collapse, following the pattern of the Communist systems in Eastern Europe.

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The Berlin Wall theory has policy implications. It is put forward as a rationale for why America should avoid confrontation with the Chinese leadership. Why bother, if we can be sure that change is coming anyway?

This idea is not Clinton’s alone. It represents the dominant viewpoint in Washington these days about China.

The current theologians of globalization and free markets argue that the World Wide Web and McDonald’s lead a country inevitably to democracy. Certain unpleasant phenomena that used to enforce repression--like armies, police and tanks--will become irrelevant. When confronted with the Big Mac and the Internet, they will behave like Dracula before a cross.

One can fervently hope that these predictions are correct. Yet there are all sorts of reasons for questioning whether the Berlin Wall theory about China makes sense.

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China isn’t Eastern Europe. Its political system was not foisted upon it by an outside power like the Soviet Union. It is more prosperous. Moreover, its Chinese Communist leadership has studied and learned a lot from the collapse of Eastern European governments and the Soviet Union.

But the most serious problem with Clinton’s Berlin Wall approach is this: While used as a justification for conciliatory policies toward China, it is, ultimately, every bit as threatening to the current Chinese leadership as more directly confrontational approaches.

China’s leaders are not likely to be comforted by the idea that Clinton is being nice to them now, because he believes that they or their successors are destined to suffer the fate of East Germany’s Erich Honecker.

They have been worried, for years, that the American strategy toward China is what Chinese leaders have called “peaceful evolution"--that is, that the United States will try to undermine China’s Communist system not through force but by information, international exchanges and similar “soft” means.

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These days, Chinese leaders seem to be at least as wary of their supposed friends in America as of their critics. The regime does not behave like a secure leadership.

The mainstream viewpoint about China in Washington is that the succession to Deng Xiaoping has already taken place before his death, that President Jiang Zemin is consolidating his control as Deng’s heir and that Jiang and other top leaders are managing to settle quietly their internal differences.

Yet if so, then why does the Chinese leadership seem so edgy? China’s current domestic policy is roughly akin to America’s foreign policy: It is too fragile to tolerate any casualties where, in China’s case, a single demonstration, strike or dissident amounts to a casualty.

At the moment, Washington insiders are buzzing about the battle for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s mind on China. Will she be eager to combat repression, as her background would suggest? Or will she embrace the views of the business community to be more accepting of Beijing?

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In a way, it doesn’t matter, because Albright works for the president and she will take on the paradoxes of his China policy.

Clinton talks about engagement with China, but he also suggests with his Berlin Wall remarks that the long-term goal is to change or bring down its Communist system. He is saying, in effect, that Americans may disagree about short-term tactics in China but not about ultimate goals.

The contradictions in the Clinton policy were trenchantly described in a recent article by Robert Kagan, a former Reagan administration official. Writing last month in the Weekly Standard, Kagan asked:

“How can a policy of engagement that has as its explicit goal the eventual collapse of the regime appeal to China’s leaders? Can the United States win their friendship by saying, ‘Engage with us so we can bring you down?’ ”

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Feb. 28 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Shanghai Communique, the document signed by President Nixon on his historic 1972 trip to China. A quarter-century ago, Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger were telling Chinese leaders the United States cared about China’s behavior abroad, not about its policies at home.

Clinton’s Berlin Wall remark suggests that this way of thinking is no longer politically acceptable in America. It ended with the Tiananmen Square upheavals of 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Within a year or so, Clinton will himself visit China for the first time. He will no doubt be taken to the Great Wall. When Nixon saw it, he found himself at a loss for words and blurted out: “It really is a great wall.”

Maybe Clinton will improve on that. He will also notice that he is not in Berlin.

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The International Outlook column appears here every other Wednesday.


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