Can Trade Substitute for Liberty?

<i> Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the New Republic, has traveled widely in China</i>

As Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright prepares to travel to Beijing this week to set the stage for the Sino-U.S. summit in June, the Clinton administration is hailing the release last Sunday of Chinese dissident Wang Dan. Wang, a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, was serving an 11-year sentence for conspiring to subvert the state. His release might appear to vindicate the administration’s pursuit of “constructive engagement” with China.

It doesn’t. The Chinese release of Wang was not a sign of a shift on human rights, but a public-relations move aimed at providing President Bill Clinton with a tangible sign of progress to quiet the human-rights lobby before he visits Beijing. Granted, even if Chinese motives were less than shining, the release of Wang is to be welcomed. But sending him to the United States means China has rid itself of a troublesome nuisance, a strategy that the former East Germany also pursued to ensure that its dissident movement never retained any effective and charismatic leaders. Above all, Wang’s arrival in the U.S. shouldn’t obscure the drastic measures that China has taken against human-rights activists in the past few years, and the Clinton administration’s attempt to package economic ties as leading to democracy in China.

Despite Albright’s tough rhetoric on human rights when talking about Bosnia or Cuba, the administration basically has thrown in the towel on human rights in Asia and given business the go-ahead.

The administration, for example, has declared it will drop a resolution condemning Chinese violations of human rights and religion at this year’s session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. At the same time, two corporations that made substantial donations to the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign--Loral Space & Communications and Hughes Electronics--have been accused of having supplied the Chinese with advanced missile guidance technology. Ironically, the most powerful voice criticizing the administration for these anti-human rights and pro-business policies turns out to be the last Chinese dissident whose release the Clinton administration trumpeted as a victory for constructive engagement--Wei Jingsheng.


At a recent meeting in Washington at the Council on Foreign Relations, Wei lashed into the administration, declaring that millions of average Chinese are perplexed by the U.S. desire to propitiate Beijing and subordinate human-rights concerns to trade concerns. He even predicted that future generations of Chinese would hold it against the United States for having sided with their oppressors. It wasn’t the U.S. that could end up making an enemy of China by taking an assertive posture, but China that had already declared that the U.S. was its enemy. So, Wei asked why America was not holding to its own self-professed democratic values.

Isn’t there something a little strange about the fact that Chinese dissidents have to battle against Washington as well as Beijing? That it takes a dissident to remind U.S. foreign policy-makers about American values? The United States has always defined itself at home by the way it has behaved abroad. A core part of the American creed has been that America serves as a model for the rest of the world. If America gives up on democracy abroad, it is giving up on it at home as well. As the United States turns a blind eye to the Chinese crackdown on dissent, it has never been in greater danger of abdicating the moral high ground in its traditional struggle for human rights and democracy.

The argument of Clinton administration officials, such as National Security Advisor Samuel R. Berger, is that by promoting trade, the U.S is actually pushing for democracy because human rights and capitalism go hand-in-hand. So the most important member of Albright’s entourage when she visits Beijing will be trade representative Charlene Barshefsky. She is supposed to encourage China to meet the requirements for joining the World Trade Organization. The logic behind the administration’s approach is that by locking China into key international organizations, it will be forced to modify its behavior on everything from trade barriers to human rights.

The problem with this approach is that the Chinese have been choosy about what they decide to join. Consider the Missile Technology Control Regime. The Chinese have refused to join it. Instead, they are helping Pakistan and Iran with their missile-technology programs. The Chinese have promised to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but the operative word is “promise.” There is no sign they will have actually done so by the time Clinton visits Beijing. The biggest problem with counting on capitalism to democratize China is that the Communist Party is acutely aware of the dangers that accompany economic growth. The model for China is not the United States, but Singapore, an authoritarian regime that enjoys economic prosperity but no real political liberties.


Why else has the Chinese government been relentlessly locking up dissidents? For the truth of the matter is that Chinese jails are bulging with political prisoners who have been locked up in the past several years. Add Tibet and the recent crackdown on the Christian and Buddhist religious movements that enjoy a growing popularity in China, and you have a human-rights problem that dwarfs trade considerations.

As the countdown to the June summit begins, look for Clinton to pressure the Chinese for more human-rights concessions. But the danger is that the administration will be content with high-profile releases rather than pushing for systematic change. An administration more confident about America’s ability to push for change might even consider the drastic step of threatening to cancel the summit, unless China indicates it is prepared to offer something more than cosmetic concessions. Instead, Clinton seems to be asking for little in exchange for a visit that is of huge importance to Beijing: Clinton, after all, will be the first U.S. president to visit China since Tiananmen Square.

Clinton and his advisors see China as the crown jewel in a successful foreign policy that has avoided any major wars and worked to spread democracy by creating global trade. But trade is not synonymous with democracy. China has successfully combined economic growth with repression. Yet, until China stops treating opposition to the regime as illegal, it will be an unreliable partner for the U.S.

As China releases a trickle of dissidents, just as the Soviet Union once did, the administration should reflect on one of the most important lessons of the Cold War. Despite efforts to create an economic detente in the 1970s, it was not until Mikhail S. Gorbachev took office and the Kremlin stopped branding dissent as illegal that real economic and political ties were possible between the United States and the Soviet Union. Beijing does not represent the same foreign-policy threat to the U.S. that Moscow did, but its contempt for human rights is no different from the Soviet Union’s. The way a country treats its own people is a good indicator of how it intends to honor its international obligations. As Clinton gears up for his visit to Beijing, he should remember that trade can’t substitute for liberty. Otherwise, he’s selling our own democracy short.