Beyond the Rhetoric on China

<i> Maurice Meisner, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of "The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism 1978-1994." He will be centennial professor at the London School of Economics in 1999</i>

President Bill Clinton’s critics have claimed that his recent state visit to China was undertaken as a “reward” for the communist government in Beijing. But the critics have short memories. They need to be reminded that the trip was arranged two years ago, in a 1996 Sino-U.S. agreement that was fashioned to avert war between the two countries.

In March 1996, it might be recalled, China tested missiles off the coast of Taiwan, in a clumsy attempt to influence elections on the island. In response, two U.S. nuclear-armed battle groups were dispatched to waters off China. The potential for war was frighteningly clear, and both the United States and China retreated, with Clinton and Jiang Zemin agreeing to exchange state visits by 1998. Jiang toured the United States last fall and held a rather unremarkable “summit” with Clinton. The U.S. president has now carried out his part of the bargain.

Clinton’s visit was no more a “concession” to the Chinese than Jiang’s visit was a concession to Americans, if we take seriously our rhetoric about the equality of sovereign nation-states. Presumably, it is the Chinese, our history books tell us, who have been reluctant to accept this principle, clinging to traditional ethnocentric views of China as the “middle kingdom,” center of civilization.

It is true, as often noted, that the events of the Clinton trip were more symbolic than substantive. The president embarked on his journey in truly imperial fashion, with a retinue of more than 1,000 people, obviously intended as a symbol of U.S. wealth and power. He was greeted in the ancient city of Xian (capital of the Zhou dynasty, circa 1000 BC) by dancers and warriors dressed in the fashions of the Tang imperial court (circa, AD 7th-10th centuries), symbolically conveying the glories and longevity of Chinese civilization. But symbolism has always been important in managing the relations between big powers. The “summit” meetings between U.S. and Soviet leaders during the Cold War were also mostly symbolic, but they contributed to the mutual goal of avoiding nuclear war.


Symbolism aside, as far as summit meetings go, the concrete accomplishments of Clinton’s China trip are by no means trivial. To be sure, the much-ballyhooed agreement not to aim nuclear missiles at each other is largely meaningless, since there are no accompanying provisions for verification and missiles can be retargeted in minutes. More important is the agreement to jointly convince India and Pakistan to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, facilitating the crucial role that China must play (especially with its ally, Pakistan) in defusing the nuclear crisis in South Asia. Also more than symbolic are new Sino-U.S. accords to control exports of materials that might be used to produce chemical or biological weapons, as well as an understanding to permit inspections on Chinese soil of the uses of U.S. high-technology exports. There are agreements providing for cooperative efforts to alleviate China’s huge environmental problems and pollution-caused diseases.

Perhaps most important, at least in the short term, is the seemingly firm Chinese pledge not to devalue the yuan in response to the fall of the Japanese yen. Though devaluation would aid Chinese exports in the short term (tempting for a government faced with growing unemployment), it could deepen the financial crisis in Southeast Asia, Korea and Japan and exacerbate the human misery that has resulted. Eventually, it also would adversely affect the U.S. economy. Thus, as if to reinforce Beijing’s decision, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin praised China as an “island of stability” in Asia’s turbulent economic seas.

It is also noteworthy that Clinton spoke frankly--if not necessarily profoundly--about democracy, Tibet, the 1989 Beijing massacre and human rights in general in his televised joint news conference with Jiang and in his speech the following day at Beijing University. While his remarks were perhaps unexceptional for an American audience, the last-minute decision of the Chinese government to broadcast both the news conference and the speech live on national TV was extraordinary. While the reasons for Beijing’s decision are unclear, and the political impact of Clinton’s words on his Chinese audience may prove slight, the mere fact that a U.S. president spoke freely on Chinese television must be regarded as a salutary event in Chinese politics.

In view of the many positive results of Clinton’s visit, which proved far more rewarding for both China and the United States than anticipated, it seems especially puzzling that the trip should have provoked so hostile a domestic political reaction well before it took place. In the weeks before Clinton’s June 24 departure, Washington rang with accusations of treason in high places, charges made in venomous tones not heard since the days of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) led this nasty offensive, spuriously charging “the president has approved turning over missile secrets to the Chinese.” Other GOP congressional leaders were even more shrill. The chairman of the House subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), bellowed “the president has betrayed the interests of our county.” Rep. Charles W. Norwood Jr. (R-Ga.) suggested Clinton is “guilty of high treason.”


The most irresponsible charges, growing out of the much misrepresented missile-technology controversy, played on old racist imagery, implicitly raising the specter of “yellow hordes” armed with nuclear weapons. In an apparently calculated attempt to create public hysteria for partisan political purposes, Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, claimed, “Under Reagan and Bush, China did not have accurate and reliable nuclear missiles targeted on American cities. Now they do, and it’s Bill Clinton’s fault.”

China has possessed atomic and hydrogen bombs, and a rudimentary missile-launching capability, since the 1960s. And that capability has grown over time, though rather slowly. China does have a limited number of ICBMs that can reach U.S. cities. But China’s nuclear arsenal pales in comparison with the nuclear weapons the United States deploys in Northeast Asia and the Western Pacific alone. Lacking in technologically advanced naval forces, and having relatively few long-range aircraft, China has only a limited ability to wage nuclear war across the Pacific. That ability is no greater now than it was under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. As the director of the Space Policy Project of the Federation of American Scientists, John Pike, testified at a recent congressional hearing, “China today has no capabilities to attack the United States that it did not have a year ago or a decade ago.”

Hostility to China has been building since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, heightened by fears generated by China’s growing economic power in the 1990s. Disparate U.S. politicians, journalists and academics have been stirring a dangerous brew of human-rights issues, concerns over trade and economic competition and fear of China’s growing power, sometimes spiced by old racist images.

While anti-China sentiment spans the U.S. political spectrum--from Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) to House Minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sen. Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.)--the ideological and political heart of the new crusade rests with leaders of the right-wing of the Republican Party. Their more extreme accusations--to the effect that the Clinton administration is betraying democracy and engaging in treasonable actions--are eerily reminiscent of the notorious “China Lobby” of the late 1940s and ‘50s. The latter, champions of the none-too-democratic Chiang Kai-shek regime, launched witch hunts pursuing the absurd but politically potent question “Who lost China?”, which contributed to the poisoning of U.S. political life in those years and to the poisoning of Sino-U.S. relations for a quarter-century.


It took President Richard M. Nixon, a onetime member of the China Lobby who held impeccable anticommunist credentials, to begin the reestablishment of normal relations with China when he met with Mao Tse-tung in Beijing in 1972. Nixon was widely celebrated for his historical foresight and political courage. It is strange that many who applauded Nixon’s efforts to normalize relations with Maoist China in the 1970s today condemn Clinton’s policies of improving relations with a far less repressive regime.

Congress observed an informal moratorium on criticism of Clinton and his China policy while the president was in China. Though there is certainly room for serious and informed criticism of China and U.S. policy in East Asia, it would be unfortunate if the hysterical attacks that preceded Clinton’s visit were to be resumed on his return--and the real accomplishments of the trip undermined. Since 1949, both the United States and China have suffered greatly--in blood and treasure--from such politically manufactured fears and hostilities.