Summit Should Send Bashers Up Great Wall

Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail:

Before President Clinton traveled to China, he was roundly blasted by congressional Republicans and many media pundits for kowtowing to Beijing. They predicted he wouldn’t risk offending his hosts by advancing human rights or autonomy for Tibet, and boy, were they ever wrong. But if any of them has apologized, I didn’t notice.

Clinton is the first U.S. president to raise those thorny issues on Chinese soil. That he managed to do so while at the same time improving relations between the two countries is a diplomatic feat of extraordinary proportions.

It was dangerous nonsense to suggest that Clinton should have insulted the Chinese leadership on matters of protocol, or worse, by suddenly canceling his trip, as if this nation of 1.2 billion people is some banana republic. China is simply too big and important to snub or to be turned once again into a figment of the fevered domestic U.S. political imagination.

China is the linchpin to the economic stability of Asia and, by extension, that of the U.S. economy. Whatever one’s criticism of that nation’s leadership, the transformation of an enfeebled and constrained economy that barely contained famine to one that is suddenly the envy of its Asian neighbors is a startling accomplishment that Clinton acknowledged.


But Clinton also said what had to be said, and it was a major step toward a more open society for the Chinese leadership to have permitted a no-holds-barred encounter with foreign journalists to be broadcast live on national television.

However, it isn’t likely that in America, Clinton or his hosts will be given the full measure due them. China bashing has once again become popular for all the wrong reasons. It provides simplistic copy for media that find the complexity of foreign policy poor material for sound bites. And for the Republican opposition, it’s an all too easy reference point to the jingoism that played so well during the Cold War.

China bashing also has become another vehicle for cheap shots at Clinton. His ever more rabid critics simply ignore the fact that Clinton is pursuing a policy of engagement originated by Richard Nixon a quarter-century ago and nurtured by Republican presidents ever since. No visiting U.S. president ever directly confronted the Chinese leadership as forthrightly as did Clinton in the press conference and speech at Beijing University, both broadcast live and uncensored to the Chinese people.

Yet those who applauded Nixon for exchanging toasts with Chairman Mao Tse-tung now dare criticize Clinton for being diplomatically respectful toward Jiang Zemin. In a stellar example of bias and bile triumphing over logic and fact, New York Times columnist William Safire, a former Nixon speech writer, said of the press conference that the world witnessed an “egg-walking American president saying as little as he could get away with.”

What was “little” for Safire was interpreted as a major breakthrough by the Dalai Lama, who said: “Through this live show, many, many Chinese will have gained a better awareness of President Clinton’s feeling about Tibet, and also President Jiang’s feeling, and I think that can be enormously helpful in the future.”

Safire should have taken seriously the advice offered by his old mentor Nixon. In his last book, “Beyond Peace,” published in 1994, Nixon, who as an ex-president had a public confrontation with Deng Xiaoping over the Tiananmen crackdown, regretted not making his criticism privately and warned that attempts to humiliate the Chinese leadership would fail. He wrote:

“Many who are inexperienced about China fail to understand that one of the keys to its history in this century has been the restoration of national pride and unity after generations of fractionalism and foreign exploitation. Their pride is neither communist nor non-communist in character but simply Chinese, and it guarantees that China’s leaders will not respond constructively to ultimatums.”

That pride was evident in the questions asked by Beijing University students after the president’s speech. But Clinton carefully had avoided the trappings of jingoism, making that speech perhaps his finest hour. Half of China and many more people throughout the world were treated to a crash course on human rights that substituted the message of common human aspirations for the heavy-handed hectoring that so often has characterized the U.S. claim to speak for the Free World.


The China trip solidifies Clinton’s achievement as the architect of an amazingly effective American foreign policy that is principled without relying primarily on violence.

Imperfect as it may be, this is now a safer world in Haiti, Bosnia, Ireland and the Mideast, thanks to American leadership that patiently negotiated toward a more enlightened position instead of bombing people into submission in the name of freedom.