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Hotline Between China, U.S. Runs Cold in Crisis

This is a tale of hotlines. It is the story of how America tried in recent days to solve its deep-rooted problems with China through a phone call--and discovered that modern communications don’t necessarily mean you can make any connection in Beijing.

Less than two years ago, President Clinton and Chinese President Jiang Zemin stood side by side at their Washington summit meeting and announced that they had agreed to set up a presidential hotline. The purpose, Clinton breezily told a news conference, was “to make it easier for us to confer at a moment’s notice.”

So what happened during this last weekend? Clinton wanted to tell Jiang that the American bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was a mistake. He sought the Chinese leadership’s help in restraining the rock-throwing crowds that had trapped U.S. Ambassador James R. Sasser and others inside the American Embassy in Beijing.

“He made clear he would like to speak to [Jiang] by phone,” acknowledged an administration source.

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But the hotline went unused. American suggestions for a conversation between the two presidents went nowhere. China’s response was a version of the old Beatles song: “No Reply.”

This happened once before. Although there was no Washington-Beijing hotline at the time, President Bush sought to talk by phone with Deng Xiaoping, China’s top leader, in June 1989 after China’s bloody eradication of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. “He called, but they didn’t answer,” recalled then-U.S. Ambassador to China James Lilley.

Blame the insecurity of Chinese leaders, or the American conceit that important business can be conducted over the phone. One way or another, American presidents who pride themselves on their supposedly strong personal ties with the Chinese leadership find that, when you really have something important to say, you may find the call won’t go through.

It’s not just the Americans who get such treatment. When the Chinese are angry, they have proved they are equal-opportunity ignorers.

Newly declassified files show that in 1969, at the peak of the border skirmishes between China and the Soviet Union, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin tried to use a hotline between Moscow and Beijing.

“He asked the [Chinese] operator to find Chairman Mao [Tsetung],” Premier Chou En-lai told President Nixon three years later. “Without orders, the operator, unauthorized, answered him, ‘You are a revisionist, therefore I will not connect you.’ ” Chou laughed; to him, the incident was funny.

The consequences of Clinton’s failed call are not. The tumultuous events of the last few days have underscored once again the vastly different perspectives and traditions of America and China.

Once again, America has displayed its semi-religious faith in the power of technology, whether in hotlines or in smart bombs. But China is profoundly ambivalent about technology. If technology is so great, why do bombs hit embassies?

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China had countered by showing America its own, time-honored source of strength: that is, the power conveyed by its huge population. The Chinese regime unleashed its masses upon the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

The political significance of this decision has not yet been fully grasped. It is far-reaching, extending well beyond the bombing incident and China’s relationship with the United States.

Jiang has resorted for the first time to a technique that Deng, his predecessor, always avoided. After taking power in 1978, Deng never saw a political demonstration he liked. He repressed popular unrest of any kind. Deng, a victim of the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, viewed political marches, protests and banners--including those of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989--as a threat to the Communist Party’s hold on power.

Jiang, in encouraging the Chinese demonstrations, was turning away from Deng and harking back, however fleetingly, to the methods of Mao. Maybe Jiang can bottle the country back up again, and maybe not.

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What can the Clinton administration do? It can offer compensation to the families of the Chinese victims of the Belgrade bombing. It can certainly stop bombing other countries’ embassies.

Beyond that, American officials can reduce their extravagant expectations for China. It has never been the country of American businesses’ and missionaries’ dreams. Nor is its government one with which the United States will build what Clinton hopefully calls a “constructive strategic partnership.” During a crisis, you can’t count on it to answer the telephone.

It turns out that Jiang does take overseas calls. After stiffing Clinton, he had a pleasant chat Monday with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

They spoke over the hotline between Moscow and Beijing. It hasn’t been used much in recent years. But the way things are heading in China’s foreign policy, those wires may soon be buzzing once again.

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Jim Mann’s column appears in this space every Wednesday.


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