The U.S. and China

Dear Gary,

       I share your conviction that our American ideals are an essential guide to a wise and effective foreign policy. We are the world’s most powerful nation today, not only because of our economic and military might, but also because of our fundamental belief that the principles of liberty, justice, and equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence will someday apply to all people. These American ideals have had a universal appeal–especially in recent years–as we saw, dramatically and movingly, when the Soviet empire came crashing down, and as Chinese students built imitations of the Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
       So I agree, Gary, we shouldn’t hesitate to stand up for our beliefs abroad. All Americans, irrespective of politics or their personal opinion of Speaker Gingrich, could take some measure of pride in the forceful and articulate diplomacy recently waged by Gingrich in Beijing. Within the context of a serious and constructive dialogue with the Chinese leadership, Newt stood up for freedom–freedom for Taiwan, freedom for Hong Kong, and freedom for the people of China.
       It was a welcome contrast to the sad performance of our flat-footed vice president. Al Gore, who once waxed most indignant about the coddling of Chinese dictators by George Bush, appeared to lose his voice during his recent visit to the Middle Kingdom. (In Washington especially, what goes around, comes around. Today’s cheap political shot often makes you look foolish tomorrow. If more politicians understood that, Americans would think a lot more of Washington.)
       In any event, we should give the Chinese hell when and where they deserve it. And we should impose trade sanctions appropriate to the offense when and where they break the rules. But, I’m sorry, Gary, we should leave China’s Most Favored Nation status (i.e., normal trade relations) alone. As the world’s greatest nation, we should avoid, at all costs, making idle threats we are manifestly incapable of delivering on. Bill Clinton learned that lesson the hard way in the spring of 1994, when he sent Warren Christopher to Beijing, threatening to end MFN unless the Chinese acceded to a few simple human-rights demands. This tactic was, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman memorably wrote at the time, “the diplomatic equivalent of the United States holding a gun to its own head and threatening to pull the trigger.” Clinton was bluffing and the Chinese saw through him. The president was compelled to back down, and was thus revealed to the Chinese to be a “paper tiger.”
       Clinton was compelled to suffer a terrible loss of face, only because the alternative was clearly worse: Ending MFN, then as now, would only have strengthened hard-liners in Beijing, reversed the steady evolution of China toward a freer and more open society, and utterly destroyed American credibility with our allies in Asia. That’s not appeasement, Gary; it is reality.
       For all of China’s sins today, and they are many, it has traveled a vast, vast distance from Mao’s time. Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution rivaled the pure evil of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Mao’s regime was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions. Its sheer mass terror was the closest approximation of totalitarianism the world has ever seen. In today’s China, by stark contrast, much of the population is free to work, to travel, and to read as it pleases. China’s government is inherently repressive, but its authority over its own population has been radically diminished in the last 20 years.
       Most importantly, the government has lost any claim over the soul of the individual. People think what they please. Many Chinese people I have met in China have no difficulty telling me what they think of the government. Best estimates are that there are perhaps 3,000 political prisoners. Let us be clear: that is 3,000 too many. Heaven knows, for many prisoners, conditions are horrid. We should speak up forcefully for all of them. But you absolutely cannot find the China of the 1970s and the China of today to be morally equivalent.
       And the difference has largely resulted from economic and cultural engagement with the West, principally the United States. The government obviously feels threatened by this Western “virus” and has recently sought to tighten the screws, while simultaneously stimulating an ever more prosperous economy to keep people happy. But that is a short-term expedient.
       I disagree, for several reasons, with your analogy to the former Soviet Union. I can explain, but I’ll just observe at this point that Senator Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson, author of the Jackson-Vanik legislation regarding trade with communist countries, led the opposition to MFN for the Soviet Union while strongly supporting MFN for China. President Reagan, who correctly and courageously called the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” and whose moral force substantially contributed to its disintegration, unequivocally renewed MFN for China every year for eight years. He articulately made the case for American economic and cultural engagement with China, a wise policy which acquired substantial momentum under his administration.
       I make no apologies for China, Gary. When it comes to effecting real change in that critically important country, I just favor what works.

Best regards,