It was good to see from your response the broad areas of agreement we share on U.S. policy toward China. You are right, of course, that China’s rulers never took Bill Clinton’s “huff-and-puff” threats to revoke MFN seriously. But I do not believe that was because, as the New YorkTimes’ Thomas Friedman said, carrying out those threats would be like the United States “holding a gun to its own head and threatening to pull the trigger.” Rather, Beijing knew that it could pressure Clinton directly and indirectly, through multinational corporations. The Chinese rulers’ contempt for what they call our “moneybag democracy” is only too well known.
If the idea that MFN benefits the United States were correct, or the belief that China doesn’t really care about MFN were accurate, then it would be hard to explain Beijing’s behavior the last time Congress seemed ready to revoke it. Responding to the Tiananmen massacre, Congress voted to disapprove MFN for China. It was all President Bush’s aides could do to sustain his veto. China’s rulers moved quickly to clean up their act. As the Weekly Standard notes, they ended martial law in 1990. They released first 600 political prisoners, then 200 more, and finally another 100. They even let noted dissident Fang Lizhi go. And they announced a blockbuster purchase of Boeing aircraft.
The reason China takes MFN very seriously is that Beijing benefits far more than we do from the trading relationship. That’s why we have a nearly $40 billion trade deficit with China. Americans can hardly pick up a running shoe, shirt, or small appliance without seeing the “Made in China” imprint. But we export less to China than we do to Belgium. And the fact that the typical Chinese makes less than one dollar a day, as the World Bank recently reported, shows that all the talk about China’s vast market potential is vastly overrated.
The situation in China today reminds me of the joke that made the rounds in the Soviet Union. Communist boss Leonid Brezhnev wanted to show his mother how far he’d come from his peasant beginnings. He took her through his palatial Kremlin offices, then his hunting lodge in the Baltics, and finally to his dacha on the Black Sea. His mother seemed more fearful than impressed. Annoyed, Leonid Ilyich scolded her: “Mama, you don’t seem to appreciate how well I’ve done.” “Yes, it’s all nice, my son, but what if the Reds come back?”
In China now, as in Russia then, the Communist Party has monopolized most of the benefits of international trade. The booming Chinese economy is dominated by the party, and the most successful entrepreneurs are the “princelings,” sons and daughters of the Communist Party elite, who have used their connections to power–especially the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)–to make vast personal fortunes. Bill Clinton has even had “coffee” at the White House with some of these princelings.
You are also right, Wendell, that conditions in China today are not as horrendous as they were under Chairman Mao. We do not believe that millions are starving in China today, as they did during the so-called Great Leap Forward. But that does not mean that human-rights conditions in China are even close to acceptable.
The State Department and human-rights groups report that repression is worsening. Last year, religious believers saw an intensification of the campaign against them. Catholics, Evangelicals, Buddhists in Tibet, Muslims in Xinjiang province–all have felt the heel of the PLA’s hobnailed boot. On March 4 of this year, the highest-ranking Catholic prelate remaining in China, Bishop Fan Zhongliang, had his apartment ransacked, Bibles and missals confiscated, vestments and other religious articles seized. This action was taken as Vice President Al Gore was preparing for his highly publicized visit to Beijing.
The ruthless “one-child” population policy proceeds under orders from Beijing. This has led to mass forced abortions and to the infanticide of girl babies. The stories coming out of China’s orphanages, Wendell, where handicapped children and little girls are often left to starve in “dying rooms,” cry out for our compassion. The rosy pictures of happy peasant women in rural China are belied by the Times of London’s report of the high number of rural Chinese women who commit suicide. China’s suicide rate among women is fully 10 times as high as that of any developed country. These unhappy women are sending us distress signals with their very lives. Can we turn our eyes from them?
I agree with you, Wendell, that Speaker Gingrich’s approach during his visit to China was greatly preferable to the administration’s appeasement. Vice President Gore’s champagne toast to the very men he once called “the Butchers of Tiananmen” was shameful. The speaker was clearly right to emphasize Taiwan’s security and Hong Kong’s liberties.
I also think that the speaker’s address at Johns Hopkins University moves the debate in the right direction: He recognizes the need to re-link MFN to China’s behavior. I believe we should not renew China’s MFN trade status. But if Congress agrees to extend China’s MFN status for another six months, it will be vital that human rights and America’s national-security concerns–along with our legitimate interests in Taiwan and Hong Kong–be among the key conditions for future renewal of MFN for China. And we must have honest reporting about the true conditions in China. No whitewashing.
Finally, Wendell, I am glad to have this respectful and spirited debate with you. Our shared commitment to America’s founding ideals, and our long friendship, will stand us in good stead, I am sure, as we face the heat of this summer’s legislative battle over China/MFN. Among the most cherished of those American ideals is the importance of public opinion in our counsels. That’s why the recent poll by NBC News/the Wall Street Journal is so important. When the question of China/MFN was put to Americans, they overwhelmingly chose human rights over trading privileges. By a thumping 67 to 27 percent, Americans stood up for timeless values over commercial advantage. That’s a heartening result to me. Wendell, I’m convinced that when we show “a decent respect” for the principles that gave this country birth, the American people respond with enthusiasm. Let’s have a foreign policy that once again makes us proud to be Americans.