The U.S. and China

Dear Gary,

       You are right to emphasize continuing human-rights abuses in China. As Americans, we should care deeply about persecution of Christians, as well as other human-rights abuses, in any country. Given our unique political heritage, we should never be indifferent to political repression in other lands. And we should remember that China is hardly alone in this regard.
       But when we focus on human rights, we should pursue realistic policies that will most effectively advance the ideals we proclaim. Moral indignation is appropriate, even admirable, but we should take care that it does not cloud our judgment as to how we can best promote our national ideals, as well as our national interests. There are times when our national purpose is best served through dealing with tyrannical regimes, even as we oppose their practices and policies. Ronald Reagan advocated this course in 1980, when he called for lifting the grain embargo President Carter had imposed on the Soviet Union following the invasion of Afghanistan. And that’s why he favored economic engagement with China.
       In recommending withdrawal of MFN because of persecution of Chinese Christians, Gary, I am curious as to how you respond to the pleas of American Christian missionaries working in China, who have said your campaign will be counterproductive to their efforts. The Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College advises that numerous evangelical organizations active in China believe that opposition to MFN will only “strengthen the official Chinese perception that Christians are a threat to Chinese political and social stability. … This will likely result in greater persecution of Christians inside China.”
       And as Newt Gingrich observed on Meet the Press last Sunday, Americans should be willing to defer to Hong Kong’s two most important advocates of human rights, Gov. Chris Patten and democracy activist Martin Lee. They have said U.S. withdrawal of MFN for China could severely damage the political and economic interests of the free people of Hong Kong. Caring as we do about the future of Hong Kong, as well as the Christian church in China, we should listen to those who are making personal sacrifices in the struggle for freedom as to what will either hinder or advance their efforts.
       Your arguments against normal trade relations with China would carry far greater weight if the country were a monolithic, totalitarian state like the former Soviet Union. But it clearly is not. Power in China today is very substantially decentralized. Without in any way minimizing their significance, by far the greatest responsibility for the worst human-rights abuses, such as forced abortions, often rests in greatest measure with local officials. There are younger, rising, more Western-oriented officials in national ministries who are deeply embarrassed about such atrocities, as they should be, and badly want to see them ended. But China today is an unruly, messy, almost chaotic place. This does not in any way absolve Beijing of responsibility for barbaric practices anywhere in the country, but when you have heard powerful provincial officials openly scoff and laugh at Beijing’s dictates in front of the visiting foreigner, it does give you a sense of perspective.
       And the evidence that America’s economic engagement has promoted not only economic prosperity, but also vast new personal freedom for the people of China, is overwhelming. Yes, individuals in the Communist Party have benefited from international trade, but the authority of the party itself over the economy and society as a whole has radically diminished since Mao’s time. There are, of course, opportunities for “Red princes” to enrich themselves by corruption in an environment where an appreciation of the importance of the rule of law is only now beginning to take hold. But as we saw in the collapse of the Soviet empire, corruption is endemic as communism starts to dissolve.
       Importantly, millions of Chinese are being exposed as never before to what life in the West represents. In this relaxed climate, hundreds of thousands of Chinese have been able to travel abroad to free countries. (The Soviets never dreamed of permitting this.) This has enormously enhanced popular understanding in China of the moral as well as practical advantages of Western ways.
       Why does the government permit this? Because a people enjoying unprecedented freedom and prosperity is for the moment politically satisfied. At the same time, the “legitimacy” of communist rule has been destroyed (thus the government’s acute sensitivity to any public criticism). Say what you want, including to foreigners, in private. But proclaiming aloud that “the emperor has no clothes” is strictly forbidden.
       So I must disagree, Gary, that the Chinese state is the principal beneficiary of our economic engagement. According to the Wall Street Journal, three-quarters of China’s exports are controlled by foreign companies. I have been in factories all over China run by American, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese companies manufacturing products exported to the United States. Such enterprises are bringing not only higher standards of living but also concepts of freedom inherent in free enterprise to the ordinary people of China.
       There are, and will be, short-term reversals in the realization of Western ideals, but the longer-term trends since we normalized relations with China almost 20 years ago are clearly and profoundly in the right direction. With all of its problems, I would rather confront the China of today–politically, economically, and culturally engaged with the West–than a China without normalized economic relations, which would more closely resemble an enormous North Korea. That would be a real nightmare in human rights and national security.
       Gary, we should not give government hard-liners an excuse to shut down the engagement with the West, which is steadily eroding the foundations of dictatorship. Congressional Democrats in the early 1990s used MFN for partisan political reasons to embarrass President Bush. Bush imposed stiff, and effective, sanctions after Tiananmen Square but for various reasons he avoided the idealistic and inspiring rhetoric of his predecessor, thus leaving himself open to charges from liberals of indifference to human rights. Bill Clinton has now exposed himself to serious allegations of undue influence from Chinese interests.
       This presents an inviting political opportunity. But as conservatives, Gary, we should have more limited expectations than liberals as to how government policies and sanctions can immediately improve the lot of humanity, whether at home or abroad. And we should have more confidence in the simple, uplifting effect of direct exposure to American ideals and American practices. We should have more faith than our friends on the left in the beneficent power of free enterprise, especially American enterprise. While business legitimately pursues commercial opportunities for the individual company, in the longer term, commerce advances broader societal objectives and noble purposes. Prosperity and individual opportunity create the environment in which freedom can flourish.
       Finally, while being realistic in the search to identify new and better ways to promote our ideals overseas, we should shy away from a weapon that would constitute a multibillion-dollar tax increase on hard-working American families. You have observed, Gary, that Americans “can hardly pick up a running shoe, shirt, or small appliance without seeing the ‘Made in China’ imprint.” Withdrawal of MFN would result in huge duties–another word for taxes–collected at our borders by federal bureaucrats of the U.S. Customs Service. These taxes will be directly imposed not on Chinese dictators, but rather on American consumers.
       When Americans encounter a 20 to 70 percent increase in prices on Chinese manufactured products, from shoes and clothing to toys and electronic goods, they will justifiably want to know how these new taxes they are forced to pay are really promoting human rights in China. I question, Gary, whether anyone will have a satisfactory answer for them.
       At that point, all our allies in the region, including Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, will have strongly disassociated themselves from our declaration of economic warfare on China. American influence will be substantially reduced in the region. Private enterprise in China will be constricted. And hard-liners in China’s leadership will be leading a nationalist backlash against the United States. We will have found ourselves a new “Cold War” adversary. I realize some at home are hoping for that, in order to build “national character,” but the cause of human rights for the Chinese people will have been sacrificed in the process.
       I very much appreciate your comments about our good-spirited dialogue and long friendship. I share the sentiments.