The U.S. and China

Dear Wendell,

       The debate over granting Most Favored Nation trade status to China is sure to heat up over the next few weeks. President Clinton has moved up his long-anticipated decision to extend for one year Beijing’s current relationship with the United States. There was some question in the press whether Clinton would personally announce the decision since his administration is widely viewed as rather compromised by recent revelations of possible illegal interference by the Chinese government with our elections. Both the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times noted that the campaign-finance scandal might make it look like Clinton’s support for MFN had been bought.
       Wendell, this is unprecedented in American history. When, early in the life of the republic, emissaries of the French foreign ministry demanded what were, in effect, bribes from the American delegation, it led to the famed XYZ Affair, which we used to study in every high school. It was a huge row. Very shortly, America found herself in an undeclared naval war with France. No one seeks war today. And the administration’s role in this may yet prove to be unwitting. But America’s national honor was something we were taught to treasure not so long ago. Will this latest scandal, with all the really horrific implications to us, be simply brushed aside with the jaded expression, “They all do it”?
       Issues of national character are at stake here. For example, Boeing has just hired another 13 lobbyists to go door-to-door on Capitol Hill. Those well-heeled representatives will be asking members of Congress not to commit “political suicide” by voting against MFN for China. No threats here, Wendell, just some of the most heavy-handed arm-twisting we’ve ever seen in Washington. Boeing has put out a new video touting its long-term relationship with the People’s Republic of China. The film features adoring shots of Premier Li Peng with, of course, no mention of that ruler’s key role in ordering the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The film also contains a very curious phrase about the delivery of their 737s, 747s, 757s, and 767s to China: They are just “coming home,” the filmmakers announce. That’s because so much of each plane had been manufactured in China! Have the folks in Washington state seen that film clip, I wonder? We really must ask ourselves a hard question: Is Boeing an American corporation lobbying the U.S. Congress, or is it an unregistered agent of the People’s Republic abjectly submitting to Beijing’s Council of State?
       Wendell, through these letters you and I have had a spirited exchange. This is the way our debates should be conducted. You raise valid concerns and legitimate points.
       I am aware of the arguments put forward by some U.S.-based Christian mission organizations who disagree with my position on MFN for China. In fact, I share their desire to open more doors for those who seek to communicate the Gospel to the millions who yearn to hear it. Those of us who disagree about the best means to attain that worthy objective should take great care to engage in respectful dialogue and carefully review the history of successful efforts to stand against religious persecution.
       Missionaries on the ground in China are in a very sensitive position. It would not be prudent for them to speak out publicly against the financial interests of the Beijing regime. Likewise, we do not expect hostages to criticize their terrorist captors during their period of captivity. However, law-enforcement and military experts consistently tell us that we would be ill-advised to capitulate to the demands of these terrorists in order to seek short-term protection for our beloved hostages. Terrorists, like despotic dictators, are only encouraged to increase their cruel and manipulative actions if civilized people give in to their demands.
       Can anyone argue that the appeasement of Hitler led to greater religious freedom in Germany? Would thousands of Soviet Jews have been allowed to emigrate if the United States had not used the trade sanctions called for in the Jackson-Vanik amendment? Ironically, it is the Jackson-Vanik amendment that President Clinton has waived in order to maintain Most Favored Nation status for the Chinese regime. Will China’s dictators ever take us seriously if we never invoke a meaningful sanction in response to their escalating abuse of fundamental human rights?
       Today, Pastor Xu Young Ze stands under a sentence of death in China. He was arrested March 16 for no greater crime than the attempt to unite the oppressed house churches under one banner. In most civilized countries, the faith of the people and their decisions to unite or divide their church bodies are properly seen as matters for the private sector to decide, not for governments to impose. Let us pray that Pastor Xu will be spared.
       Might it be worse if China were denied MFN status? I certainly hope that it would not be. As I’ve said before, China’s rulers have relented on occasion in the past when MFN seemed threatened by Congress.
       Still, we should not underestimate the intelligence or the ruthlessness of China’s rulers. They know the role that the church played in the unraveling of Soviet communism in the ‘80s. Though many in the West actively deny it, people throughout the former Soviet bloc know that President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II actively worked together to strengthen solidarity, to give moral and material support to the forces of freedom behind the Iron Curtain. And, most importantly, to deny to the “evil empire” that cloak of legitimacy its brutal rulers desperately craved.
       The Chinese rulers know this history, too. That’s why they said, in 1992, in an editorial in a state-run newspaper, that “the church played an important role in the change” in Eastern Europe. “If China does not want such a scene to be repeated in its land, it must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger.”
       That chilling phrase is recorded in the book Their Blood Cries Out, by Paul Marshall (with Lela Gilbert). Dr. Marshall is a Canadian Evangelical. His eloquent call for action in behalf of persecuted Christians throughout the world appeals to conscience. And Dr. Marshall supports revocation of MFN for China.
       Wendell, you and I both claim a philosophical heritage as conservatives. I honor your claim. We worked together closely in the Reagan administration. And you are certainly right to note that in those pre-Tiananmen Square days, Reagan regularly extended MFN status to China. The president was famous for prioritizing his concerns. He clearly saw the “China card” as an advantage in the high-stakes game he played against Soviet military might and expansionism. No one I know suggests he was wrong to do so. We should also remember that in those heady days, there were some indications that China would, in fact, develop along freer lines.
       But there were dark clouds then, too. In the early ‘80s, China moved not only to expel Stanford University graduate student Steven Mosher, but to put pressure on that famed American university to expel him, too. Mosher’s crime? As an American doctoral student living in a rural Chinese village, he had reported that pregnant peasant women were being rounded up and hauled off in trucks to be coerced into having abortions. Mosher was then not particularly pro-life. In fact, he was pro-choice. But he gave a vivid portrayal of the massive campaign to impose China’s “one-child” policy on the 80 percent of the people who live in the rural areas. China’s ruling elite turned their fury on Mosher and on Stanford University. Stanford officials were told in no uncertain terms that if Steven Mosher was not kicked out of the doctoral program, Stanford would send no more students to China. Stanford surrendered. In a kangaroo-court proceeding, Mosher was unceremoniously dumped from the student roster. “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Western Civ has got to go!”
       I relate this story because the Chinese rulers have used these methods time and again with astonishing success. Boeing has been kept on a short leash by Beijing. French President Jacques Chirac has just returned from a state visit to China. He was rewarded with a fat contract for France’s Airbus aircraft manufacturers. Boeing had better deliver the goods for China on MFN or else. That French connection hangs over their heads.
       Wendell, you and I must debate while we still can debate. We are seeing evidence of the closing off of this debate on China every day. My organization, Family Research Council, was just turned down by the networks in our bid to air TV ads about China/MFN. And who owns the networks? Don’t we see here some of our own corporate leaders stifling debate?
       Even in Congress, we see some troubling trends. The Washington elites know that public support for China/MFN is eroding. In February, a Time/CNN poll showed 53 percent opposed to giving MFN status to China regardless of human-rights abuses. By late April, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that opposition had leaped to 67 percent. So now we see the elites pressuring to speed up the vote. That’s why, I believe, Bill Clinton announced his decision a week early. Although Speaker Gingrich personally assured me there would be no attempt to slip this one through, there are some who would clearly like to wrap up this one before the July 1 hand-over of Hong Kong.
       Can it be that things are not going as smoothly in that transition as we’ve been led to believe? The international press is reporting the fact that China has already installed its own agents in all the major Hong Kong newspapers. A recent survey of Hong Kong journalists reports that one in five say they are already censoring themselves. I, for one, will view the July 1st hand-over as a sad and solemn occasion: Six million free people of Hong Kong are coming under the control of a totalitarian regime.
       In closing, Wendell, I want to thank you for our discussion. We have worked together on many worthwhile projects. I am confident we will do so again. The debate over China/MFN is more than a debate over trade and development, as important as those subjects are. It is a debate over basic American values and our responsibility to people for whom real freedom is still a distant dream.

Ever your friend,

For a briefing by Oxford Analytica on the China trade-status dispute, see SLATE’s new feature ” Global Primer.”