A few years ago, while in Beijing for the (now forgotten, then notorious) U.N. Conference on Women, I took a break from the chic Frenchwomen with their talk of Kristeva, the earnest Germans arguing about Jung, and the confused Cambodians, who were silently making a quilt in honor of the great event. I set out for the countryside, the better to meet some actual Chinese women, who were pretty thin on the ground at the U.N. conference, except in the role of “photographers” and spies.
About two hours from Beijing, in one of the small factory towns that feed the city’s markets, I found some. They were young peasant women who had come to make their fortunes, sewing fake Chanel handbags on rickety machines. In the workshop I visited, there were about 12 of them. They worked downstairs, slept upstairs, and were enthusiastic about the relative wealth and freedom which their new employment status had conferred upon them. Most were away from their villages for the first time in their lives, having escaped from mothers, mothers-in-law—and, they said happily, Communist party officials: Moving out of the countryside, they left behind Chinese totalitarian politics, whose singular achievement is its successful penetration of people’s private lives, personal habits, even reproductive intentions.
One would be hard-pressed to describe these women as “liberated,” in any sense that the chic Frenchwomen and earnest Germans back in Beijing would have understood. Nor were they remotely interested in “democracy,” in the way that their contemporaries, the veterans of Tiananmen Square, might define it. Nevertheless, crude capitalism, powered by the international demand for fake Chanel handbags, had created a small space, free of surveillance, for these women and their employer to inhabit. He had a bit of money, and therefore more power than local officials. They moved freely, spoke freely, didn’t mind chatting to a foreigner. For anyone who ever lived (as I did, briefly) in the pre-Gorbachev Soviet Union, it was a revelation: In Leningrad, circa 1985, you didn’t speak to foreigners on the street.
More to the point, the change in the lives of these women is the only important point at stake in the debate about trade with China, as far as “foreigners” are concerned. All of the other arguments are really about America; those claiming that trade with China will be good for Big Business or bad for Big Labor (see William Saletan’s “Frame Game” on spinning China) are probably taking money from one side or the other, and can safely be ignored in any case. But the claim that granting permanent most-favored-nation status to China amounts to appeasement of what remains an extremely nasty regime, best put by William Kristol and Robert Kagan in this week’s Weekly Standard, is worth taking very seriously indeed—because if these women were living in a 21st-century China which still resembled 20th-century Russia, it would certainly be correct. In a state-controlled, totalitarian economy, an economic boycott has direct political effects. During the détente years, we were very, very wrong to sell grain to the Soviet Union, for example: By doing so, we postponed the inevitable crisis of state-owned Soviet agriculture.
But China is not Russia, and Chinese capitalism has a different dynamic from Russian state socialism. If you don’t believe me, listen not to what people are saying in Washington, but what Chinese peasant women say on the outskirts of Beijing. It is certainly ludicrous to speak, as the Clinton administration does, of supporting so-called “reformers” in the Chinese political establishment; nor should we fool ourselves into the self-satisfied belief that by opening trade, we can somehow export democracy to China. But by importing and exporting people and products, we can at least extend the sphere of personal freedom in China, helping to devolve power from the central government to independent entrepreneurs.
Any change in that direction is positive—and if you still don’t believe me, listen to Dr. Chi Su, chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, who notes that China’s growing tangle of institutional problems—unclear property rights, poor contract enforcement, corrupt bureaucracy—are gradually heading toward a crisis: They are irresolvable without the rule of law, and the rule of law is “totally incompatible” with the doctrine of one-party dictatorship. Although he also points out that, to date, economic change hasn’t brought about the “democratization” of China—and it won’t, or at least not that crudely—it has helped ensure that China is, domestically, developing “in a manner very different from the rigidity in her external behaviour.”
We should listen to Taiwan for other reasons too—for the really craven aspect of U.S. foreign policy in Asia is not the promotion of trade with China, but the outdated pretense that Taiwan, an even more dynamic economy and a vigorous democracy, doesn’t exist. We will not help protect China’s religious dissidents or independent newspapers by refusing to trade with China—given the diversity of their economy, the Chinese government simply isn’t susceptible to that kind of boycott—but there are plenty of other ways to show our disapproval of the Chinese government’s behavior, most of them involving greater diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. As a rule, boycotts and sanctions should always be directed not at what people in Washington think matters—and at the moment, Americans care a great deal about trade and money—but what people in the target country care about. Nothing tormented white, apartheid South Africa more exquisitely, for example, than the fact that their cricketers and rugby players could not compete abroad: No economic sanctions could even come close. Trade isn’t the right lever to use in China. Promotion of genuine democracy in Asia is.