The Magazine

Imprisonment and Other "Irritations"

Aug 6, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 44 • By ROBERT KAGAN and WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"I THINK THE RELATIONSHIP is on the upswing now, now that these irritations are behind us, and I know they are anxious to move forward." That keen geopolitical insight, uttered by Secretary of State Colin Powell on the eve of his visit to Beijing, nicely captures the Bush administration’s policy of appeasement toward the Chinese dictatorship. If you think this new team is a bunch of tough guys when it comes to China, think again. It seems the president and his secretary of state, like their predecessors, are willing to eat almost unlimited quantities of—well, for decorum’s sake, let’s call it mud—if that’s what it takes to make Beijing happy.

What prompted Powell’s optimistic assessment of the state of Sino-American relations, of course, was China’s deportation last week of an American citizen, Li Shaomin, and its release of two permanent residents of the United States, Gao Zhan and Qin Guangguang. These are all academics whom Beijing had earlier arrested on trumped-up charges of "spying." Mr. Li spent a few months in jail, was "convicted," and then deported. When Ms. Gao was seized almost six months ago, Chinese authorities also locked up her husband and subjected their 5-year-old son—an American citizen—to a unique form of child torture, isolating him from his parents without explanation for 26 days. What an irritation that was! The Chinese released him and his father, and now, months later, they have let Ms. Gao go. Why? Because she, like Mr. Li and Mr. Qin, was so obviously innocent of the ludicrous charges against her? No. The Chinese first convicted her and sentenced her to 10 years in prison in court proceedings so hasty they would make a kangaroo blush. (They’re still working on that "rule of law" thing, you know.) Then they presented her, Mr. Li, and Mr. Qin as a gift to Secretary Powell, a human gift, as a token of their goodwill. And Powell accepted the gift in that spirit: "I think the relationship is on the upswing now, now that these irritations are behind us."

Really? That’s it? Set aside for a moment that another American citizen, Wu Jianmin, remains locked in a Chinese prison cell after being seized on April 8, or that another American resident, Liu Yaping, has been in prison since March 8. And never mind the democracy activists, Falun Gong members, Tibetan Buddhists, and Christians still being held, tortured, and sometimes murdered. Those "irritations" are most assuredly not "behind us," though perhaps the Chinese are eventually going to tie ribbons around their bruised bodies, too, so that President Bush will have a nice party favor waiting for him when he travels to Beijing this October.

But even if there were no American citizens and residents still rotting in Chinese jails, not to mention the Chinese victims of the Beijing dictatorship, can it be that the Bush administration’s only response to the arrest, jailing, phony conviction, and then deportation of American citizens and American residents is: Thank you for clearing up that mess? Is there no cost to the Chinese for such behavior?

The Bush administration’s answer is no, not for these or any other appalling acts by the Chinese government. When the Chinese knocked an American surveillance plane out of the sky last April, then held the crew hostage for more than a week, the Chinese demanded an apology, and the Bush administration provided one. When the Chinese refused to let the plane fly home, and insisted that it be carved into pieces for transport, the Bush administration agreed. When the Chinese then presented a bill for "housing" the American crew, the administration indicated it was willing to pay up.

When the Chinese helped Iraq build a sophisticated air defense system, the better to shoot down American pilots, President Bush asked them to please explain themselves. The Chinese government told him to stuff it, and he backed down. When Beijing told his administration not to sell Taiwan the Aegis battle management system or other advanced weaponry, his administration did as it was told.