The Magazine

WISHFUL THINKING ON CHINA

Jun 29, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 41 • By ARTHUR WALDRON
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Even before the visit, then, Clinton's policy is not working. But what is the alternative? Not, to be sure, either of the straw men the president set up in his recent talk: neither "to try to isolate and contain China" nor to count on "increased commercial dealings alone" for improvement. What is required is a realistic sense of China's potentialities, a definition of where we want China to go, and a balanced set of measures, both carrots and sticks, to move things along.


Our long-term policy goal with China must be, as it was with the U.S.S.R., to foster political change in a liberal direction, for without freedom in China, genuine peace will be no more likely in Asia than it was in Europe when the Soviet Union existed. But such domestic change may come slowly, or through turmoil, or not at all, so we must hedge against risks by strengthening and developing our cooperation with other free-market and democratic states in Asia.


One who understands this is Bao Tong, former chief of staff to the liberalizing premier Zhao Ziyang who was ousted in 1989, after appearing in Tiananmen Square to plead with the student demonstrators to leave. Bao is the most senior Communist party official to be jailed for political reasons in the last 20 years. Released from prison in 1996, he lives in Beijing, where recently he spoke with the Washington Post. China, Bao said, "has already gone mad twice over the last 40 years. . . . You have to ask yourself a question: What will it do on the international scene? Is it a source of stability or a potential source of instability? When it doesn't have enough power, its attitude will be restrained. But once it develops and becomes strong, what kind of role is it going to play without a complete structural change?" [Italics added.]


The White House pays a certain lip service to this fundamental insight but neglects it in practice, systematically misreading the Chinese scene. To hear the administration tell it, you might think that China's current leadership were gradually and deliberately taking the country toward political pluralism. There is evidence: continuing economic reforms, village elections, the selective exile (as opposed to imprisonment) of leading dissidents, a general warming of the political climate -- all of course welcome.


But what Bao Tong and many others appreciate -- but the administration does not -- is that such moves are merely tactical, in a game by the Chinese leadership whose long-term goal is to resist democratization and hold on to Communist party rule.


President Jiang Zemin, although rather cultured and humane by the previous standards of Chinese leadership, is no liberalizer. He was installed as party secretary in 1989, after the Tiananmen massacre, precisely because he opposed a political opening, and he has systematically excluded liberalizers from leadership positions, even though there are many in the Communist party. He is rumored to be preparing a speech promising democracy sometime around 2020, but there are no signs of the reforms urgently needed now -- and such signs would be obvious: task forces, consulting groups, and so forth.


Jiang's post-dated promises may pacify some critics in Washington, but his procrastination bodes ill for Asia: It suggests that China will not reform in time; that domestic problems will go unacknowledged and unresolved and that tensions will rise; that some event -- a strike, a run on the banks -- may trigger a political crisis, and unrest and disorder in China may ripple out over Asia.


The current Chinese leadership is probably unequal to dealing with these dangers. Jiang Zemin is most concerned with consolidating his own power: He plays factional politics, promotes a minor cult of personality (his biography, Chronicle of General Secretary Jiang Zemin's Important Deeds in Party Building, is reportedly about to be published), and proclaims loyalty to Marxism and "Deng Xiaoping thought." He likes to travel abroad and uses foreign recognition as a substitute for genuine legitimacy at home. He is locked in uneasy rivalry with premier Zhu Rongji and former prime minister Li Peng.


But this ruling group seems to share a common calculation -- which may explode in their faces. It is that economic growth, selective repression, and continued foreign support can make it possible for their Communist party to be the exception worldwide and keep its power.