The Magazine


May 24, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 34 • By ARTHUR WALDRON
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First there were anti-Chinese demonstrations in Suharto's Indonesia; now there are anti-American demonstrations in Jiang Zemin's China. Signs of government weakness in both countries, the disorders were orchestrated by the regimes. In Indonesia, of course, they ended unhappily for Suharto: That country has now embarked on the treacherous but long overdue business of democratization, to general praise from foreign capitals including Washington. But where will the ugly anti-American demonstrations in Beijing lead, and what will Washington say?

The past week's events have called into question the picture of China that the Clinton administration has been trying so hard to sell: a "strategic partner," a fundamentally stable and increasingly open regime, misunderstood and maligned by some, but more and more a responsible player internationally, while at home a regime doing not such a bad job, considering all the problems it faces, even if Americans don't always like the means.

Now we must ask what kind of a regime it is that crushes dissent ruthlessly most of the time but unleashes the rent-a-mob against foreign embassies when that suits its purposes.

To begin with, such a regime is simply too unpredictable to be anybody's long-term partner, and is probably weak to boot. It may well be heading for a crisis, and if so, thoughts of working closely with it or even "engaging" it about disagreements should probably be set aside in favor of planning against possibly worse trouble to come. In Asia, that means ensuring above all that out ties with Japan and other key democratic states in the region are strong enough to weather any possible disorder.

Until recently, this has not been the White House policy. Instead, Washington has staked more and more on its relationship with China, making a steady stream of concessions, while lecturing Japan on how to reform, aiding North Korea, deflecting legitimate Philippine concerns about Chinese territorial encroachment, waffling on missile defense, and turning a blind eye to threats against Taiwan -- hoping against hope that its wished-for China, secure, prosperous, and strong, would eventually emerge.

The stoning of the American embassy has exposed that approach for the dangerous fantasy it is, for no possible interpretation of recent events squares with the administration's imagined China.

Obviously, the same Chinese rulers President Clinton has been steadily wooing have encouraged the demonstrations. How else to account for the buses carrying protesters, the printed placards they have carried, the strange inactivity of the police? And if besieging the ambassador and his staff and breaking all the windows in the embassy are the considered policy of the Chinese government, then we face a real problem.

But suppose, as many observers suggest, that the protests are being used by some in the Chinese government to get back at others; suppose that, like the partly managed, partly spontaneous violence of the Cultural Revolution, these mobs have domestic targets -- say, the advocates of political and economic reform, the advocates of an open policy, even Zhu Rongji himself. That, too, would mean trouble for the United States, with its policy founded on the expectation that the reformers will stay in control.

Add to this the observation that Beijing fears unrest in the streets like that of 1989 and may therefore be attempting to defuse and channel the free-floating anger widespread in Chinese society, and one must see the demonstrations across China -- like those in Indonesia a year ago -- as signals that the regime is threatened. While this diagnosis may not accord with the views of official Washington, it does fit developments throughout Chinese society.

Start with the economy, on the success of which Beijing has staked its legitimacy. The East Asian economic crisis, which some claimed China had avoided, seems now only to have been deferred. And remember that Suharto was in the end a victim of that crisis.