Chinese President Jiang Zemin will be dogged by protesters this week, condemning him and his country for everything from oppressing Christians to stealing copyrighted material. Nearly all those protesters will be right -- China does flout international standards of human rights, it does persecute dissidents and export goods made by prison labor. It is run by as nasty a bunch of thugs as can be found in the world, and Jiang is chief among them.
Therefore, I support those protesters and will sign most, if not all their petitions. Not because I believe the Clinton administration should abandon its policy of "constructive engagement" with China, but simply because I believe all dictators should face public embarrassment on every possible occasion. In fact, Jiang's willingness to endure that embarrassment is probably the strongest indication that the president's policy is working.
Anyone who believes that China's engagement with America, and with the world, over the past 20 years has not affected that country in deep and irreversible ways has a short memory. When Henry Kissinger first persuaded President Richard Nixon to visit China, the Cultural Revolution had barely subsided. Tens of thousands of people had been executed in that mad decade, millions more stripped of power and possessions and sent to spread dung on remote fields. Everything American was banned, and posters screaming curses at Washington hung in every public square. Not incidentally, the Chinese economy was in ruins and poverty reigned throughout the country.
Today, there are some 300 major U.S. companies doing billions of dollars a year in business in China. Much of the southeastern part of the country resembles newly reacquired Hong Kong more than anything else, with Mercedes-Benzes and Rolexes much more common than Little Red Books. There is still much poverty, but also enormous private wealth. Mao's revolution is moldering in its grave. The strictly centralized bureaucracy he built is not much healthier.
Yes, China remains a dictatorship, with little regard for basic human rights. Politically, the ordinary Chinese has little more influence over his own destiny than he ever had. But the clique of aging Communist apparatchiks Jiang leads has a great deal less influence over China's destiny than it used to. As their country becomes more and more integrated into the world economy, they are finding themselves more and more compelled to observe Western standards in business. And that will eventually mean Western, or at least Westernized, political standards as well.
The basic common issue here is the rule of law. Large companies do not like making contractual relationships that depend on the whim of some powerful political figure, or on laws that can be abrogated by the next party congress. They want to know that their contracts are enforceable no matter who is in power, and that their property rights will be respected by every government.
The same goes for the governments backing those companies (and in some cases owning pieces of them). That's why China has been forced not only to crack down on intellectual property piracy, but has also signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which it once condemned as a Western plot to keep Third World countries subjugated.
If China wants to sustain its economic transformation, it must more and more transform its political and social structure to resemble those it is dealing with. If it wants to eat at the groaning table of international trade, it must learn party manners.
I will cheer on the protesters this week, and join their chorus of condemnation. But I will also urge the U.S. government to keep talking to the Chinese, and hosting their leaders, and even exchanging a friendly toast and state dinner. I know that in the course of those toasts and in trade talks, President Clinton and his aides can point out to their Chinese counterparts that dictatorships really are going out of style, that oppression and aggression are both very unpopular here, and if China wants both American technology and access to American markets, it is going to have to show some sign of listening to America's people.
Not a lot, at first. It's a long road from dictatorship to democracy. But as someone once remarked, the longest journey begins with one step. Hear the protesters outside, Mr. Jiang?
King Features Syndicate