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China: THE GIANT WAKING : Reforms Reshape the World : Long March to a Profit Motive

December 08, 1985|Warren Christopher | Warren Christopher, deputy secretary of state from 1977 to 1981, is now chairman of O'Melveny & Myers, a Los Angeles law firm

Napoleon once said about China: "There lies a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world." That time has come.

China is about to become a superpower. If China and the Soviet Union maintain the same respective growth rates they have averaged over the last decade, by the year 2000 China's economy will be three times as big as the Soviet Union's.

China is pursuing an independent course in foreign affairs, producing a massive shift in the global balance of military power.

China has emerged from the cultural revolution--from the convulsive and costly process of turning a whole society on its head to enforce ideological purity.

And China, to a degree unprecedented for a major communist society, is looking for guidance less and less to Marx, more and more to the magic of the marketplace. What a powerful example, when the world's largest developing country, a country with almost one-fourth of all mankind, embraces ideas like the profit motive, private entrepreneurship and market pricing.

In 1949, the "loss" of China sent a tremor through U.S. political life that reverberates even now. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's famous charge that there were precisely 57 communists in the State Department came less than eight weeks after Chiang Kai-shek picked up the remnants of his government and fled to the island province known as Formosa.

China's revolution helped define America's approach to the postwar world. Here was proof that the Soviets aspired to reshape the world in a Marxist image and that, unless resisted, they might. In the 1950s and 1960s, the memory of the fall of China and fears of the Chinese Communists lured us into two divisive land wars in Asia, first Korea, then Vietnam.

Against that background, it is stunning that we now find so much in common with China.

The shift began in the 1960s, with the deterioration in China's relations with her ostensible mentor, the Soviet Union. In retrospect, the Sino-Soviet split seems to have been inevitable. Resistance to foreign domination is deeply rooted in China's history, in the cultural self-confidence of the Confucian "Middle Kingdom" which for 2,000 years regarded all foreigners as "barbarians."

Even the communist revolution could not erase all this history. When the Soviet Union asserted the right to defend socialism by invading sovereign nations; Czechoslovakia was the 1968 target but China saw the message--and didn't like it. By 1969 there was sporadic fighting along the Sino-Soviet border and Mao Tse-tung was telling his people to "store grain everywhere," and to "dig tunnels deep"--words that resonated with Americans who were concerned about Soviet expansionism.

That parallel outlook toward the Soviets opened the way for gradual normalizing of U.S.-China contacts, leading to the establishment of full diplomatic relations in 1979.

This Sino-Soviet division has been a fact of life for many years, but many may not have grasped its full importance. Not long ago U.S. defense planning was geared to fight 2 1/2 wars at once--against the Soviet Union, against China and against a smaller regional power. Now, the United States does not arm itself against China--but the Soviet Union does. This one change has brought a major realignment in the global balance of power.

What about the future? Will China slip back into Soviet orbit? No--not necessarily because of our diplomats' skill, but because of underlying realities. We all have a natural tendency to overstate our own influence--to confuse our presence at an event with its cause, like the rooster who thinks his crowing calls forth the sun. The notion that the United States could manipulate China as part of a strategy toward the Soviet Union has always been the height of presumption--to regard the nation of 1 billion people as just a playing card in the U.S. deck.

What will keep China out of the Soviet orbit is not friendship for the United States, but reasons of her own--an underlying clash of cultures and a long and troubled border. Since China's position is grounded in self-interest, it is all the more durable and certain.

There have been compelling new indications of a pragmatic Chinese posture in dealing with other countries, notably in the handling of the Hong Kong matter. The British crown colony of Hong Kong, operating under a very pure strain of capitalism and British law, has become one of the world's most important commercial centers. The limits to further growth seemed defined by its lease; British tenancy runs out in 1997 when Chinese rule returns. Worries about the future were aggravated in late 1982 by some undiplomatic British hints that Hong Kong might be treated like the Falklands. Fortunately this moment passed and the negotiations that followed are a tribute to British realism and Chinese pragmatism.

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