NEW YORK — China's brutal repression of its pro-democracy movement has shocked the Western World. The Tian An Men Square crackdown was shockingly cruel and incredibly stupid. Last week's executions of activists and workers deepened our revulsion, leading even China's friends to question the rationality of a regime that would go forward with such brutality in spite of the protests of Western governments, whose future good will China needs to continue its economic reforms.
For now, China seems to have reverted to its old fanatical communist hard line. In the light of this development, it is difficult to contemplate how continued normal relations with China would be in our interests, at least in the short term. But before adopting policies of reprisal that would again virtually isolate the Chinese regime from the West, the Bush Administration must consider long-term stakes, for the United States and the people of China.
Lashing back with punitive policies would be politically popular and emotionally satisfying for the great majority of the American people. Such policies would make us feel better. But they would have no effect whatsoever on China's hard-line leadership. Instead, they could dash the Chinese people's chances for further economic progress and eventual political reform. They would not be in the interests of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese in China and all over the world who have demonstrated for political reform. And they would not be in the interests of the United States. If, in anger, we drive China back into the shadows of the Soviet Union and the oppressive economic system Deng Xiaoping has tried to reform, those who have died for freedom in China will truly have died in vain.
To see where we should go in our policy toward China, we should first look back to see where we have been.
When I went to China in 1972, I was criticized by the far right and praised by the far left, both for the wrong reasons. The far right believed I had betrayed my anti-communist principles; the far left rejoiced because it thought I had outgrown them. In fact, my decision had nothing to do with my attitude toward communism.
The first reason I went to China was the Soviet threat. Both the Soviet Union and China had communist governments. Both were supporting our enemies in North Vietnam. But there was a crucial difference. The Soviet Union, as a nuclear superpower, was a potential threat to the United States. China was not. China had broken away from the Soviets and was in the position to play a more constructive international role. It made both moral and strategic sense for the United States to have relations with any nation that did not threaten our fundamental interests.
The second reason I went to China had nothing to do with the Soviet Union. Even if there had been no Soviet threat, it was essential that we have relations with a government that was a member of the nuclear club. And today, how can we launch a worldwide attack on the environmental crisis without the cooperation of a government ruling more than one-fourth of all people on Earth?
Today, a strong, stable China is as vital as ever to the security interests of the United States and to peace in the Pacific. A weak, fractured China would leave the Soviet Union as the dominant military power in Asia and Japan as the dominant economic power.
Whatever happens in the future, it is imperative that Chinese-American relations remain strong so the United States can help maintain the balance among China, Japan and the Soviet Union.
President Bush will be pressured to take harsher action by a strange coalition of China-bashers. Those on the far right who oppose any relations with China will demand economic and diplomatic sanctions. So will the human-rights lobby, which calls for punishing every regime that does not live up to our standards, regardless of our interests or those of the millions living under those regimes whom sanctions would hurt the most. The Bush Administration should continue to ignore these extremist voices and stay the prudent course it has already set.
Many who criticized the President's measured response to the Beijing crackdown were strangely quiet about the deafening silence from Mikhail S. Gorbachev. He may have refrained from condemning the Chinese leaders because he fears that he, too, will continue to face pro-democracy and anti-Moscow regional movements, such as the one in Georgia this spring where troops used shovels and poison gas against the people. In stark contrast to the massive coverage of tragedy in Tian An Men Square, American television cameras and reporters were not present when 20 or more Georgians died, which is one reason Gorbachev's popularity rating in the West remains high while Deng's is plunging. But the Soviet leader cannot push his luck by condemning Deng for taking steps he has already taken and may have to take again.