The Clinton Administration has announced that it will impose punitive tariffs on more than $1 billion in Chinese imports as retaliation for China's piracy of American copyrighted products. It is said that Chinese piracy of American "intellectual property" has caused American businesses, especially in the entertainment industry, huge losses. However, by adopting the new policy, the United States seems to abandon its century-long effort to export American ideas and cultural values to China.
Much of America's early contact with China was characterized by the pursuit of profit. It was business interest that sent the clipper Empress of China from New York to Canton in 1784. The voyage earned 125% net profits for American merchants and led to the boom of America's China trade in the following decades. To be sure, Americans then also showed some concern for "saving Chinese souls." The Protestant New England church in 1820 was translating the Bible into Chinese and sponsoring evangelical activities in China. Nonetheless, it was an open secret that there was always more opium (picked up en route) than holy books on every American clipper to Canton.
By the late 19th Century, moral concerns appeared to gain an upper hand in America's China policy. Although its share of the market was small, the United States poured disproportionately large amounts of money into China in an attempt to introduce American values to the average Chinese. The White House even decided to use China's reparations for the Boxer Rebellion to establish schools and publish books for Chinese students.
The effort to export cultural values into China reached a climax during the Cold War era. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, the United States disregarded business interests and imposed economic sanctions on China, giving that huge market to the more pragmatic capitalist nations like Japan. As late as the 1980s, the United States was still spending lavishly to export "intellectual property" into China. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing enthusiastically gave away books and other materials on America's culture, history and political system. In those days, American officials seemed to have little concern for China's violation of copyright laws and were happy to see American books and movies, with or without copyright, appear in China.
Interestingly, it was the Chinese government that made every effort to stop the influx of American popular culture into China. Orthodox Communist officials launched a campaign against "spiritual pollution" in 1984 to get rid of American influence, even labeling popular American movies like "Kramer vs. Kramer" as "cultural opium."
Now we see a new twist in America's China policy. That the Clinton Administration is punishing China not for its abuse of human rights but for its piracy of American ideas is not only ironic, considering President Clinton's original China policy, but it also may serve the interests of Communist hard-liners. It is the orthodox Maoists who most wish to eliminate the American intellectual property in their land.
Of course, the United States should act to stop China's violation of copyright laws. But in carrying out such punishment, let us remember that there are concerns other than trade profits in America's relations with China. Trade is important, but so are other interests, including how to promote democratic values in China. It might be more constructive for U.S.-China relations if the Clinton Administration resumed the generous practice of the U.S. government paying for some copyrighted material to allow their legal transfer to the Middle Kingdom rather than imposing punitive tariffs. In this way, both ends of America's interests in China--making profits and promoting democracy--could be better served.