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Recruit Army to Fight Piracy

June 02, 1996|Xiao-huang Yin | Xiao-huang Yin is an associate professor at Occidental College and an associate of the Fairbank Center for East Asian research at Harvard

Among the many issues that vex U.S.-China relations, two stand out as the root of much of the trouble. In both countries, foreign policies are increasingly used to serve domestic agendas, and a key player--the Chinese military--is left on the margins of U.S.-China engagement. Both problems are evident in the copyright dispute.

The Clinton administration's decision to impose punitive tariffs unless China imposes some discipline on its intellectual-property pirates is more an election-year pirouette than a real effort to resolve the issue. Washington has not adequately explained why it now wants to punish China while piracy of American copyrights is a worldwide phenomenon. Thus, it is difficult for the Chinese to believe there is no hidden agenda in Washington's action.

Furthermore, a closer look at the proposed sanction list shows that Washington is shooting at the wrong targets. A large proportion--roughly half--of the proposed tariffs would be imposed on Chinese textiles. Such selective sanctions may help Bill Clinton win votes in the South, where textile manufacturing is concentrated, but it will have no impact on the counterfeiters in China. Most of the 34 reputed counterfeiting factories in China are sponsored by the military, which has little concern for the welfare of China's garment businesses. On the other hand, because of its inability to control military entrepreneurs and powerful local officials, the Chinese government may not have the muscle to police piracy even if it has the political will. Indeed, it is an irony that five of the seven piracy factories closed so far are U.S. joint ventures; the military-run or locally supported enterprises remain in business.

Similarly, Beijing uses Washington's actions to influence domestic attitudes at a time when nationalism is on the rise in Chinese society. Its confrontation with the United States just before Taiwan's presidential elections was a case in point. Although China's military exercises failed to chase Washington out of the Taiwan Strait, they successfully played to Chinese opposition to American "hegemonism." According to one study, 74% of Beijing's residents supported China's military maneuvers against "foreign meddling" on Taiwan.

Moreover, the show of force was intended to boost the power of central authority and serve as a deterrence to the rise of regionalism and secessionism at a critical moment in China's history. In flexing its muscle over Taiwanese independence, despite the associated risk of setting off a nuclear war with the United States, Beijing sternly warned potential trouble makers, from Inner Mongolia to Muslim Xinjinan, that it would never tolerate any attempts to break away from the Chinese motherland. In this sense, Beijing sees itself as the winner in the confrontation with the United States.

The troubled Sino-American relationship is further complicated by Washington's shortsightedness in dealing with the Chinese military. For example, in April, the administration canceled the scheduled visit of the Chinese defense minister but carried on its talks with the foreign minister. The problem is, in China today, officers in the defense ministry may have more say in Sino-American relations than do foreign-policy bureaucrats.

Of course, the People's Liberation Army has always been a powerful player in Chinese politics. After all, Mao Tse-tung himself claimed: "Political power comes from the barrel of the gun." But rarely in the history of the People's Republic has the army been so influential in policy-making. This is the result of two developments in Chinese politics.

Until recently, most civilian officials were revolutionaries who had fought in the war of liberation and enjoyed the respect of the army for their service records. Today, few Chinese leaders have comparable authority to really command "the gun." Second, the military's decisive role in the Tian An Men crackdown raised its status in China's political apparatus and enabled it to regain much of the power it lost in the 1980s as a result of Deng Xiaoping's reforms.

Surely, it is politically risky for Washington to expand its engagement with the Chinese military. Aside from possible domestic pressures, the administration would run the risk of encouraging the rise of Bonapartism in China. But willingly or not, the White House may have to approach the People's Liberation Army if it wants to break the U.S.-China deadlock on immediate problems as well as on long-term issues. For example, by "recruiting" the Chinese military into the copyright negotiations, the administration may have a real chance to solve that dilemma. In reality, the wide range of issues that inflames U.S.-China relations--from Taiwan to nuclear proliferation, from North Korea to gun smuggling--requires Washington to hold a direct dialogue with the Chinese military.

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