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U.S. Worried That Hong Kong Issue May Sour Relationship With China

December 09, 1996|JIM MANN

WASHINGTON — Three weeks ago, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, President Clinton's deputy national security advisor, was sitting in his White House office, musing about his hopes for improving American relations with China. Then he ticked off some of the things that could go wrong.

At the top of the list was Hong Kong. As the deadline of July 1, 1997, approaches for the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty, the administration has grown increasingly worried about the possibility of turmoil--riots, arrests of democracy advocates, a clampdown on the press, a mass exodus of refugees--in East Asia's financial capital.

"There are two or three things that could set us back into a downward spiral [with China]," acknowledged Berger, who last week was promoted to national security advisor. He ran through the possibilities: some new controversy over Chinese weapons proliferation, or some new dispute between the United States and China over Taiwan.

Or Hong Kong. "If they [Chinese officials] mishandle the Hong Kong reversion and it does not go reasonably well, that will sour our relationship in a serious way," Berger asserted.

Indeed, it is fair to say that Hong Kong has become the new (and, in a sense, the only remaining) human rights issue for the Clinton administration.

At this point, it seems, there is virtually nothing China could do to political dissidents inside its borders that would cause the administration to take action against Beijing in any way.


The Communist Party leadership has jailed Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan, the two best-known leaders of democracy forces in China, for extensive periods of time. The administration effectively has looked the other way. It puts out statements condemning China's repressive conduct but does not change any of America's policies toward Beijing.

For Hong Kong, however, the administration seems to be sending out signals that U.S. policy could be affected by Chinese actions. It is hardly an accident that Clinton has set no date yet for the state visit he is planning to make to Beijing. Administration officials seem to want to make sure that a bad Hong Kong transition does not turn a China trip into an embarrassment for the president.

The White House solicitude for what happens in Hong Kong next July is admirable. But in a way, the administration may be missing the larger point, just as Americans sometimes do with China.

Americans seem to love quick, head-on conflicts that have clean and clear resolutions. Then they go on to something else. In China, by contrast, conflicts often have no resolution and negotiations are continuous. Americans think that a deal and a handshake are the end of negotiations. Chinese view a deal as the prelude to further negotiations.

Thus, with Hong Kong, the Clinton administration seems to be preparing to judge Beijing's conduct by whatever happens in a single week or two after the British flag comes down and the Chinese flag is unfurled next July 1.

If China does not lock anyone up or close down any local newspapers during those days of intense world attention (when there will be more than a thousand reporters from around the world on hand), the administration will be relieved and probably will turn its attention elsewhere.

For China, by contrast, the return of Hong Kong will be a long process, in which the first week of July 1997 will be only the beginning.

Administration officials might look, and then look again, at the supposed triumph that the Walt Disney Co. scored over China a couple of weeks ago. It illustrates well the vastly different perspectives that Americans and Chinese have toward conflict.

In the American point of view, the dispute arose and ended quickly. American newspapers reported that China was trying to pressure Disney to restrict distribution in the United States of "Kundun," a Martin Scorsese movie about Tibet and its religious leader, the Dalai Lama. Chinese troops occupied Tibet in 1950 and the Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959.

The suggestion from Beijing was that authorities might clamp down on Disney's future business endeavors inside China.

Within a few days after the newspaper reports appeared, Disney said that despite China's protest, it would go ahead with distribution of the movie. American newspaper editorials and cartoons praised Disney's willingness to stand up to China. But Americans also seemed to assume that they could judge the entire conflict and Disney's dealings with Beijing in just a few days' time.

Is that true? From the Chinese perspective, the public flap over "Kundun" was just one round in a long negotiating process with Disney.


If Disney fails to promote and advertise the movie vigorously, will anybody really be able to prove it? What about Disney's willingness to make movies in the future on subjects or themes China dislikes? We cannot answer such questions yet and, until we can, we will not know for sure whether Disney really resisted Chinese pressure.

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