WASHINGTON — President Bill Clinton's decision last week to impose economic sanctions on the Burmese junta has exposed the incoherence of U.S. policy toward Asia. Under the 1996 Cohen-Feinstein bill, Clinton had to announce sanctions if the Burmese regime continued in its human-rights violations. But punishing Burma was a new Clintonian evasion: It amounted to choosing not to choose. For the president has expressed no qualms about human rights in dealing with Burma's patron and a far greater violator of human rights--China.
Far from deflecting attention from its refusal to link human rights, trade and strategic issues in dealing with China, the administration's focus on Burma could well have the opposite effect. The only rationale for isolating Burma, while courting China, is political expedience. Clinton's equivocation only heightens the debate over how to deal with China.
Unfortunately, this debate has been sterile because it has focused on Chinese foreign policy to the exclusion of domestic policy. The crudity of the dispute between what might be called "engagers," such as Henry A. Kissinger, and "containers," such as George F. Will, is easily explained. Both sides are viewing China through antiquated Cold War spectacles. Engagers in the Clinton administration believe they can pursue a new detente in which economics transforms China into a Western-style democracy. Containers believe China can be subverted through relentless military and economic pressure.
Both are wrong. China's internal economic and social problems suggest its strength may be exaggerated. No doubt China's leaders would like to transform their country into a superpower, but the real question is whether they can accomplish this. A distinction must be made between Chinese intentions and capability, between rhetoric and reality. The real China problem may not be that it is becoming a superpower, but that it is headed for disintegration.
To tour the vaunted southern region of China, where most of the new economic activity is taking place, is to realize that a kind of Potemkin capitalism is emerging. In Shanghai, Suzhou or Nanjing, life has already been radically upended from a decade ago. Shanghai, virtually a showcase of change, consists of newly built skyscrapers and highways. The Harvard-educated technocrats who preside over the metropolis run roughshod, tearing down a city block a week, evicting locals and putting them in concrete bunkers on the city's outskirts.
But even the stupendous transformation of Shanghai cannot disguise the fact that, for the much of the population, life has not improved. It has gotten worse. U.S. officials in Shanghai estimate some 5 million transients live in the city, a cheap source of labor that helps explain the building binge, though there is already a tremendous glut of office space.
After traveling through central China, it is not hard to see why tens of millions of transients are flocking to the cities. Unlike Russia, China never made the transition from rural to industrial economy, let alone a post-industrial one. These transients are a mounting problem for Beijing--the fear is they may eventually become a violent, uncontrollable force if the booming Chinese economy slows down.
The ultimate nightmare for Beijing is the emergence of a Solidarity in China that threatens the claim of the party to represent the workers. Given the gross disparities in wealth in China--from the hundreds of thousands of people living in shacks in Shanghai to the millionaires whose Mercedes clog the city streets--the potential for social combustion can hardly be exaggerated.
There are other problems. Despite huge growth, the national economy remains hostage to state-owned enterprises awash in red ink. Unemployment, already a problem, would be further exacerbated by widespread layoffs of state employees.
Significant tensions also exist between city and countryside. A sort of gold coast is emerging in cities like Shanghai, but inland rural areas are not benefiting from industrial progress. Any visitor to the countryside quickly realizes little has changed: Peasants rely on oxen and tend rice paddies with backbreaking physical labor. The only refuge for many peasants is heading to the city.
Compounding Beijing's problems is the fact that it has trouble collecting taxes from the disparate regions of China. Particularly in the south, governors of various provinces turn over only a portion of their receipts to Beijing because they are reluctant to subsidize their poorer northern cousins. The government recently passed Draconian laws on official corruption, but they will probably prove ineffectual. Foreign businesses, from Germany to Singapore, have to bribe officials in order to get permits to employ workers and construct buildings.