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Can Trade Substitute for Liberty?

April 26, 1998|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the New Republic, has traveled widely in China

WASHINGTON — As Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright prepares to travel to Beijing this week to set the stage for the Sino-U.S. summit in June, the Clinton administration is hailing the release last Sunday of Chinese dissident Wang Dan. Wang, a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, was serving an 11-year sentence for conspiring to subvert the state. His release might appear to vindicate the administration's pursuit of "constructive engagement" with China.

It doesn't. The Chinese release of Wang was not a sign of a shift on human rights, but a public-relations move aimed at providing President Bill Clinton with a tangible sign of progress to quiet the human-rights lobby before he visits Beijing. Granted, even if Chinese motives were less than shining, the release of Wang is to be welcomed. But sending him to the United States means China has rid itself of a troublesome nuisance, a strategy that the former East Germany also pursued to ensure that its dissident movement never retained any effective and charismatic leaders. Above all, Wang's arrival in the U.S. shouldn't obscure the drastic measures that China has taken against human-rights activists in the past few years, and the Clinton administration's attempt to package economic ties as leading to democracy in China.

Despite Albright's tough rhetoric on human rights when talking about Bosnia or Cuba, the administration basically has thrown in the towel on human rights in Asia and given business the go-ahead.

The administration, for example, has declared it will drop a resolution condemning Chinese violations of human rights and religion at this year's session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. At the same time, two corporations that made substantial donations to the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign--Loral Space & Communications and Hughes Electronics--have been accused of having supplied the Chinese with advanced missile guidance technology. Ironically, the most powerful voice criticizing the administration for these anti-human rights and pro-business policies turns out to be the last Chinese dissident whose release the Clinton administration trumpeted as a victory for constructive engagement--Wei Jingsheng.

At a recent meeting in Washington at the Council on Foreign Relations, Wei lashed into the administration, declaring that millions of average Chinese are perplexed by the U.S. desire to propitiate Beijing and subordinate human-rights concerns to trade concerns. He even predicted that future generations of Chinese would hold it against the United States for having sided with their oppressors. It wasn't the U.S. that could end up making an enemy of China by taking an assertive posture, but China that had already declared that the U.S. was its enemy. So, Wei asked why America was not holding to its own self-professed democratic values.

Isn't there something a little strange about the fact that Chinese dissidents have to battle against Washington as well as Beijing? That it takes a dissident to remind U.S. foreign policy-makers about American values? The United States has always defined itself at home by the way it has behaved abroad. A core part of the American creed has been that America serves as a model for the rest of the world. If America gives up on democracy abroad, it is giving up on it at home as well. As the United States turns a blind eye to the Chinese crackdown on dissent, it has never been in greater danger of abdicating the moral high ground in its traditional struggle for human rights and democracy.

The argument of Clinton administration officials, such as National Security Advisor Samuel R. Berger, is that by promoting trade, the U.S is actually pushing for democracy because human rights and capitalism go hand-in-hand. So the most important member of Albright's entourage when she visits Beijing will be trade representative Charlene Barshefsky. She is supposed to encourage China to meet the requirements for joining the World Trade Organization. The logic behind the administration's approach is that by locking China into key international organizations, it will be forced to modify its behavior on everything from trade barriers to human rights.

The problem with this approach is that the Chinese have been choosy about what they decide to join. Consider the Missile Technology Control Regime. The Chinese have refused to join it. Instead, they are helping Pakistan and Iran with their missile-technology programs. The Chinese have promised to sign the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but the operative word is "promise." There is no sign they will have actually done so by the time Clinton visits Beijing. The biggest problem with counting on capitalism to democratize China is that the Communist Party is acutely aware of the dangers that accompany economic growth. The model for China is not the United States, but Singapore, an authoritarian regime that enjoys economic prosperity but no real political liberties.

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