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National Perspective | INTERNATIONAL OUTLOOK

China's Door Isn't Open to All

March 07, 2001|JIM MANN

PRINCETON, N.J. — Come have a look, the Chinese government proclaims to the world. Come see for yourself how things in China aren't so bad. Come observe how our country is changing.

This is the misleading message China puts out whenever it wants something from abroad--in the past, when its trade benefits were in doubt in the U.S. Congress, and now when it is trying to land the 2008 Summer Olympics for Beijing.

It would be a fair enough offer if China extended it equally to everyone. But China doesn't: If you say or write something too critical of China, forget it. The invitation to visit is withdrawn.

Over the years, China often has barred its most severe critics from entering the country. The prohibition--OK, let's call it a blacklist--applies both to Americans and to some Chinese exiles living in the United States.

Liu Binyan, 76, is on the list. Liu, once China's most famous investigative reporter, ran afoul of the regime many years ago by criticizing the abuses of local Communist Party officials. He hasn't set foot in China since 1988.

"The people at the top [in China] know I'm not really so extreme or so radical. I'm a moderate," mused Liu in an interview here last week. "But no one will take the responsibility for allowing me to go back."

Princeton University China scholar Perry Link can't go to China either. Link ran afoul of the regime 12 years ago, when he escorted Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi to a dinner hosted by former President Bush.

Link loves China, its people and its language. But the last time he tried to visit in 1996, he was detained at the airport in Beijing and put onto the next plane back to the United States.

Su Shaozhi, who lives nearby, also is blacklisted. In the 1980s, Su was China's leading theoretician; he helped reinterpret Marxism in a way that would permit China's economic reforms. But as a leading reformer, he fled China after the 1989 crackdown. Now he can't go back for a visit.

These may all seem like individual cases. And that's precisely the problem. Each person barred from China is forced to plead his or her case alone, in an atomized fashion.

It shouldn't be that way. There are broader issues involved--ones that the U.S. government and other American institutions that deal with China should have the temerity to take on.

The blacklist skews the information that America gets about China. Some of the people who know the country best aren't allowed to observe what's happening there now.

More important, the awareness of the blacklist deters many other American scholars and Chinese exiles from writing too critically about China.

American scholars who specialize in China understandably want to keep on visiting the country. In private, some acknowledge that they are careful about what they write or say, so as not to jeopardize their ability to get visas.

Even China loses from this system, in a way that the leadership doesn't realize. The existence of the blacklist undercuts the credibility of those who praise China.

There are some Americans and Chinese exiles who sincerely believe China is changing politically for the better. Yet their views sometimes are discounted as those of people who want to keep on visiting China.

What should be done about the blacklist? The United States should turn it into a continuing issue with China, not one handled on a case-by-case basis.

The National Committee for U.S. China Relations could stop taking delegations to China until it wins the right to include Link and Columbia University scholar Andrew Nathan--who has been denied visas twice (and admitted to the country once) in the last six years.

The national committee is responsible for fostering exchanges between the United States and China. Why should it promote dialogue with some Americans, but not others? Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) last year put a hold on a $300,000 federal grant to the committee. Here's one way the committee could demonstrate its worth.

U.S. ambassadors to China and members of Congress could help too. The last three ambassadors to Beijing--Stapleton Roy, James Sasser and Joseph Prueher--have welcomed members of Congress to come see China for themselves.

Fair enough. But next time there's a congressional delegation, make sure it includes Steven Mosher, the longtime critic of China's abortion policies who hasn't been allowed into the country since 1980.

Nor is the blacklist merely an American issue. The European Union could insist on a visa for Jonathan Mirsky, the London-based journalist who hasn't been permitted to visit China since 1990.

Of course, ultimately the change has to come from Chinese officials.

Does Yang Jiechi, China's new ambassador to Washington, want to show that he's a man of stature and not merely Beijing's conduit to the Bush family? Then the Chinese ambassador could open the way for Liu Binyan and Su Shaozhi to visit China.

Next time you hear a Chinese leader invite the world to come see firsthand how the country is changing, think of those who are excluded from the guest list. If China's politics were truly opening up, these people would be allowed to visit.

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Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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