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U.S. Must Open the Eyes of an Insular Giant

November 03, 2002|Scott Savitt and Bei Ling | Bei Ling is a poet and literary editor in forced exile from China. Scott Savitt, managing editor of the University of California Press magazine Contexts, has written extensively from China.

A Chinese proverb cautions that two people can share the same bed and have different dreams. This describes the U.S.-China relationship even as another glacial shift of power begins in Beijing.

The United States has clearly stated its dream for China: "The U.S. desires the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China," the recently released National Security Strategy says, with the clear caveat that "the democratic development of China is crucial to that future."

Chinese leader Jiang Zemin and the overwhelming majority of his 1.3 billion subjects fervently share President Bush's hope for a strong, peaceful and prosperous China. But Jiang -- who steps down Friday as Communist Party chief -- and his fellow Communist leaders view democracy as more an irksome obstacle than a prerequisite of strength and prosperity.

China's dream is a darker one, full of resentment and suspicion fueled by state-run media. Chairman Mao's dictate that power derives equally from the pen and the gun is still prominent in the minds of China's leaders.

The Internet has made some inroads, but it is extensively blocked. The small areas of loosening at the periphery only blur a traditional emphasis on ideology, unified thinking and an ominous mythology of national martyrdom.

It is not widely enough realized in the West that most Chinese derived satisfaction at the events of 9/11, seeing them as just deserts for the United States' serial international "interference" -- a chief theme of incessant xenophobic propaganda in the state-run media. And almost no Chinese citizen believes that the 1998 U.S. bombing of China's Embassy in Yugoslavia, killing four Chinese citizens, was an accident.

It has been more than 20 years since Deng Xiaoping launched China's economic liberalization and opening to the outside world. The resulting material gains are clear for the world to see.

Yet the party's grip on power is arguably stronger than ever, and no more transparent. Jiang's handover of party leadership to Hu Jintao, for instance, does not mean he is relinquishing power.

Most Chinese do not believe that this system can be reformed exclusively from within. Democratization in China -- a process that was progressing rapidly before the 1989 military crackdown on pro-democracy protests -- can revive only with the active support of the international community .

The logical vehicle is the World Trade Organization. China prizes its membership. Previously closed and protected industries, including finance, energy, telecommunications, agriculture, information technology and transportation, are opening up because the WTO demanded it, not because the party leadership thought it a good idea. The most notable exception is the market for ideas.

The United States' $10-billion-a-month trade deficit with China provides plenty of leverage to change that. The U.S. previously exacted China's commitment to allow 50% foreign ownership of Internet companies as part of its WTO accession agreement. The catch is that China requires all Internet companies to sign a self-censorship agreement to prevent "harmful" content, and it reserves the right to block access to any site, as it did recently with the search engine Google.

In contrast, China's state-run media are permitted to broadcast freely in the United States. Recent research also documents the Chinese government's growing influence over Chinese-language media in the U.S.

It's a fundamentally lopsided arrangement that denies the Chinese people news and views from the outside world.

The U.S. should insist on not only the repeal of all arbitrary censorship of the Internet as required by China's WTO commitment, but on opening China's print, radio and television industries, at least to the extent that the U.S. industry is open to China. Beijing would -- as with its WTO commitments -- have no reasonable grounds to deny equal, reciprocal market access. This would liberate a moderating social force more influential than all the other market openings.

In this era of violently clashing worldviews, the democratic world cannot afford bedmates with dramatically opposing dreams.

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