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The cooperative calm before the storm

The New Chinese Empire: And What It Means for the United States, Ross Terrill, Basic Books: 384 pp., $30 Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of U.S.-China Relations, 1989-2000, Robert L. Suettinger, Brookings Institution Press: 556 pp., $39.95

August 10, 2003|Warren I. Cohen | Warren I. Cohen is distinguished professor of history at the University of Maryland and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

On the eve of the Sept. 11 attacks by Al Qaeda, much of the national security elite, especially the neoconservative wing, was focused on the threat perceived from China. The People's Republic is a rising power, dissatisfied with the current international system dominated by the United States. Despite its movement toward a market economy, it continues to be ruled by a Communist Party hostile to most American values. When President Bush and his advisors spoke of their determination to prevent any challenge to American preeminence, no one in Washington or Beijing doubted that they had China in mind. Then along came Osama bin Laden, who forced Americans to look elsewhere for threats, resulting in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Apprehension about China has receded for the moment. The Chinese are even cooperating in the war against terrorism, and they have been helpful in efforts to deal with North Korea. But for reasons indicated clearly by Ross Terrill and Robert Suettinger, the underlying tensions between China and the United States are certain to surface again when the current preoccupation with the Middle East recedes.

Terrill is a well-regarded journalist and scholar who has been reporting on Chinese affairs for nearly 40 years. In "The New Chinese Empire," he provides an accessible and plausible critique of contemporary China. Suettinger has spent most of his career studying China from the confines of the Washington bureaucracy as an analyst for the CIA and the Department of State, as national intelligence officer for East Asia and as director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council. Unknown to the general public, Suettinger is greatly respected by the men and women for whom the shaping of American policy toward China is their life's work. "Beyond Tiananmen" is written for them and for anyone else seeking insight into the decision-making processes in Beijing and Washington.

Both Terrill and Suettinger see the essential goal of the Chinese Communist Party as the retention of power. Terrill insists that the party will never agree to the political reforms required by the post-Mao economic and social transformation of China. Its determination to maintain autocratic control will lead to its undoing, with conceivably benign results for the people, the country and the world. Suettinger, on the other hand, is convinced that, because change is essential to its survival, the party will change, presumably for the better.

Suettinger notes the widespread distaste in the United States for the Chinese government, largely a product of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989. Throughout the 1980s, Americans perceived the post-Mao leadership as reformist. They imagined that as China moved toward a market economy and allowed its people enormously more freedom, it eventually would become democratic and a good citizen of the international community. That fantasy exploded late in the evening of June 3 and early morning of June 4, 1989, as the People's Liberation Army opened fire on Chinese students and workers demonstrating for an end to arbitrary government and corruption. The American people have never forgiven the Chinese government for shattering their hopes, as well as those of the demonstrators and their millions of supporters throughout China. Despite continued improvement in the lives of most Chinese -- who today enjoy greater prosperity and freedom than in Mao's day -- their government denies them freedoms Americans consider essential, such as freedom of religion.

Human rights advocates, perceived by Suettinger and most other policymakers as unreasonable, constantly point to reminders of the arbitrariness of the Chinese government, such as the brutal treatment of Falun Gong practitioners and pro-democracy activists. Americans seem to be waiting for a Chinese Gorbachev, a leader who will apologize for the Tiananmen Square massacre and take steps to end the Communist Party's political monopoly. They may have a very long wait. But there are other issues between China and the United States likely to demand resolution sooner. Of these, the most dangerous is that of the relationship between Taiwan, which enjoys de facto independence, and the People's Republic. Beijing insists that the island is a province of China, and, beginning with the Shanghai Communique of 1972, the U.S. government has acquiesced in the so-called One China principle but continues to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself. In 1992, for example, George H.W. Bush, desperately trying to stave off defeat in his effort to be reelected president, ordered the sale of F-16 fighter planes to Taiwan, providing jobs in Texas and California but, as Suettinger reports, seriously damaging relations with China.

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