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The door to reform

November 22, 2005

RARELY DO METAPHORS make themselves as readily apparent as the locked door a visibly uncomfortable George W. Bush tried to exit from after speaking to reporters in Beijing on Sunday. America's relationship with China, while complicated, may be healthier than it has ever been. Still, that locked door represents the inability of the U.S. president, or of any of the global market forces he represents, to bring greater political freedoms to the world's most populous nation.

President Hu Jintao has solidified his power since assuming office in 2002. Much to the dismay of Washington, Hu has only tightened the crackdown on independent voices in Chinese society. Even during Bush's visit, the communist government placed many political critics under house arrest.

Prior to his arrival in China, Bush called for Beijing to accede to the "legitimate demands of its citizens for freedom and openness," and he attended a state-sanctioned church on Sunday. These were modest steps, and critics were quick to accuse the administration of downplaying calls for political freedom in order to focus on its commercial agenda.

This is a bit unfair. The relationship with China requires an ongoing engagement on three fronts -- the two nations' crucial economic symbiosis, strategic imperatives such as dealing with North Korea and, yes, human rights. U.S. presidents should meet as often as possible with their Chinese counterparts without creating the expectation that each summit will deliver a breakthrough on any one front. This isn't Cold War summitry, but a meeting of the world's most important trading partners.

The economic ties between the two nations are healthier than usually acknowledged in Washington. Bush should be more forceful in explaining to the American people the mutually beneficial nature of the emerging codependency between China and the U.S. At the same time, the administration needs to continue to prod Beijing on intellectual property issues, which are more justifiably contentious.

Progress is also being made on the strategic front. Gradually, China has become a more willing partner in confronting North Korea's nuclear ambitions. But it must yet become a more ambitious player in multilateral efforts to address other global problems, whether it's a humanitarian crisis in Africa or the need to confront nuclear proliferation elsewhere.

Within China, the shift to a more market-oriented economy has brought people more economic freedom, and the hope remains that greater engagement with the outside world will erode the Communist Party's monopolistic hold on power. But this will take time, and there will no doubt be plenty more disappointing summits on this front before that door creaks open.

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