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Why America Should Get Off China's Back

Economic Viewpoint


In fewer than 300 days, Hong Kong will pass into Chinese hands. Sometime in the near future, Deng Xiaoping will pass on as well. An empire and a dynasty are ending, and Chinese history shows that such events are often accompanied by vast commotion. It is no exaggeration to say that choices made now will influence the course of the world economy and security in the coming century.

Unfortunately, America's relations with China do not put Washington in any position to influence these events. The U.S. has paid an enormous amount of attention to Russia, but China policy has been left to the bean-counters. To maintain good relations, the U.S. can forgive Moscow even its transgressions in Chechyna. It forgives China nothing.

China, for its own part, has never quite overcome its paranoia about the U.S. When it is not obsessing about U.S. power, it is feeling hurt by perceived slights to its honor. The truth is, we have ignored China's emerging importance on the world stage and have focused on specific issues, such as human rights and copyrights. Washington plays the incessant nag, hounding China.

Of course, there is nothing in Chinese history of the past 50 years to endear the country to us. Its record on human rights is a horror. The arbitrariness of government, the pervasive corruption of a decadent political class, the use of violence at Tiananmen Square and in countless other cases, and the mind-boggling devastation under Mao Zedong and the Red Guards do not easily encourage warmth between the two countries.

FAILED RECIPE. Warmth shouldn't be America's foreign policy goal anyhow. The U.S. should try to influence events inside China. It should attempt to keep the country to an economic reform agenda, foster more freedom, and above all, create more openness to the outside world.

The U.S. has found out in the past few years that it cannot change China by holding out trade carrots and sticks. The simple reason is that the U.S. is too eager to benefit from China's exploding economy, and its commercial rivals cheerfully undercut the U.S. anytime Washington takes a strong political position. Beijing is keenly aware of this and just holds out until Washington caves. Rather than trying more of this failed recipe, a very different approval must come now, and it must come fast.

Before Deng dies and Hong Kong moves into Chinese hands, America should start a new relationship built on accepting China as it is and realizing that the march toward democracy will be slow. After all, it took nearly half a century for Taiwan and South Korea to shift to full democracy. But, contrary to all the talk about the Asian way based on Confucian authoritarianism, democracy now prevails in these two economic dynamos.

Can the U.S. build a new relationship with China? Maybe. China is ambivalent. There is paranoia about the U.S., but also admiration. China is into making money and getting ahead, and America stands for all of that (after Deng, basketball star Michael Jordan is the best-known person in China). Washington should capitalize on the potential to widen and strengthen admiration for the U.S. and let that part of the relationship win the upper hand.

POWER PLAYER. The most effective policy is an early visit by the next U.S. President to China. Not a stopover on the way to Japan, but a high-level political trip full of pomp and ceremony that highlights the meeting of two great powers. The visit should not be dominated by seeing every dissident or harping about counterfeit CDs. It should not be a commercial trip with a planeload of chief executives signing up deals. It should be a demonstration that the U.S. accepts China as the single most important player in Asia and wants to treat it on that basis.

What is America's agenda in China? Most important, it should promote young, reform-minded Chinese--not party hacks trained during the excesses of the past 40 years--as the successors to the current generation of leaders. A key goal: Encourage these new leaders to see economic growth and widening prosperity as the dominant political direction for China in the years ahead.

In time, this generation of new leaders can create more freedom and the institutions that support it. Hong Kong should become an example for Chinese economic and political development rather than a victim of a power that feels it has to make a point.

None of this is assured. But just as the U.S. threw its weight on the side of getting Yeltsin elected in Russia, it must now help the reformers win out in China. There is no official election going on in China, but we can run a campaign to influence the outcome of those chosen.BY RUDI DORNBUSCH

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