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China: stand back and wait

There are few nations, I believe, that Americans have misjudged as badly as China. Since the 1850s, the United States has consistently backed the wrong factions, dealt with the wrong governments, and fought the wrong wars with that misunderstood nation. Foreign trade, the sticking point that led the US government to first establish serious ties with China a century ago, still causes trouble. A once weak, disorganized, backward China, however, has now become a strong, ordered, backward China no longer willing to accept the political maneuverings of the barbarians from the West. The United States, it seems, has yet to get the message.

For the first 100 years of US history, China, as far as the United States was concerned, did not exist. That was just fine for the Chinese as well. When trade between Europe and China opened with that nation in the middle of the 19th century, China suddenly became very important. Fearful of European nations' growing monopoly over trade in China, the United States diplomatic corps, in 1899, established an Open Door Policy concerning Chinese trade. This policy, accepted by the international community, guaranteed that trade with China would be open to all nations, and -- in a lesser known declaration -- that United States military might would insure China's territorial integrity. For better or worse, the United States became inextricably linked with Chinese security.

When rebel groups overthrew the Chinese imperial monarchy in the early 1900s, and coalesced as the Nationalist government under Chaing-chai-shek, the United States found itself allied with an urbanite military dictator with little backing from the rural peasant classes that compose most of the Chinese population. Chaing, while plagued by some persistent enemies -- the Japanese, and the communist leftists in Chaing's own government -- was not himself a communist, and therefore was, to the United States, a dandy national leader.

While US power in World War II ended Chaing's Japanese threat, the communists, led by peasant-pope Mao Zedong, steadily gained support. By 1949, after 20 years of civil war, Mao's forces eventually routed Chaing's troops, and the United States, after having backed Chaing unswervingly in his hopeless fight against most of the Chinese people, was left friendless in China. Mao, running China throughout the 1950s, '60s, and '70s with his own special mixture of peasant socialism, military dictatorship, mandatory pep rallies, and big posters of himself, never acquired much support in the United States.

Diplomatic relations between the United States and China opened again in the 1970s when the United States realized that its years of denying Red China's existence had failed to dislodge Mao's band of jungle Marxists, and when both nations realized that close ties would probably exert pressure on the Soviet Union, the United States and China's mutual adversary. When Deng Xiaoping, a moderate opponent of Mao, succeeded him in the late 1970s, Sino-American relations seemed to be on a definite upswing. Ha.

When Deng's government brutally repressed a pro-democracy demonstration in Beijing two years ago, President George Bush, a former ambassador to China, rebuked the Chinese only moderately. A total severing of diplomatic relations, he and many argued, would accomplish nothing. Besides, if the United States government wanted to keep China from selling ballistic missiles to Iran, it had gathered, it would have to mind its manners.

Bush's dealing, bathed in arguments of political reality and practical necessity, was morally reprehensible, politically compromising, and nearly useless. In qualifying the United States response to acts of unwarranted brutality, Bush shook the credibility of the moral ground on which he had based most of his Asian policy. A self-described proponent of democracy cannot, for example, push for free elections in Cambodia but tolerate a massacre in China. Regardless of moral ideology, inconsistency is politically damaging. In addition, by linking Middle East security with Chinese diplomacy, Bush placed the United States in a position of subservience to a government -- and not just any government, but to a government with a history of unscrupulous activities and unjustified aggression. If the United States was worried about Iranian military strength, that issue should have been dealt with properly, separately; the Chinese arms trade with Iran continued despite Bush's diplomacy.

This year, in the shadow of Iraq's aggression, the Chinese government is up to its old double dealing, and once again the United States is trying to buy favors from a government that has sold it out at every opportune moment. Bush, seeking China's support for the multinational front against Iraq's seizure of Kuwait, granted China most-favored nation status in trade, and China gave the United Nations its lukewarm support for its sanctions against Iraq.

China, according to recent reports, is beginning to abuse this trade status to increase its trade surplus with the United States. The Chinese government, by exporting more and continuing barriers to foreign investment, is further adding to the United States' already unacceptable trade deficit. If war breaks out in the Persian Gulf, the Chinese delegation to the United States has declared, the United States can expect little support from the Peoples' Republic.

America's misbegotten trust in China stems from a an inappropriate faith in the decency and stability of the Chinese government. Even today, little is known about the political workings of China. When US diplomats negotiate with the Chinese government, they have no clue who is running the country, to whom they are talking, and what kind of effect the talks will have.

Somewhat moderate Deng, while apparently in autocratic control, is supported by a politburo of conservatives who can't wait for him to die to implement more conservative economic policies. Many believe that aging, reclusive Deng is dead already. Jiang Zemin, a party hack believed to be Deng's chosen successor, believes in the free market. Then again, he believes in agricultural collectivization, and as the incompetent mayor of Shanghai during a series of student demonstrations in 1986, he ordered the militia to club the students senseless. Jiang speaks English fluently, but only when convenient.

When a nation's citizens believe that their leader is dead, and the heir apparent has a selective memory, it is a pretty good sign that diplomacy will be fruitless.

The United States cannot afford to compromise its global standing and political agenda on a risky relationship with a leadership that can't be trusted and wouldn't value trust anyway. As one of the last bastions of totalitarian communism in the world, the People's Republic of China should be pressured to change, not coddled and protected. The same Chinese government that opened relations with the United States in the 1970s plotted a tactical nuclear strike against United States ground troops in 1958. That change in agenda occurred out of necessity during a freeze of Sino-American relations, not after US concessions. Chinese politics can definitely change if the politicians want it to.

China's rocky diplomacy with the United States is one of the greatest disappointments of the 20th century. While the citizens of both nations seem able to engage in a mutually beneficial relationship, the PRC government seems more willing to take than to give, and the United States doesn't have a clue how to react to the changing political winds in China. The United States should hold off on entangling arrangements with the Chinese government until it figures out exactly what it is trying to achieve, and try to reassess its Asian foreign policy in general.


Matthew H. Hersch, a freshman, is an associate opinion editor of The Tech.

A once weak, disorganized, backward China, however, has now become a strong, ordered, backward China . . .