Behind the rhetoric

Jonathan Broder interviews former China ambassador James Lilley about the stategic issues that bind China and the U.S.

Published June 26, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

President Clinton's controversial visit to China began Thursday with an imperial welcome and a speech in which he wasted no time in pontificating on the importance of human rights. Speaking in the ancient city of Xian, Clinton's first stop on his nine-day visit, the president spoke of America's "respect for the worth, the dignity, the potential and the freedom of every citizen" as the "vital source of America's strength and success." Clinton then added: "In this global information age, where both economic growth and equal opportunity are based on ideas, a commitment to providing all human beings the opportunity to develop their full potential is vital to the strength and success of the new China as well."

It was a gentle lecture, the first of several speeches Clinton will deliver stressing the importance of human rights. Clinton's early mention reflects the political controversy that continues to surround his China policy back home. Even as the president spoke in Xian, Republicans in Congress continued to criticize the administration's emphasis on trade and pressed ahead with their investigations into civilian missile technology transfers that may have aided in the modernization of the Chinese military. From Xian, Clinton is scheduled to visit a small village, then travel to Beijing, where he will be welcomed at Tiananmen Square -- the site of the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy activists. Over the weekend, Clinton's summit talks with Chinese President Jiang Zemin will begin.

Observing this spectacle with a keen but unsentimental eye is former U.S. diplomat James Lilley, whose ambassadorial postings have included China, Korea and Taiwan. Salon spoke to Lilley, who now heads the China studies program at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

What are the things this summit should concentrate on?

What they should concentrate on, in my view, is the dangerously unstable regime of North Korea, the new nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, and the Asian economic meltdown. Those are the keys issues we're facing in that part of the world, issues of war and peace, survival and prosperity.

Is the rest of the agenda -- human rights, trade, Taiwan -- all secondary?

You can expect the Chinese to push Taiwan, as they always do, and Clinton will give a few speeches about human rights. There will also be some progress on the sweetheart issues -- environment, anti-terrorism and anti-drugs. But above all, this summit will be about hype, the biggest you've ever seen. On the American side, it's primarily going to be Clinton amid 2,000 years of Chinese civilization in Xian, Clinton on the Great Wall, Clinton in the Great Hall of the People, Clinton in Guilin, Clinton in Shanghai, the great new metropolis of Asia. The message will be: Clinton has a China policy. The Americans are on top of it.

On the Chinese side, it's going to be: "We can manage the Americans. Just look at the way Jiang Zemin handles them." So you see, the hype goes both ways.

The Clinton administration has responded to critics of its China policy by saying the choice is between engagement and containment. Is that a fair response?

No. First of all, nobody in his right mind is proposing containment of China the way we tried to contain the former Soviet Union. So Clinton is creating a straw man here. Secondly, he's describing engagement as the administration's policy. Engagement is not a policy; it's a tactic, a process, and it's not new. This was started by Nixon and used by Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush. The United States has been engaging China in a thousand different ways for 26 years now. It surely didn't begin on Jan. 21, 1993, when Clinton was inaugurated.

How important is human rights in the U.S.-China relationship?

Human rights is important. It's very basic to American values. But one must never forget that it is always conditioned on the country with which one is dealing. For example, we deal with Saudi Arabia, which beheaded 600 people last year in what might be termed gross violations of human rights. Yet we don't sanction the Saudis. Neither do we sanction the Russians for what they did in Chechnya, nor Indonesia for the slaughter in East Timor. But human rights in China have become a cause célèbre in the United States, a way to attack China policy.

That said, human rights is something that the United States should push. But critics have pushed it to the top of the agenda, which in turn has forced the administration to make half-baked dramatic moves like [Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights] John Shattuck's contact with [Chinese dissident] Wei Jingsheng in Beijing in 1994. As a result of that contact, Wei ended up back in jail. The United States didn't help him. All it did was grandstand. The same goes for the attempts to link human rights performance to China's most favored nation trading status. It didn't work. The Chinese called our bluff and we backed down. Such behavior does not give the administration a great deal of credibility on this.

Can Clinton reverse these setbacks and get the Chinese to take our human rights concerns seriously?

Human rights has now become a rhetorical issue. The Chinese, in effect, say to Clinton, "Listen. You're going to go to Tiananmen Square, right?" And he says, "Right." And the Chinese say, "OK, we'll give you a platform on which you can sound off on human rights. You will be able to play it back to the United States, and all your people will high-five each other, saying, 'The president did it!' And we'll give you another forum in Shanghai, and you can play that back to the States. Now you must understand, Mr. President, that we don't necessarily have to play that to the Chinese people. We will play perhaps an edited version if you go too far, as we did with Reagan in 1984. So it's a trade-off: You are going to get your platform, but you've got to go through our drill. And that means appearing in Tiananmen Square. You are going to eat crow. And you are going to come out and say it tastes like diced chicken."

This is the game. We have here two of the most effective propaganda organs in the world working together now -- the huge Chinese propaganda organ, which is going to try to make this visit look very good, and the spinmeisters of the White House, who are, as we all know, also rather good at spinning.

Given the double spin cycle we're all in for, how do you reconcile China's decision to revoke the visas of the three Radio Free Asia journalists?

It's important to remember that the Chinese do not act monolithically. I'm sure there are people in China who said, "Give them the visas. We've very little to lose. After all, it's three journalists out of 300." But there are other hard-nosed guys with a lot of influence, who say, "Don't give in on this one. We have been against this radio; it interferes in our internal affairs; it exposes our weaknesses; we can't have it." They forcefully argue that this is something on which the Americans will cave. They say, "We made them cave again and again on this visa issue, and they'll cave again on this issue. You wait and see." Moreover, these hard-liners create an atmosphere in which Jiang would appear to be kowtowing to the powerful American imperialists if they were to let these journalists in. And the truth is, they've done this in denying visas to some of our most distinguished scholars, and we have indeed backed down.

What then would be the most effective way for the United States to advance the cause of human rights in China?

The best way is to work with those forces in China that advocate the rule of law and the implementation of the rule of law. The Achilles' heel of the Chinese Communist Party lies in the adoption of a workable rule of law that protects individual rights. The party in fact has these laws in its constitution right now, but they don't implement them. There are high-ranking people who want to see implementation take place, but there are others who want to make sure the party remains in control. The best way to advance human rights is to work with the reformers quietly. The more noise we make, the more it becomes a matter of saving face and the hard-liners' digging in their heels.

Another method is to find out their vulnerabilities, whether it's World Bank loans, extension of most favored nation trading status or membership in the World Trade Organization. But we have to watch our step on explicitly tying these issues to human rights. I know we like to be direct, lay it on the table and say, "Fish or cut bait." But that approach doesn't work with the Chinese. What works is drawing up a road map whereby certain things happen on our side and certain things happen on their side with no discernible connection. This is what happened when I was ambassador. We made sure that humanitarian World Bank loans to China were resumed, the Japanese resumed negotiations on an economic package and President Bush declared he was now reflecting on extension of MFN status despite the opposition from Congress. Meanwhile, the Chinese lifted martial law in Tibet and Beijing, gave amnesty to about 800 people who were arrested after the Tiananmen affair and let [dissident] Fang Lizhi and his family out of China. In other words, you don't say "quid pro quo" or one for one, but you operate with understandings under which certain things happen.

If we're skillful enough, we can make it to China's advantage to move in certain directions. Now, I know this sounds vague and like a lot of State Department crap, but if we want progress on, say, Tibet, you don't make that a condition of MFN extension. You indicate to them that their image will improve in the United States, that they will help diffuse the atmosphere so the United States and China can move on to other issues.

The criticism has been made that this administration has placed commercial relations above all other issues. Do you agree with that assessment?

This administration placed a high priority on commercial ties, especially when Ron Brown was secretary of commerce. What has happened is something we should look into. That something is the great black hole that was created by shifting the authority for technology transfers to China from the State Department to the Commerce Department. It's looking the other way when the Chinese steal guidance boards out of the satellites we give them. It's letting sensitive technological data slip into Chinese hands without greater scrutiny and having all this possibly tie into large campaign contributions to the Democrats from Loral and the Chinese aerospace industry. What we've got now is a big, black mess. Sure, the timing is coincidental, the evidence is largely circumstantial, but it stinks.

Much of the criticism of the administration for these technology transfers focuses on the military threat that China poses to the United States. How would you assess China's military intentions?

We know, from reading their own documents, that they are aiming the modernization of their military right at U.S. vulnerabilities, which they have identified carefully and thoughtfully. Those vulnerabilities are our great dependence on satellites, Stealth bombers and aircraft carriers for projection of power. Their aim is to work out ways to negate those weapons. They believe that our dependence on technology has bred arrogance. They look at the Vietnam War, where we had massive technological advantage and still got our asses whipped. They have looked at the Gulf War, Somalia and Bosnia and concluded that the Americans can't take casualties. They also have taken note of our military cutbacks and our withdrawal from bases like Subic Bay in the Philippines. As a result, the Chinese have concluded that it is just a matter of time before we're out of the Western Pacific, and they become the next big boy on the block.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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