Clinton's stealth China policy

The president would rather look like a bumbler than own up to a policy that ignores China's wrongdoing, from campaign finance to nuclear espionage.

Published June 17, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Why does President Clinton not emulate his role model, Richard Nixon (at whose funeral he was so husky and forgiving), and deflect domestic and foreign criticism by claiming that his administration's incredible generosity to China -- from nuclear proliferation to human rights to free trade to national security to campaign finance -- constitutes a Nixonian "opening to China," the gambit that earned Clinton's almost-impeached predecessor his legacy?

It's not as if there haven't been quite a number of openings. On numerous crucial elements of administration conduct, the footprint of Beijing is so large as to be unmissable. We hear incessantly from the White House and the State Department and the Pentagon that China is now a "strategic partner." Strategy implies coordination and deliberation. Partnership implies concert. Very well, then, let us inquire: Are the different elements of Clinton's China policy all part of the same design? For some reason, the question when phrased in this way is treated as unwelcome by government spokesmen, who would (oddly enough) prefer us to think of China policy as random, or at least improvised, but by no means as something that can be taken as all of a piece.

I recently spent an absorbing evening in the company of Wei Jingsheng, who is probably the most senior Chinese dissident and certainly the most respected. Born into a family that was well-connected in Communist Party and People's Liberation Army (PLA) circles, Wei developed doubts during the Cultural Revolution. In 1978, during the brief moment of Beijing's "Democracy Wall," he posted a manifesto replying to Deng Xiaopeng's proposed "four modernizations" -- of agriculture, industry, science and national defense. There was, argued Wei, a missing "fifth modernization" -- the introduction of democracy and free expression. He signed the poster with his name and address, and for this and other impertinences was sentenced to death in 1979. His sentence was later commuted to 15 years imprisonment, which he served in the most harrowing conditions. Released and rearrested in 1993, he was deported into exile in 1997. He now makes his home in New York, and was recently elected chairman of the umbrella opposition group, the Joint Conference on Chinese Democracy. We met at a commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Tienanmen massacre.

"In my opinion," he said, "all the aspects of the administration policy towards China are related. The Clinton policy is made more in Beijing than it is in Washington. The multinational corporations have become the vanguard of the Chinese Communist Party." He points to the official "de-linking" of human rights from trade policy; the ease with which China has been able to acquire military sinews from the United States, and the extraordinary way in which money from the Chinese military-industrial complex has been able to enter the American political process.

Is there, then, a connection to be intuited between the Chinese espionage at nuclear laboratories, and the lavish disbursement of off-the-record funds? Wei says that this remains to be proven -- the espionage would have gone on anyway, and so would the funneling of political money, and the two operations would have been directed by different departments of the Chinese state.

"Lenin was right about one thing: The capitalists want to control political parties and the media. Trade is more effective than bribery here -- Beijing can use the Chinese market to guarantee profits to certain investors, and thus to get American businesses to make the campaign donations." (As we spoke, Capitol Hill was being flooded with pro-Chinese corporate money as the debate on Clinton's proposal for "Most Favored Nation" got into gear.) As an example of what he means, Wei cites Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security advisor, whose main expertise is trade law and whose old law firm of Hogan and Hartson has represented both the Chinese regime and the Democratic National Committee.

When the scandal over Chinese political bribery first broke, and even as the Democratic National Committee was returning some of the shady funds it had raised, the president made a statement saying that all this was "Asian-bashing." I have before me some internal memoranda from the Asian-Pacific-American section of the DNC, proposing a media campaign against the "racist" inquiry into John Huang's bagmanship. One of the "talking points" attached to one memo says: "This is a race-based inquiry targeted at the Asian-American community as a whole. No one is questioning contributions from U.S. subsidiaries of the U.K., Canada, France, etc." Well, of course, some of us do question precisely such contributions. But the point about the Huang operation is that it just might have been part of the front organization for an aggressive foreign military dictatorship.

Of course it is typical of Clinton to protect old-fashioned money-laundering by using the idiom of political correctness, as if money from Beijing was just the Asian element in a rainbow coalition, or gorgeous mosaic, of legitimate fund-raising. Wei Jingsheng was very scornful when I asked for his comment. "I do know that racism is involved," he says. "Many of the pro-Clinton China experts are racist, because they say that Chinese people are incapable of democracy or liberty. And some of the corporate leaders have said the same thing to my face."

In the Tienanmen commemoration to which Wei and I went, there were photographs of civilians beaten bloody, of tanks in the street and of summary executions. In the prisons where he was held, forced labor is disciplined by the whip and the club. Is this not Asian-bashing? The People's Liberation Army occupies Tibet, menaces India and Vietnam, forcibly repatriates starving North Korean refugees, hosts the Khmer Rouge and exchanges lethal technology with Iran and Pakistan. Is this our "strategic partner"?

Just as much to the point, has the domestic debate on all this been conducted openly and with full information, or has it been fixed by special interests and covert subventions? This question touches both political parties and all the declared candidates, and has already caused the president to contradict himself in the most egregious manner. Meanwhile, China's exiled hero has no access to the White House, which spreads disinformation about him even as it holds open the door to the Chinese despots, and to those who come bearing their gifts.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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