When foreign dictators are invited to Washington to enjoy the honor and prestige of a state visit, their arrival is usually preceded by the promotion of a geopolitical theory that soothes any moral concerns. That was how they did it in the bad old days of Ronald Reagan and Jeane Kirkpatrick, who drew careful distinctions between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” torturers, and that is how they do it now in Bill Clinton’s White House, where they talked up “constructive engagement” with China for years before Jiang Zemin showed up for dinner.
Such intellectually flimsy theories, which have little to do with the actual reasons for any diplomatic decision and serve mainly to occupy idle minds on editorial boards, are always applied quite selectively. (That’s why it’s easy to tell that they have no serious meaning.) So the Clinton Administration tightens restrictions on Cuba when it wants to appease exile voters in Florida, and it engages in “constructive engagement” with China when it wants to negotiate a Boeing airplane deal.
But when the President first began to set the table for Mr. Jiang’s visit four years ago-that is, when he publicly sold out his own campaign rhetoric about human rights to enhance American commercial prospects-he and his diplomats insisted that “constructive engagement” was the best way to promote democratic reform in China. Economic sanctions would only “isolate” the Chinese from the beneficial influence of the West, Mr. Clinton argued. Economic liberty, promoted by United States trade and investment, eventually could promulgate the freedoms we hold dear, the kind that don’t show up in the export statistics. Eventually can be a very long time, however, especially when you’re being beaten or starved in one of Mr. Jiang’s crowded jails.
Meanwhile, there is a ready instrument to measure the effects of constructive engagement so far: the human rights reports compiled by the U.S. State Department. The department’s data, which seem thorough and candid, offer no support to the engagement theory.
According to the opening summary of the 1996 report, which was released last January, “the [Chinese] Government continued to commit widespread and well-documented human rights abuses, in violation of internationally accepted norms … Abuses included torture and mistreatment of prisoners, forced confessions, and arbitrary and lengthy incommunicado detention … The Government continued severe restrictions on freedom of speech, the press, assembly, association, religion, privacy and worker rights … All public dissent against the [Communist] party and government was effectively silenced … No dissidents were known to be active at year’s end.… Nonapproved religious groups, including Protestant and Catholic groups, also experienced intensified repression …”
Even when the report’s authors tried to look on the brighter side, suggesting that because of economic growth, “Chinese society continued to open further” through “freer access to outside sources of information … and increased media reporting,” they added that “the Government placed new restrictions on the news media.”
The specifics are considerably grimmer. Despite alleged reforms of China’s legal, judicial and penal systems, “There have been numerous executions carried out immediately after mass summary trials … [and] many cases in which police and other elements of the security apparatus employed torture and degrading treatment in dealing with detained and imprisoned persons.” How many, nobody knows, because Beijing refuses to permit inspections or observations by independent humanitarian organizations.
A few political prisoners were released, but most were quickly rearrested. Leading dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng, Chen Ziming, Wang Dan and Gao Yu have been denied critically needed medical attention and “incarcerated with common criminals.” In Tibet, “At least three Buddhist monks died as a result of mistreatment while in prison.” Another imprisoned dissident, Chen Longde, “reportedly attempted to commit suicide in August  by jumping from a multistory prison building after he was kicked, punched and beaten with electric prods.”
Personal and religious freedoms have not exactly flourished under “constructive engagement,” either. The State Department found that the Chinese “continued to implement comprehensive and highly intrusive one-child family planning policies first adopted in the late 1970’s.” And there were “credible reports,” too, of forced abortion and sterilization. Christian groups which refused to register with the state and reveal the names and addresses of adherents were shut down, their spiritual leaders sometimes detained and beaten. Literally thousands of Buddhist shrines were destroyed in Tibet as well as in Zhejiang, Hubei and Jiangxi provinces.
Nor has the spread of electronic media discouraged the Government’s urge to control all news and cultural information. Dozens of newspapers and magazines were shut down in 1996 because of “political problems.” Access to the Internet and the World Wide Web grew, but they, too, are thoroughly cleansed by censors. All Internet users must register with the Government, which blocked access to more than 100 news and dissident sites on the Web.
In short, our engagement with China hasn’t been particularly constructive. The President did briefly criticize his guest, Mr. Jiang, for being “on the wrong side of history,” but the Chinese dictator left Washington stronger than when he arrived, and he didn’t have to release a single prisoner to get what he wanted. No wonder he looked so jolly.