A few weeks before Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Washington, I was talking with an old-style liberal anti-communist: a man who was a Democrat in domestic and social matters, but who had decried the Soviet Union all the years of the Cold War. I began to doubt it, though, when he warmed to his theme, which was that Communist China is a greater threat now than Soviet Communism had ever been.
A greater threat? How’s that? Everybody says what a popping city Berlin is. Ten years ago, the Soviets owned half of it. Young Americans flock to Prague. Ten years ago, the Soviets owned all of it. Jonathan Kwitny just wrote a big fat book on Pope John Paul II, whom he calls the man of the century. Ten years ago, the Soviets owned the Pope’s country. The Soviets had missiles pointed at every important place in Western Europe, and at my interlocutor (and at you, the reader). We can look at the shambles of the country now and say that it was all hollow. But even in its fin de régime the Soviets sponsored revolts and invasions in Central America, the Caribbean, southern Africa and central Asia. Had he forgotten? Did he mean it when he said he opposed it?
What’s more dangerous about China, he said, is that Americans think like the Chinese now.
They didn’t think like the Soviets?
Only a few, he brushed it away.
Of echt fellow travelers, yes, there were only a few. But what about the whole penumbra of peaceniks, the TV shows about the nuclear aftermath, the caterwauling, scaremongering clergymen, the sense that the world was going to blow up unless we gave in? That wasn’t pro-Soviet?
Fear is not the same as admiration. America admires China now, he said.
Businessmen are always admiring some foreign country. It’s the crackpot side of practical men, like management retreats and meditation seminars. A few years ago, they were all admiring Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry and the keiretsu . Then the Nikkei crashed, and it was on to the next thing.
No, he said, they make money from China.
Farmers made money from Soviet grain sales. (I knew he had me there; that was a feeble debaters’ point.)
He pressed his advantage. American business in China is much bigger than grain sales, and none of the sleek-bottomed executives who profit from it want to hear a word about slave labor, political prisoners, persecuted Christians, Tibet. In the first stage of denial, they say that the human rights situation is getting better. In the second, they say that it doesn’t matter. They tell us China has found its own way to advance and progress, that Asians are different, that democracy is sometimes a little dysfunctional. And all the former Secretaries of State tell them they’re right. I’m a friend of Henry Kissinger’s, he said, but he does, and so do all the rest of them.
I scrambled in the history of State Department wimpiness. George Kennan wrote the Long Telegram and the Mr. X article, then turned around and told us for decades to deal with Moscow. But the Sinophobe had a point: Dull old Ivan thought he could buffalo us only with the big stick; his sleek Chinese successors offer carrots.
You’re a conservative, was his parting shot. Yet you don’t write about this.
I am a conservative. My second piece of journalism was about Richard Nixon going to China and what a bad idea it was, and I don’t need to check my credentials with liberals. But that is the argument ad hominem, and probably a te quoque as well. So here goes.
You don’t have to be a Hollywood star to deplore the fate of Tibet. It is a country that is culturally shackled, and parts of it have been ethnically cleansed. The Communist Chinese also persecute Christians. And in their own self-interest, they are right to do so, for Christianity means individualism. It speaks to each man in a mass of men and tells him that Jesus dies for him. Thousands of consequences ensue, including in time such unlikely ones as the American Civil Liberties Union. The very prosperity that lures us may be shakier than the Soviet military machine. As Thomas Friedman of The New York Times recently pointed out, Asian capitalism, to the degree that it is different from plain old capitalism, is weaker, bleeding money to the politically connected, cushioning the powerful from their business blunders. The great downward flop in the economies of the Asian Tigers-Malaysia, Singapore and the rest-presages another in the Big Spring Roll. Where will businessmen go then? South America and the Mañana Way to Profits?
But is it a statesman’s job to weigh the circumstances. China is not the threat to us that the Soviet Union was. Still less if its economy coughs. Less yet if, 20 years from now, it is not one China but two or three or five, which is a recurring pattern in Chinese history. We do not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, we try only to destroy monsters that are bent on destroying us.
In the name of mercy, we should not sell China the wherewithal to oppress its own citizens (such as e-mail reading software), and in the name of prudence, we should restrict militarily sensitive technology. Also in the name of prudence, we should allow American consumers to buy cheaper Chinese goods. The profits may be shunted by military holding companies to arms development, but that would happen, anyway, in a command economy through taxation. If we attend to the first two points, it should be no threat to us, or to our ideals. If China, swollen with pride at regaining Hong Kong, menaces Taiwan, we would send the fleet through the Formosa Strait.
We have, finally, the weapon of truth. The Soviet Union was brought down by Pershing missiles and the Strategic Defense Initiative or S.D.I., but also by one man writing about the gulag, and another man calling it an evil empire.
You look very fine, Mr. Jiang, and in a lot of ways your people are better off. We’ll take your money, and you’ll certainly take ours. But we know who you are. So do your people. In the end, they will bury you.