Ready, Aim, Engage

NBR Analysis, Seattle, July 2000 The question has generated heated debate for more than a decade: Can the West best promote political and economic reform in China by working with the Chinese government or by isolating it? The debate has grown louder this year as the U.S. Congress weighed whether to grant China permanent normal ...

NBR Analysis, Seattle, July 2000

NBR Analysis, Seattle, July 2000

The question has generated heated debate for more than a decade: Can the West best promote political and economic reform in China by working with the Chinese government or by isolating it? The debate has grown louder this year as the U.S. Congress weighed whether to grant China permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) and pave the way for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Boston University professor Joseph Fewsmith argues for engagement in the July issue of NBR Analysis, a series of pamphlets published monthly by the private, nonpartisan National Bureau of Asian Research. Fewsmith argues that friendly gestures from Washington have fostered periods of reform within China, whereas a hostile stance by the United States has usually achieved the opposite. For example, in the relatively chummy atmosphere of 1997 and 1998, which culminated in President Bill Clinton’s visit to China in June 1998, Chinese President Jiang Zemin presided over what Fewsmith calls "perhaps the most reform-oriented" party congress in Chinese Communist Party history. Jiang openly praised the village-level elections carried out in China since the 1980s and endorsed raising them to the township level. Meanwhile, the intellectual atmosphere "loosened visibly" as writers began to publish "controversial new works during the so-called ‘Beijing spring.’" But in 1999, when relations between the United States and China turned sour over a variety of issues, including reports of illegal campaign contributions, liberals within the Chinese government suffered, with Premier Zhu Rongji in particular "mercilessly abused."

U.S. efforts to exercise leverage over China in the last decade, Fewsmith argues, have already spawned a kind of "new nationalism" in China—no longer the stuff of communist hard-liners but also of many urban, "quite liberal and open-minded" Chinese. According to Fewsmith, in China "it is now widely believed that the United States does not care for human rights or oppose abuses by the Chinese government, but rather that it is simply opposed to China and to the Chinese people." As evidence, he points to a rash of books critical of the United States — such as China Can Say No, a polemic hit by several young journalists and poets from Beijing — which sold millions of copies in China in the mid-1990s.

Fewsmith admits that Chinese government propaganda has played a key role in nurturing this resentment. However, U.S. actions have helped create the impression that Washington is out to get China. Fewsmith gives a number of examples, such as U.S. efforts to block Beijing’s bid for the 2000 Olympics, and the 1993 "Yin He" incident when the United States reportedly pressured the Saudi Arabian government into inspecting a Chinese ship the Americans believed (erroneously) was carrying precursors for chemical weapons to Iran.

Fewsmith contends that continued pressure against China could backfire, with consequences for the entire world. He believes the United States need not "compromise its principles," but rather should be smarter about the tools it employs to nudge China toward democracy and open markets. For him, Chinese entry into the WTO is precisely such a tool, an example of how "the United States can exert leverage to move China in directions that are compatible both with its own long-term interests and with integrating China into the global order as a normal nation."

Perhaps. But during the 1990s, U.S. trade relations have often been painful, acrimonious affairs, and already, spats over China’s place in the WTO have probably contributed to the burgeoning anti-Americanism in China that Fewsmith cites. Perhaps it is time for Washington to go one step further — to accept compromise on some principles in the short-term and expect that China will change for the better in the long-term as a result.

Sophie Roell, a journalist in Asia from 1995 to 1997, is a master's candidate in East Asian Studies at Harvard University.

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