Los Angeles Times

Wednesday, January 6, 1999

International Outlook
Clinton Continues to Flip-Flop on China


WASHINGTON--Keeping track of the Clinton administration's China policy is like watching professional tennis: The ball bounces back and forth so fast that after a while, your neck hurts.
The public explanations and rationalizations come and go. Over time, they blatantly contradict one another. During its six years in office, the Clinton administration has repeatedly announced the discovery of new approaches for dealing with China, which it has subsequently abandoned.
We're in the midst of one of these unannounced turnabouts right now. In response to the ongoing crackdown on political dissent in China, the administration has remained tight-lipped. President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore have said nothing at all.
The only thing Clinton has said about China in public recently was to release a warm New Year's letter he sent to President Jiang Zemin. "I am personally committed to building a constructive strategic partnership with China that will benefit our two peoples and promote a stable and prosperous Asia-Pacific region," he said.
Nor does the administration want to take part in a diplomatic campaign with other countries to condemn China at the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Instead, the administration's sole response to China's crackdown, it appears, will be to have its new assistant secretary for human rights, Harold Koh, meet with a similarly low-level Chinese official for a "dialogue" next week.
What the administration is doing now represents a reversal of principles it claimed to embrace five years ago, one year ago, and even six months ago. To understand this latest flip-flop, let's look at the history:
1) The Numbers Shell Game: From one nation to many and back to one.
In 1993, Clinton imposed conditions on the renewal of China's trade benefits. That action made both the Chinese government and the American business community mad. So in 1994, Clinton backed down and said he would try a new way of dealing with human rights.
The United States should not be acting on its own, administration officials proclaimed back then. Instead, America should have a multilateral approach. So the administration decided to concentrate on teaming up with other countries to sponsor in Geneva a U.N. resolution condemning China. This new American effort failed, but it came close one year. It also made China mad.
So forget what was said four years ago. Now, the administration is back to the unilateral approach. It is saying it doesn't want to collaborate with other nations on a Geneva resolution, but will rely instead on Koh's "dialogue."
2) The Vanishing Qualifications Gambit.
Last March, the administration announced that it wouldn't support a U.N. resolution condemning China in 1998 because, at the time, the human-rights climate seemed to be improving.
At the time, one of Clinton's top officials stressed to reporters that this action was qualified. If the situation in China got bad again, the administration had the right to renew its efforts in Geneva. Now, the White House is acting as though its abandonment of the U.N. efforts was permanent, not temporary--the opposite of what it told the public a year ago.
3) The Flickering Mute Button: from silence to voice to silence again.
Clinton's visit to China last June represented a significant and welcome change. As part of the negotiations for his visit, the administration won the right for the president to talk openly to Chinese leaders and to the Chinese public, more than any of his predecessors ever had, about America's belief in democracy and the right to dissent.
"I believe stability in the 21st century will require high levels of freedom," Clinton told Jiang at a televised news conference.
Now, Clinton is silent again, and the administration is once again embracing the old shibboleth that in dealing with China, quiet diplomacy works best. Except that it hasn't: Recent private appeals by senior U.S. officials didn't dissuade China from sentencing democracy advocates to prison terms of more than 10 years.
How does one explain the administration's contradictions? There must be some deeper, core consistency to this seemingly unending series of flip-flops. The answer, it appears, is that the administration's private views about China don't match its public statements.
What Clinton administration officials really believe are things they usually avoid saying in public. They seem to be convinced there is little or nothing America can do to affect how the Chinese regime treats its own people. And they also feel that China will inevitably evolve into a democratic country some day.
If you sincerely believe in these ideas--and I think the president and National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger do--then the purpose of your China policy will be aimed not at Beijing, but at the American people: The aim will be not to change the Chinese regime's conduct toward political dissent, but rather to defuse public anger in this country over Chinese repression.
What's wrong with such ideas? First, they're risky. What if China doesn't become democratic, but instead becomes richer and more powerful, yet still repressive? Second, they ignore past experience. Sometimes, American linkage and conditions work with China: Dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dan were set free because Beijing knew Clinton otherwise wouldn't visit China.
Above all, the president's current policy of silence toward Chinese repression won't work for long, because it runs contrary to America's own deepest values. Clinton's visit to Beijing was a political success because of his willingness to speak out. Now, he's back on the wrong side of history.
* * *
Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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