Is the Clinton administration's China policy the right policy?
July 2, 1998
in this forum:
How significant were President Clinton's comments on human rights? How much of an influence do you feel our president can have on Chinese leaders? What is the Clinton administration trying to achieve in China? Will engagement really bring forth changes in China? Has President Clinton made the most of his opportunity in China? Brett Dockwell of Philadelphia, PA, asks: Prior to arriving in China, President Clinton discussed all the issues he wanted to speak with the Chinese government about, including nuclear proliferation and the Asian economic crisis. Now, President Clinton refers to the trip as almost a cultural exchange. Exactly, what is the Clinton administration trying to achieve in China?
Professor Michel Oksenberg of Stanford University responds:
First, do not under estimate the substantive accomplishments of summit diplomacy. Summits light fires under the feet of recalcitrant bureaucracies, forcing them to reach agreements before, during, and after the summits that might have been postponed for years. And there is nothing like the two leaders of countries achieving a converge of views that then is transmitted to their entire administrations.
At the same time, this summit was indeed, as you put it, an exercise in "cultural exchange" on, as I would phrase it, an example of public education at its finest. The President used the power of his office to inform the American people, through his speeches and by taking our media to China, about the dramatic developments in China. And he expressed directly to the Chinese people the aspirations of the United States for China. Only a President can do this. This is what presidential leadership entails.
Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch responds:
With his visit to China, Clinton is trying to vindicate his own policy, proving to critics at home that "constructive engagement" works, and that the U.S. and China can enjoy better relations despite their deep and fundamental differences. But the intensive negotiations leading up to the trip -- including visits to Beijing by Secretary of State Albright and National Security Council advisor Sandy Berger -- produced fairly meager results in terms of actual agreements, so the White House apparently decided to focus attention more on the less tangible atmospherics.
An equally important objective of the trip was to present to the American people, mainly through the media, a more complex and comprehensive picture of China, and the rapid social and economic changes underway. Only four days of the trip were spent on formal meetings, with the remainder devoted to visits to historic sites, meetings with villagers, students, local community leaders, and so on ("agents of change" as the White House described them).
Unfortunately, the Administration missed an opportunity to support the efforts of some key figures, such as Dai Qing, the outspoken environmentalist, and did not include them in these events. And the White House studiously avoided all suggestions that the president or members of the U.S. delegation meet with dissidents or family members of the 1989 crackdown -- even as dissidents were being rounded up, prior to and during Clinton's visit.
Robert Kapp, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, responds:
Mr. Dockwell, I try to make it a habit not to put thoughts, thought processes, motivations, or words into others' brains or mouths when I don't know the facts, and unfortunately in this sensitive policy area if one is lucky enough to really know the facts it's probably better not to discuss it. In my case, I don't know exactly what calculus led to the shaping of the visit in the manner in which it has taken place.
I just don't think I ought to speculate online about what went into the decisions. I think calling the trip "almost a cultural exchange" is a little harsh; a number of very useful cooperative efforts have been launched or enhanced by the visit. And I do think that the president's stated hope to, in my words, reintroduce China to the American people through the eyes of the media after a decade in which Americans associated only one single photographic image and one tragic political event with China, is an important contribution.
What I find ironic is the way in which American voices hostile to the maintenance of a stable and civil relationship with China raise issues of symbolism to the top of their rhetorical and constituency-building agendas -- and then denounce the president for playing with symbols instead of substance. In other words, in a U.S. political environment in which China is (in the view of many people) a kind of football, a device for the raising of passions (and occasionally of money), the reduction of Chinese complexities to a series of sound bites and single-frame images elevates questions of symbol and imagery ("We've got to send the Chinese a message," as the saying goes) to such primacy that American political leaders simply cannot ignore the symbolic significance of their actions. But if they go too far in the direction of symbolism for the home audience in front of its TV screens across America, they are liable to the charge (from the same critics, usually) that they care more about symbols and gestures than they do about substance.
That long disquisition is not an answer to your question: as I say, we'll have to ask "the Clinton Administration" to answer you directly. But it is a comment on one of the factors that, I believe, impinges on the thinking of political leaders (in this case, the senior Administration figures including the president) as they attempt to construct a foreign policy effort that is at one and the same time superficial and deep, publicity-oriented and substance- oriented.