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? Elizabeth Boiler of Camden, NJ, asks: Will engagement -- closer relations with China -- really bring forth changes in the country? Or will it just bring better contracts for companies like Boeing and GM?
Mike Jendrzejczyk of Human Rights Watch responds:
Economic relations, and official and unofficial contacts with China of all kinds, can be a catalyst to promote greater openness and change from within. However, commercial relations -- that is, trade and investment -- will not automatically produce short term, or even long term, results when it comes to basic political reform or human rights improvements.
The situation in Indonesia offers some possible lessons for China. There, the government pursued a policy of export-driven economic development, and President Soeharto was successful in attracting major U.S. investors, as well as companies from Japan, Australia and Europe. But the Indonesian government resisted calls for political reform for more than thirty years, until the economy collapsed, Soeharto lost all legitimacy, and he was forced out of office.
Many U.S. companies operating in China know first-hand how the absence of the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and an accountable form of government are obstacles to China's continued economic development. I think there is much they can do -- both with their employees and in their contacts with the Chinese government -- to help move China in a positive direction. I certainly believe it is strongly in their interest to do so.
Robert Kapp, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, responds:
Ms. Boiler, the best thing about your question is the insertion between dashes of the words "closer relations with China" after the word "engagement." I think you're on to something I think I'm onto as well, even thought it's probably politically a little incorrect. I have a growing feeling that "Engagement" probably has a pretty short political half-life, and that in less time than we might imagine the whole term will have vanished from the media/political vocabulary of American relations with China. Or at least it will have returned to its role as a perfectly satisfactory noun with no special policy implications.
I have actually begun trying to avoid using the term. I like terms like "civil, respectful, and increasingly cooperative relations" -- hence my pleasure at seeing you write "closer relations with China." In fact, yours is better than mine, but they're BOTH perhaps better than "Engagement."
I do think that "civil, respectful and increasingly cooperative relations" between the U.S. and China will play a constructive if limited role in influencing the course of China's evolution. The question is, in what directions does "influence" flow, through what institutional or other channels does it pass, and how is it identified and measured?
Remember (with apologies to my academic colleague Mike Oksenberg -- trust me, Mike, this won't be a History 454 lecture): the massive increase in U.S.-China contacts since the early 1970s, and especially since the normalization of diplomatic relations at the start of 1979, has been above all the product of China's OWN decisions about China's role in the world. After three decades of Soviet-style centrally-planned economics and Maoist politics, replete with gigantic social tragedies and immense regime-induced social convulsions, the Chinese leadership emerging from the chaos and destruction of the Cultural Revolution in 1977 and 1978 decided to "enliven the economy and open to the outside world." That marked the beginning of the reintroduction of the concepts and practices of market economics to an increasingly wretched (if ideologically pure) socialized economy, and it marked the beginning of China's self-immersion in world streams of ideas and commerce.
I write at such length about that to suggest that the familiar American notion that you write -- i.e., that our contacts with China will "bring about" changes in China -- is perhaps a little too accepting of the idea that America is the transformer and the rest of the world (in this case, China) is the "transformee." How can we measure the degree to which the enormous changes that have taken place in China in the past two decades are indigenously- generated and the degree to which they emanate from foreign (more specifically, American) influences? We can't. My own belief, though, is that the terrific and sometimes daunting transformations now unleashed in China are the products of China's own decisions (i.e., the decisions of the political elite), not simply the products of American or other external "engagement" with China.
Again, to me "engagement" is a kind of sound bite; it is the product of a modern political struggle, fought out primarily in the media, in an environment where complex realities must be reduced to one- or two-word formulations for popular consumption. Did President Clinton invent "engagement"? I'm not sure; I think I remember "constructive engagement" in the lexicon of an earlier administration. Coming up with terms like this strikes me as a little like coming up with a computer-generated name for a new large corporation: it's got to be memorable, it should have broadly favorable but not too specific implications (don't want to turn anyone off, after all), and it should be easy to say. Both American and Chinese political traditions, interestingly enough, go in for these boil-down terms: New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, Great Society, Whip Inflation Now, etc. etc., and believe me: China has a vast storehouse of similar reductions.
Seriously: just have a look at the ways in which "closer relations" have brought Chinese and Americans together since the late '70s; consider the tremendous influx of students to the U.S. -- I recently read that more than 70% of senior Chinese government officials at or above the rank of Vice Minister have been in the U.S. for at least six months -- and ponder the direction, the content, and the measurability of "influence."
Professor Michel Oksenberg of Stanford University responds:
Engagement will bring change to China; it already has. The policy is working. My first visit to China was in 1972. I've visited there over 60 times since, travelling to almost every province and witnessed the profound transformation of China economically, politically, culturally, and socially. Much of the change is beneficial and attributable to the contact with the outside world.
But, as China's leaders and the populace recognize, much remains to be done. There will be setbacks. No nation undergoes the wrenching changes China is experiencing in a steadily upward fashion. Nonetheless, these can be little doubt that one of the major developments of our era is China's reemergence -- after nearly two centuries of domestic strife and foreign exploitation -- as a major power.
And by the way, Ms. Boiler, better contracts for Boeing and GM are not an evil development. Trade promotes the welfare of those who engage in it.