Republicans, Democrats, and China

Politics and policy.
June 13 1998 3:30 AM

Republicans, Democrats, and China

On human rights, both parties talk the talk but don't wok the wok.


Human rights used to be a Democratic concern. When Jimmy Carter tried to put the issue at the center of his foreign policy, Republicans charged that he was being woolly minded and naive. Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, who rose to fame as a critic of Carter's human rights efforts, argued that pestering friendly regimes about their political prisoners played into the hands of the Communists, whose human rights records were invariably worse.

Even the Republican human rights concern about Communist regimes had one great exception: China. Partly because of China's Cold War value as a rival of the Soviet Union, partly because Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger started the rapprochement, partly because the American business establishment has embraced China so enthusiastically, and partly for reasons that remain mysterious, the Republican Party has had a soft spot for the world's largest Communist regime for almost three decades.

These days, though, you're more likely to hear Republicans complaining about the neglect of human rights in China by a Democratic president. Such objections first arose in 1994, when the Clinton administration made a sudden about-face, declaring it would "delink" Chinese trade policy from human rights. In the last year, conservatives, including elements on the evangelical and protectionist right, have gone so far as to make common cause with the trendy left on the issue. When Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Washington last fall, Gary Bauer of the Family Research Council was spotted picketing alongside Bianca Jagger and Richard Gere.


Conservative nagging about human rights has intensified lately. In recent days, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Majority Leader Dick Armey have said they may oppose Clinton's latest effort to renew China's Most Favored Nation trade status again. Doing their best to take advantage of the Chinese money scandal, Republicans have called on Clinton to cancel his trip to China scheduled for later this month, which will be the first U.S. presidential visit since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. "We will reach the nadir of our abandonment of human rights if Clinton appears at Tiananmen Square," Rep. Christopher Cox, the California Republican directing the House investigation into the transfer of satellite technology, was recently quoted as saying.

Have the tables turned? Yes, but not for the first time--or even the second. The Republican call to put human rights ahead of geopolitics in our relations with the Chinese is just the latest expression of a bad habit that has existed in American politics since Nixon established ties with them in 1972. Those out of power love to accuse those in power of being overly solicitous toward Beijing on human rights and other issues. But the critique is disingenuous. If and when they come to wield responsibility themselves, these critics drop their objections and adopt the same policy. The value of maintaining a cordial relationship with an emerging superpower inevitably takes precedence over other concerns.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

Nixon himself set the pattern. As a senator and presidential candidate, Nixon was a leading China baiter. In the 1960 presidential debates, he blasted John F. Kennedy for being ready to abandon Quemoy and Matsu, two tiny Taiwanese islands. A decade or so later, of course, Nixon executed a daring flip-flop, initiating diplomatic contact with China for the first time since 1949. Carter followed essentially the same course Nixon did. As a candidate in 1976, he criticized Gerald Ford for continuing Nixon's policy of Realpolitik at the expense of human rights. But once ensconced in the White House, Carter downgraded our relations with Taiwan and restored formal diplomatic ties with the People's Republic of China in 1978. It was also Carter who granted MFN trade status to China for the first time and invited Deng Xiaoping to visit the United States.

Conservative Republicans such as Ronald Reagan often criticized Carter for selling out Taiwan in his pursuit of friendship with the PRC. But once elected, Reagan, too, went squishy on China. In 1981, he abandoned his plans to sell advanced fighter planes to Taiwan, a move that would have offended the mainland Chinese. More importantly, Reagan never switched back to a pre-Nixon two-China policy, as he had threatened. In 1984, he visited China. The trip was a warm bath of conciliation. On the way home, he said he didn't want to impose our system of government upon others.

You might think that George Bush, a lifelong Sinophile, would be the exception to this rule, but he was not. In the late 1970s, as he prepared to run against Reagan for the Republican presidential nomination, Bush opposed Carter's move to establish formal diplomatic relations with the PRC, calling it "an abject American retreat." "China needs us more than we need them," he wrote in a 1978 article in the Washington Post. "China ... has now seen just how easily we can be pushed around." Bush blasted Carter for not obtaining stronger guarantees on the security of Taiwan. In office, of course, Bush supported MFN renewal even in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre. His National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft made a secret visit to Beijing just five weeks after the massacre to reassure Chinese leaders of America's friendship.

Illustration by Peter Kuper

This led Bill Clinton to denounce Bush's China policy during the 1992 campaign. In one speech, Clinton charged Bush with "coddling aging rulers with undisguised contempt for democracy, for human rights." In another speech, Clinton said, "There is no more striking example of Mr. Bush's indifference toward democracy than his policy toward China." Clinton said that, if elected, he'd withdraw all trade privileges from China "as long as they're locking people up." Once elected, he decided that using trade policy to leverage improvements in human rights was counterproductive. In supporting MFN renewal in 1994, Clinton announced a new policy of what has alternately been called "constructive engagement," "commercial engagement," and "pragmatic engagement." Like its Republican predecessors, the administration now contends that pushing for human rights improvements quietly and behind the scenes is more effective.

Some Republicans have tried to imply that the Chinese purchased the Clinton administration's favor with illegal campaign cash. At this stage, it is still far from proved that anyone in the Clinton administration knew that the Democratic Party was getting money from China or that money had an influence on its policies. But if the Chinese did try to buy favor with the Democrats, it may have been because they already owned the Republicans. Not having seen a Democratic administration in a dozen years, they might well have been worried that the new one elected in 1992 would actually follow through on its rhetoric about human rights and democracy. With the Republicans, they understood there would be no deviation from Nixon's policy of accommodation.

The Chinese need not have worried. Whether it is a process of being captured by the China hands at the State Department or the sobering effects of real power, no American president since Nixon has dared to lean hard on China. In 1996, Robert Dole, a longtime supporter of MFN renewal, predictably accused Clinton of "weakness and indecision, double-talk and incoherence" in his approach to Beijing. But had Dole won the election, our policy would almost certainly have remained the same. This is worth bearing in mind during the president's upcoming trip to China. In politics, the yang predominates. In power, the yin reasserts itself.



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