Neither Friend nor Foe: A China Policy for the Nineties

By Harding, Harry | Brookings Review, Spring 1992 | Go to article overview

Neither Friend nor Foe: A China Policy for the Nineties


Harding, Harry, Brookings Review


At the end of February China and the United States passed a major milestone: the 20th anniversary of Richard Nixon's visit to China and the signing of the Shanghai Communique in 1972. Neither country, however, is in the mood to celebrate. Americans spent most of the 1970s and 1980s feeling buoyantly optimistic about relations with China. For the first 10 years after the Nixon visit, they viewed Peking as a virtual ally in containing Soviet expansionism. After the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1979, they saw boundless opportunities for trade and investment with China. In the mid-1980s, many Americans concluded that China had renounced Marxism, embraced capitalism, and launched the most successful program of economic and political reform in the communist world. By early 1989, opinion polls showed that nearly three-quarters of the American public had a favorable impression of China, up from a mere 23 percent at the time of the Shanghai Communique.

Since the crisis in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, however, Americans have perceived China in much darker terms: repressive at home, irresponsible abroad, and engaging in unfair commercial policies toward the United States. Only one in three Americans regard China favorably. Both houses of Congress have passed, by large majorities, legislation that could cost China its most-favored-nation trade status. Even the Bush administration, having spent enormous amounts of its dwindling political capital to preserve a relationship that so many Americans now question, seems disenchanted with Peking.

The conceptual frameworks that guided U.S. China policy in the years since Nixon first journeyed to Peking are clearly inadequate today. China can no longer be seen as an ally against an expansionist Soviet Union, or as a pioneer in political and economic liberalization. Given China's burgeoning trade surplus with the United States, it is even difficult to portray China as a lucrative trading and investment partner. But in redesigning our China policy, it would be foolish to substitute one set of caricatures for another. If China is no longer an ally of the United States, neither has it become an American adversary. Although China has retreated from the forefront of reform, it has not returned to Maoism either politically or economically. To be effective, American China policy must reflect the complexity of China's own domestic and foreign affairs.

The Retreat from Political Reform

The massive demonstrations in Peking in April and May of 1989 were warmly welcomed in the United States as a sign that young urban Chinese were demanding democracy as well as prosperity. The inability of the Chinese Communist party to suppress the demonstrations by condemning them in the press, by declaring martial law, or even by massive displays of military power made it appear that the pressures for political change had become irresistible. From this perspective, the Chinese army's brutal and indiscriminate use of deadly force before dawn on June 4th was a grievous disappointment. Peking's subsequent refusal to apologize for the loss of innocent life, its insistence that the demonstrations constituted a "counter-revolutionary rebellion," and its arrest and, in some cases, execution of some of those involved in the demonstrations only heightened the American sense of outrage and dismay.

Since then, Americans have viewed China as a country in full retreat from reform. With reformers like Zhao Ziyang purged from the leadership, and with hard-liners like Li Peng in command, China seems to be the victim of political repression and economic recentralization. The collapse of communism elsewhere, first in Eastern Europe and then in the Soviet Union itself, has made developments in China appear even more retrogressive. From the vanguard of reform, China has seemingly moved to the rear, along with other unrepentant nations like Cuba and North Korea.

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