Magazine article Insight on the News

High Moral Ground Blocks View of China

Magazine article Insight on the News

High Moral Ground Blocks View of China

Article excerpt

The Chinese, in their surly way, have resisted the West's civilizing influence since the opium wars. They had what we,d call today a trade surplus through their exports of tea, silk and porcelain. Britain insisted on selling them opium in exchange. The Chinese had this idiosyncratic idea that opium was dangerous for their health.

Then an American named Frederick Ward and British Gen. Charles "Chinese" Gordon organized something called the Ever Victorious Army and saved the Manchu dynasty from itself by defeating the Taiping Rebellion.

And of course an international Western force led by Charlton Heston put down China's Boxer Rebellion (55 Days at Peking) and other such insolent uprisings against the moral leadership of what Theodore Roosevelt called the "Anglo-Saxon race."

Viewed historically, you see, we shouldn't have been too surprised when Premier Li Peng indignantly shouted at visiting Secretary of State Warren Christopher--in the words of the classic 16th-century Chinese novel The Golden Lotus -- "You rotten peach! You,re like bean sprouts which haven,t been tied with the proper string! Who are you to come lecturing me!" For in The Golden Lotus, status and the maintenance of order are all. For the Chinese, America's high moral tone on human rights is preposterous in view of "Anglo-Saxon" behavior in their country and according to Chinese core beliefs about how to manage their affairs.

Last week, the Council on Foreign Relations held a rare public hearing on U.S.-China relations jointly chaired by former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance. All day long eminent and lucid witnesses set forth their views, above all on whether the United States should deny China its "most favored nation" status in trade relations. As it now stands, unless President Clinton affirms in June that Beijing is making progress on human rights, China loses its trade status.

The council will issue a consensus report in April, but I'll jump the gun. Although the master panel contained one desperate Asia Watch person relentlessly arguing for pressing China "down to the wire", hoping for an "eleventh hour" Chinese conversion before the June 3 deadline, witness after witness stressed a central point. Barging into a huge country--presently the world's fastest-growing economy with a long and illustrious history--and threatening to spank them if they don,t get good grades on their report cards simply is not going to work. This isn't a trade negotiation over textile quotas; it's a lecture on how to run their country. …

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