Wagging the Paper Tiger

Commonweal, June 4, 1999 | Go to article overview

Wagging the Paper Tiger


Will the Chinese ever cease to amaze us? Let us imagine last month's anti-American demonstrations in Beijing taking place around a U.S. embassy in an Arab or African country. Or the repeated refusal of a country's leader to accept a phone call from an American president ready to offer an apology for an acknowledged wrong. Would the United States tolerate such treatment from another nation? Would it stand by without protest as thousands of students virtually imprison its ambassador and lay siege to its embassy? Who can doubt that there would be formal protests and threats to suspend diplomatic ties. Why then such indulgence of the Chinese?

The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was an almost incomprehensible mistake and a terrible tragedy. But it was a mistake, not a provocation. We should be remorseful, especially for the deaths of the three civilians in the embassy. It was right to apologize. And we should thoroughly investigate the failure of American intelligence agencies to properly locate the bombing target. But having said all of that, the question remains: Why does the United States government tolerate these diplomatic pyrotechnics from the Chinese government?

Theories abound. The first is that the Clinton administration has invested immense political capital in improved relations with the Chinese, especially economic relations. In this, American business has been four-square behind Clinton. Furthermore, if the Republicans occupied the executive office, this would more or less be their policy as well. A peaceful future depends on good relations with the Chinese, the most populous nation in the world and a major economic and political power, if not right now, certainly in the next century. No one wants the Chinese for an enemy. And so we put up with their shabby-and carefully orchestrated-behavior.

A second theory has to do with the internal politics of China and the continuing struggle between the Communist appartachiks and the reformers and modernizers. It is a struggle over who will control the Chinese future and the ability of the Chinese people to work their way out of poverty and oppression. It is in the interests of everyone, especially the Chinese themselves, that the reformers and modernizers prevail. Thus the bottom line of this theory: We must put up with shabby treatment to preserve the economic and political reforms underway.

A third theory addresses the Chinese effort to buy into the American political system with illegal campaign contributions and to increase their status as a nuclear power by stealing American military secrets. As evidence of these "factoids" has emerged, those who hold to this theory conclude that the Chinese mounted demonstrations to distract American attention. …

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