The Communist Party of China has regularly warned Western observers like Merle Goldman not to interfere in China’s internal affairs. China, it says, has its own culturally distinctive ideas on topics like freedom, democracy, and human rights. So how could Goldman write a book about China called Sowing the Seeds of Democracy and dedicate it to her four children “who may someday see democracy flower in China”? Isn’t this cultural imperialism? Who invited her to tell China what to do?

Goldman does not take up these questions, but she has written a history whose solidity and detail in effect answer them. She shows, year by year and event by event, from the late 1970s to about 1990, how members of a Chinese intellectual and political elite themselves were striving for a fairer and more humane government, which, partly for want of a better word, they called “democracy.”

She selects about three dozen figures for careful study. Among them are the soft-spoken Wang Ruoshui, former deputy editor of the People’s Daily and a thinker equally serious about both Marxism and humanism, who dared to make the heterodox argument that “alienation” could happen in socialist as well as capitalist societies; Bai Hua, a writer whose assertion that patriotism and love of the Communist Party need not be the same thing brought him the stigma (or, as some saw it, honor) of being the only person in the Deng Xiaoping era to have a nationwide criticism campaign aimed at him; and Fang Lizhi, the astrophysicist whose faith in scientific method led him to reject Marxism and Maoism, and whose conviction that a citizen has the duty to speak the truth publicly quickly made him a hero among students and a villain to the top leadership of the Party. Fang Lizhi avoided prison only by taking refuge in the American embassy in Beijing and then going into exile in the US.

Some of the subjects—for example the indomitable writer Liu Binyan, who was expelled from the Communist Party in 1957 for telling too much truth in his stories, rehabilitated after Mao’s death, and expelled again in 1987 for basically the same offense—appear in one of Goldman’s two earlier books.1 The three books are similar in style, chronologically consecutive, and together make a comprehensive and shrewdly analytical history of the battles that have taken place over dissenting thought in Communist China during five decades beginning with the 1940s.

This long story includes some foreign influences—from Hungarian “Petofi Clubs” to the Statue of Liberty—but, as Goldman shows, the influences were ones that Chinese thinkers eagerly sought. No force was used. Moreover Goldman’s references to China’s history of “principled literati,” who were willing to confront abusive or wrong-headed kings and emperors during the 2,500 years before the modern century, further make it clear that the kind of dissenter she describes is no Western import, even if some of his or her ideas are.

Allison Jernow’s Don’t Force Us to Lie, a pamphlet aimed at drawing Western attention to the plight of Chinese journalists, might indeed be called interventionist, but only on behalf of people who want and badly need friends. It is well known that Chinese journalists are not free to publish what they learn. The reverse problem—of being forced to publish what they know is false—is less widely appreciated, and it is illustrated in Jernow’s book. If you are an editor ordered against your will to criticize Fang Lizhi, you can choose to reprint a criticism that has been published elsewhere. This device not only distances you a bit from the distasteful act, but will also be noticed and understood by at least some of your readers. Alternatively, you can publish your required lies on your last page, or use a different size of type for them. Don’t Force Us to Lie also includes chapters on the problems of foreign journalists working in China and of Hong Kong journalists facing 1997, when Hong Kong will revert to China. These chapters make it clear that international solidarity among journalists who must deal with the Chinese government is based on more than just sympathy.

Both accounts end around 1990, when China’s public mood was significantly different from what it is today. In her introduction to Jernow’s book, the Sinologist Anne Thurston observes that “China is a nation of moods, and the swings in mood are wide and dramatic.” Indeed, Chinese people seem recently to have changed direction like a school of fish, dropping talk of politics in favor of talk about money. By chance I was in Beijing in March while the National People’s Congress (NPC) was in session, and when Secretary of State Warren Christopher publicly quarreled over human rights with his Chinese counterparts. On the streets of Beijing, no one seemed to notice his presence. During the student protests five years ago, when the NPC was also meeting and a prominent foreign guest (Mikhail Gorbachev) was in town, the entire city had seemed to reverberate with excitement over these high political events. Posters were displayed even in the smallest alleyways. But in 1994 talk was about prices, wages, bonuses, stocks, currencies, inflation, second jobs, kickbacks, bribery—in one way or another, about money.


What caused the change, and how deep is it? In China a large shift in public attention of this sort is, first, more than an ordinary fad. Not found in Chinese populations outside the People’s Republic, sudden, society-wide change is a legacy of the Mao years, when one large-scale ideological campaign after another was tightly managed from the top. Now the top is much less given to issuing commands, but it still sends the key signals, and, within limits, the public remains willing to swerve in response. The person most responsible for the latest turn is Deng Xiaoping, who, characteristically putting the interests of his political regime foremost, has selected his moves with considerable acumen.

Immediately after the Tiananmen massacre the popularity of the Deng government seemed unsalvageably low. The blood on its hands was only part of its problem; to many it had also seemed hopelessly incompetent and corrupt throughout the later 1980s, when reforms seemed to be grinding toward a standstill. But in the years since the massacre Deng has made two basic moves, and both have worked. This is not to say that his regime is now popular, but it has made remarkable progress at least toward regaining the neutral if lackluster image it had in the mid-1980s.

Deng’s first move, symbolized in his famous “southern tour” of special economic zones in February 1992, was to give a signal to the Chinese people that making money is fine. Deng had to go south to deliver this message because of high-level conservative opposition in Beijing. But he correctly perceived that the Chinese people—including many 1989 protesters, for whom “democracy” had meant basically “our fair share of wealth” (no corruption, no rise in inflation, etc.)—would respond enthusiastically. Deng’s price for the green light on money-making was continued repression of speech and other political rights. But to many Chinese, “Shut up and I’ll let you get rich” seemed as good a deal as one could expect. After all, economic freedom is better than no freedom at all, and freedoms aside, who can argue against making more money?

Deng’s second move was to stimulate Chinese nationalism and to channel it toward support of his regime. He and his generation of Communist leaders had played this card several times before. During World War II, they made decisive gains in their popular appeal by their willingness to resist the Japanese while their rivals in the Nationalist government equivocated. In the early 1960s, as China struggled to its feet after its colossal Mao-made famine, in which between 20 and 40 million people died, the regime sought to exculpate itself by, among other means, blaming the Russians. The famine, it was said, had been caused by Soviet demands that China pay debts it had incurred during the Korean War. What’s more, in 1959 Russian advisers had walked out on major projects, carrying indispensable blueprints with them. The Russians, so the line went, are revisionists anyway; now we Chinese, under the “great, glorious, and correct” Communist Party, are the sole exemplars of true socialism.

During the early 1990s, the Deng regime sought to position itself as the worldwide representative of Chineseness. The old Communist objections to traditional Chinese culture have nearly disappeared; even claims about mystical Chinese essences, for example in the martial arts or in herbal medicine, appear in government tourist brochures and as advertised parts of the training of Chinese Olympians. Shared Chineseness has also been an important component in the trust that has been important to the boom in business across the Taiwan straits. As much as it can, the Beijing government presents itself as the guardian of pan-Chinese economic interests, including China’s entry into the emerging World Trade Organization and maintenance of the low-tariff treatment on exports to the US, known as Most Favored Nation trading status.

But the clearest example of Deng’s success in identifying his regime with Chinese national pride was his bid to become host to the 2000 AD summer Olympic games in Beijing. This set up a situation in which Deng could not lose: either Beijing would get the games, and the Deng government would benefit from the pride that Chinese everywhere would feel; or it would not, and Chinese popular resentment would be directed at foreign countries and human rights groups whose “bullying” could be blamed for the failure. An American who was on the campus of Beijing University the night when the decision to award the Olympics to Australia was announced reports that some students were so angry that they wanted to march on the US Embassy in protest. Barely four years earlier, students on the same campus had headed to the US Embassy for protection from their own rulers. Mr. Deng’s savvy had brought powerful results.


But might the Olympics affair have been just a piece of good luck for Deng? Why should we say it was part of a strategy conceived in advance? We can do so because the bid was conspicuously advertised inside China many months in advance. The propaganda department of the Communist Party of China has never given things away free. If the regime had thought it would, on the whole, suffer from being rejected, news of the gamble would, as much as possible, have been sealed off from the Chinese people until, and only if, a happy result had been achieved. The purpose of the advance publicity was precisely to leave time for popular feeling to build momentum. The regime does not do such things when it doubts a positive outcome.


Astute though Deng has been, his success in rebuilding public acceptance of his government is still highly tenuous. His main problems are not with popular notions about democracy but in the household finances of ordinary Chinese. One of Maoism’s enduring legacies in the Chinese popular mind is the principle of egalitarianism: if you have more than I do, there had better be a good reason or I have the right to rebel. But as China’s wealth leaps forward at a 13 percent annual rate, the inequality of its distribution increases even faster.

In boom regions on the southern coast, local growth rates are as high as 20 percent annually; but elsewhere the number of impoverished counties, as measured by government standards, is rising and now includes about one third of all China’s counties. In the boom cities one constantly hears anecdotes about ostentatious wealth—restaurant meals, for example, that feature bear claws, carp lips, and French cognac, and cost 100,000 yuan or more per table, which is more than ten times the annual wage of most workers. Meanwhile, in China’s poorest rural areas, at least 50 million people cannot afford daily tea and even remain chronically short of drinking water. For about 80 million people, food and warmth are persistent worries.2 Some 60 to 80 million peasants have drifted into the boom cities where they work in construction, sanitation, and other less desirable jobs; because their residence is technically illegal, they have no right to education, medical care, and other government services.

But the major political problem for the regime is not the plight of the very poor, who make up less than 8 percent of the population and in any case are too uneducated and unorganized to mount much of a protest. It is with the population’s large groups in the middle—peasants, workers, teachers, government office workers, and others who for years had been accustomed to incomes that, although small, were at least reliable and egalitarian. During the reform period, inefficient state enterprises have rapidly been losing in competition with non-state companies. Today the state enterprises still employ about two thirds of China’s workers, but many are having to cut back wages by between 30 and 40 percent or even to lay workers off. The regime has plans to convert more of the state enterprises to independent corporations over the next few years, a process that will certainly add to the number of workers unhappy about losing their “iron rice bowls.”

Fiscal problems have added to the pressures on ordinary people. Following Deng’s signal in early 1992 that it was now OK to get rich, local officials in many parts of China began funneling public funds, often illicitly, into local money-making enterprises. The people who originally were to be paid with these funds—including teachers, government workers, and peasants (peasants are required to sell a fixed amount of their crops to the state)—were often paid either not in full or not on time. The central government sought to relieve the problem by increasing the money supply and shipping more funds to the provinces. (In 1993 the annual addition to China’s money supply reached 90 billion yuan, more than ten times what it was five years earlier.) But this measure has fueled inflation, which in the first few months of 1994 has increased sharply and added to the squeeze on fixed-income people. During the past year, inflation has averaged 13 percent nationwide and 23 percent in the largest thirty cities. Prices for meat in the cities have risen 33 percent, for grain staples 40 percent, and for vegetables 54 percent. To compensate, the government has raised officials’ salaries 36 percent and military salaries somewhat more than that. At the beginning of 1994 the leadership vowed that it would keep nationwide inflation during the year under 10 percent; in April the goal was revised upward to 15 percent.

The predictable result has been, and may continue to be, social unrest. American readers may be surprised to learn (although it was widely reported in the Chinese-language press around the world) that one year ago 10,000 peasants in Renshou County, Sichuan, protested new taxes and delayed grain payments by confronting officials with clubs and scythes. The protesters took hostages and set fire to the house of a deputy Party secretary. During 1993, peasant uprisings occurred in twenty of China’s twenty-nine provinces; in the same year industrial workers, according to a classified government report, staged more than 6,000 illegal strikes and joined more than 200 “riots.” In 1994, with the imposition of an urban income tax, there are reports of workers refusing to pay taxes and factory managers fearful of trying to withhold them from wages.

Often the discontent has arisen less from an absolute decline in living standards—which has happened, after all, only to a minority—than from an increasing gap between expectations and realities. With his southern tour in early 1992, Deng Xiaoping led many Chinese to suppose that virtually everyone can get rich—in the same wishful sense in which all the children in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone can be above average. When ordinary Chinese found out that only a few would get rich, and that those would be not themselves but other people, Deng seemed not only to have broken his word but to have violated the well-established principle of egalitarianism. Always in the past, when Mao or Deng announced a new campaign, everyone could partake, indeed usually had to.

A widespread sense of grievance has combined with the new mercenary spirit to permeate Chinese public life with the principle that self-interest comes first and no holds need be barred. A new catchword on the streets of Beijing is zai shou, “slaughter the familiar,” meaning swindle those close to you—your friends and relatives—because they are the ones who trust you and therefore are vulnerable to being swindled. Although statistics are hard to find, it’s clear that fraud, robbery, kidnapping, and prostitution are all increasing. Murder and drug abuse, while far below US rates, are doubling or tripling annually. Corruption, China’s favorite vice, is now so well established that the distinction between clean and corrupt business is hard to draw, as is the distinction between organized commercial crime and those charged with controlling it. Corruption does help get things done in both the private and the public economy, and in this sense has an advantage over dealing with the clogged channels of China’s state enterprises. But in the long run such advantages are far outweighed by the distortion of market mechanisms and the devastation of public morale that corruption brings. China’s literature shows that official corruption has been around for centuries; but it also shows that moral outrage over the practice is just as old.

Traditionally the primary response of the Chinese when faced with social and political decay has been to put greater stress on moral education. Families, officials, and the emperor all should think and behave properly, and if they do there will be good order; if they do not, they should receive moral criticism and better instruction. But this approach will not work without a publicly accepted moral and political ideology. “Confucianism,” broadly conceived, was that ideology until the early twentieth century. During the 1950s, Chinese socialism, despite its large differences from Confucianism in content, worked briefly as a functional replacement for it. But with the decline—and by now we must say the end—of socialism as a live ideology, an awkward gap has opened where there used to be a core of ethical principles. People feel unsure about what public ideals to invoke, or whether, if they are invoked, anyone else will honor them. Intellectuals speak of a “thought vacuum.”


During the last three years US business has been dazzled by China’s economic growth and apparent potential. Business Week, The Economist, and other publications have carried reports of a “miracle,” “an emerging giant,” “an awakening dragon.” Now we have the first book about it, The Rise of China, by William H. Overholt, who is a managing director of Bankers Trust in Hong Kong. Overholt’s strength is his global approach; he brings comparisons between China and Korea, the Soviet Union, Latin America, and many other places into his arguments. Roughly half his book is about Hong Kong, international relations, and US policy. Its weakness is that it doesn’t penetrate very deeply into Chinese society. The problem is not that Overholt misinterprets the malaise in parts of Chinese life, or the “thought vacuum” at the culture’s core, but that he seems simply unaware that these things exist.

These shortcomings may result from his not knowing the Chinese language well enough (a guess that his footnotes tend to confirm), but it certainly also arises from his exaggerated enthusiasm for the one big aspect of today’s China that he likes best, the economic boom. He ignores the closely related topic of China’s natural environment. Today air pollution in Beijing is four to six times as bad as Tokyo’s during the late 1960s, when it was at its worst. Western researchers have calculated that overall damage to China’s air, water, land, and forests already amounts—when one includes the consequent health costs—to at least 15 percent of the national product.3 A research team at the Chinese Academy of Sciences has projected that rising population and declining natural resources will, on present trends, produce severe crises in economic production around the year 2015. For Overholt to have written a 430-page book on economics without addressing the economic costs of pollution and other damage to the environment is inexcusable.

The primary reason why American businesses have been bullish about China is, evidently, that they see opportunities there. China appears to offer a vast new market and a virtually unending supply of fairly good and inexpensive labor. In 1993, foreign firms or foreign-funded joint ventures produced 27.5 percent of China’s exports (in 1985 the figure was 1.1 percent) in a country where labor unions, workman’s compensation law, and environmental standards are either absent or very weak, and where a manual worker will be pleased to be offered $100 a month. Some have argued (Overholt among them) that the secret of China’s boom lies in ingenious planning in Beijing or a special Confucian work ethic. But the main reason for the boom is more prosaic: that Chinese employees are happy to work hard for $100 a month. If Mao had not imposed a repressive system from which Chinese workers are still emerging, much of today’s pleasure in having low-paid work could not be counted on. We might wonder what the Great Helmsman would say to learn that he had become a silent partner in the successful investments and giddy optimism of foreign capitalists.

All of the factors we have mentioned here—intellectual dissidence, popular restlessness, the economic boom, China’s national pride—were part of the situation into which Secretary of State Warren Christopher stepped during his ill-fated trip to Beijing in March. Christopher’s frosty reception, combined with a roundup of dissidents just before he arrived, seemed to Americans puzzling and almost block-headed. In June 1993 President Clinton had announced that he would need to see “significant, overall progress” on human rights in China by June 1994—and that it would have to be steady improvement, not eleventh-hour gestures—if he were to renew China’s Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status with the US.4 It was already March 1994 and there hadn’t been much to show. Did the Chinese not want MFN? Last year China’s trade surplus with the US was $22.8 billion, while its overall foreign trade ran a small deficit and its foreign reserves fell to $18 billion. The loss of MFN could eradicate those reserves quickly. Why did they treat Christopher as they did?

Certainly the Chinese government wants MFN status, but there was nothing block-headed about its diplomatic strategy in March. The government made carefully considered moves within China’s strained political atmosphere. Americans in general tend to overestimate their influence in determining Chinese responses. Often, as happened this time, the most important factors are domestic ones.

In recent years, on Chinese New Year’s Day, China’s top leaders have appeared on television to express their good wishes to the public. For Chinese people, even fairly high-ranking ones, this custom provides a rare opportunity to get an actual look at the elderly men whose physical survival will have important consequences, one way or the other, for their daily lives. This year Deng Xiaoping looked markedly more frail than last year, and all of Chinese politics immediately and quietly grew more tense. Potential successors began what the Columbia University China scholar Andrew Nathan has called “pre-post-Deng maneuvering.” Such maneuvering consists of building alliances behind the scenes and of exhibiting certain attitudes in public.

When Christopher was about to arrive, there were already several pressures on the leaders to show themselves publicly as tough. One was the succession contest itself; it doesn’t help in the early stages to appear soft. Another was the simultaneous meeting in Beijing of the National People’s Congress, a rubber-stamp group during the Mao period but in recent years independent and influential enough to make top leaders worry about losing face before it. Christopher raised the stakes over maintaining face by announcing before he arrived that he would be frank and serious about America’s human rights’ concerns. No one aspiring to the position of the bold new leader could afford to be seen as putting up with that.

In particular Jiang Zemin, chairman of the Party, chairman of the State, and Deng Xiaoping’s chosen successor, an uncharismatic man whose position as front-runner is hardly secure, has to worry about his reputation for toughness with China’s military. Military culture in China, as elsewhere, includes a strong streak of machismo; it also observes a pattern, which derives from Chinese traditions of peasant rebels and bandits, of unquestioned personal loyalty to a particular military leader, or “mountain peak,” in the Chinese phrase. The military establishment of the People’s Republic has often included more than one mountain peak, and the politics among them has been obscure, involuted, and changeable. The peak now reputed to be in ascendancy is led by generals Zhang Zhen and Zhang Aiping, who are known both for having disapproved of the Tiananmen massacre and for a tough approach to the West. Jiang Zemin has no reliable military ties in his past and needs to cultivate them. During the same week he played tough with Christopher, Jiang announced a 25 percent increase in the Chinese military budget.

Probably the broadest factor underlying the regime’s toughness in March was fear that the sporadic popular protests of the last two years might increase, especially now that inflation was rising again. (The last time there had been a sharp upswing to an inflation rate near 20 percent was in 1988 and 1989, immediately before the Tiananmen protests.) Intellectual dissidents began to become more outspoken in early 1994 as well. They numbered only about two dozen, and it may seem strange that a regime that rules 1.2 billion people would worry about them. But intellectuals in the People’s Republic have traditionally begun to murmur when they sense larger discontent in society; they are a bellwether and the regime knows it. In this kind of setting, the Party always makes maintaining its own power the highest priority. Goldman’s book shows how this was repeatedly the case during the 1980s—with the quelling of the 1986 student demonstrations, with the 1987 sacking of Party Chairman Hu Yaobang (who was pushing political reform too fast), and with the Tiananmen protests in 1989. The students, Goldman argues, were headed for inevitable collision with the regime as early as three weeks before the massacre. For the Party leadership, loss of MFN would be painful, but it would be acceptable if it were the price paid for effectively repressing rising dissent.

But China’s rulers had good reason to think that they could have both MFN and repression. By late 1993 it was abundantly clear in the American press that the MFN threat was partly hollow because there were powerful US interests in favor of keeping MFN in any case. (A free press inevitably gives a negotiating advantage in such matters to the Chinese side.) US business interests have also expressed their views directly to Chinese leaders. It is reliably reported that representatives of ten major US corporations, in a meeting with Chinese economic czar Zhu Rongji in Beijing early this year, actually urged Zhu to take a tough line with Clinton on MFN. As the Clinton administration officials made their successive warnings to China on MFN sound more and more urgent, the Chinese leaders correctly perceived that the rise in urgency itself probably bespoke an unwillingness to carry out the threat. Every Clinton warning, ironically, strengthened the MFN card in their own hand. On this point their reading of Christopher’s approach was not block-headed at all, but extremely keen.

They could—and here is another tactical advantage they have over a democracy—decide to gamble on a game of “chicken” with Clinton, knowing that they could control later decisions if the gamble seemed to be going wrong. If necessary, they could make some small concessions later, such as the release of a few famous dissidents, to let Clinton save face. (This appears to have been the purpose of freeing the dissident Wang Juntao in April. In Chinese, a person who traps himself in an awkward position is said to be “on stage,” and you can help him down by providing “steps.” In sending Wang Juntao to New York for medical treatment, the Chinese leaders see themselves as offering a “step” to Clinton.) At the worst, from the Chinese leaders’ point of view, they might have to give up quite a lot in order to retain MFN status in June. But it would still have made sense to rebuff Christopher in March. One way to “move forward” without changing position is to back up first; the sophistry can be overlooked by opponents who are eager, for their own reasons, to claim that progress has occurred.


The threat to deny China MFN status has never been a very subtle device. It arose in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre, when George Bush’s strangely solicitous attitude toward the leaders responsible for the killings outraged many Americans and thereby gave the Democratic Congress an issue on which to attack a Republican president.5 The Congress, which had used trade sanctions against South Africa, Poland, and other countries, reflexively turned to trade sanctions once again. Bush regularly vetoed the sanctions, leaving moot the question of the actual effects of withdrawing MFN. But the implicit threat involved in Congress’s passing yearly resolutions and the President’s vetoing them did produce some effective pressure on Chinese leaders.

One problem with applying MFN pressure to China is that there is no organized opposition inside the country. Poland had Solidarity, South Africa Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress, but in China, although discontent is widespread and sometimes strong, it is extremely diffuse. The Maoist state drove all its potential rival organizations out of existence, leaving the Communist Party, even in its present moribund state, oddly indispensable. Hence, if trade sanctions are conceived as possibly contributing to the collapse of the state, even Chinese dissidents doubt that this could happen and worry about who in China could take over if it did. The best Chinese hopes for change appear to lie within the state, not only among known reformers in the Party and bureaucracy but among others who may be waiting for the right moment to “come out” for reform. The threat to deny MFN to China can stimulate xenophobia that works against such people.

Moreover, to the tens of millions of ordinary Chinese who benefit directly or indirectly from the export economy, the loss of MFN would come as a blow to themselves as much as to their rulers. Politically, Deng Xiaoping’s efforts to build domestic popularity by harnessing nationalism would get a boost. (During the past five years US presidents have been awkwardly out of step with the feelings of the Chinese public. After Tiananmen, with the citizens of Beijing seething in anger at their rulers, George Bush embraced the rulers. Clinton has criticized Bush and taken a tougher approach. But five years after Tiananmen, on an issue where most Chinese now see eye to eye with the regime, or at least its reformist wing, Clinton is trapped in a position where he must con-sider whether to offend practically everyone.)

On the other hand, the problem with abandoning MFN pressure is that it does work, however imperfectly, and it is not clear that anything else the US government might come up with would work as well. For Chinese dissidents, US threats to remove MFN have helped secure a few releases from prison and a few permissions to leave China or to allow family members to leave; the recipients of these benefits include eleven of Merle Goldman’s “democratic elite.” MFN pressure may, moreover, have brought at least somewhat better treatment for the approximately 1,700 political prisoners whose names are known in the West. In September 1993 a Chinese government report gave a total of 3,317 “counterrevolutionary” (i.e., political) prisoners convicted in courts, a figure that does not include many thousands of others detained or sent to one of China’s 990 labor camps through administrative means. For most of these, MFN pressure probably does little or nothing, but it does put America on record as saying that repression is repression, with no double standard for China.

The human rights group Asia Watch has proposed two improvements in the use of the threat to withdraw MFN. The first, put forward in the spring of 1993, was to use sanctions against China’s state enterprises only, allowing private and cooperative enterprises and joint ventures between foreigners and Chinese to keep MFN. This would put the political pressure more precisely where it should be, and run less risk of alienating Chinese workers. The problem with this proposal is that, without extensive inspection of where goods are made and by what routes shipped to the US, it would be practically impossible for US customs to determine their origins.

The second idea, proposed this year, was to tie small changes in tariffs to changes in human rights performance: if things got a bit better, tariffs would go down a bit; if a bit worse, a bit up. The advantage of this proposal is that it removes the all-or-nothing nature of the MFN device, which, as it is now, forces a choice between mere threat and overkill.

The Asia Watch ideas, especially the first, are under discussion in Washington, but so are many other proposals about what might be done to replace, or perhaps supplement, the use of MFN. The ideas include use of lesser trade sanctions that would affect certain commodities, increased radio broadcasts by Voice of America or Radio Free Asia, codes of conduct for American companies doing business in China, and travel advice to US tourists about which Chinese provinces have better or worse human rights’ records. Some in government have recognized that, to be effective and to avoid the appearance of one country dictating to another, pressure on China should be international. Building international consensus requires patience and skill, but there already has been a bit of tentative progress toward gaining access to Chinese prisons for the International Committee of the Red Cross. There have been other proposals to work through UN agencies on human rights or to put conditions on World Bank loans or on China’s entry into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Ruan Ming, an exiled Chinese dissident whose experiences in the highest reaches of the Communist Party’s reformist wing in the early 1980s are described in Merle Goldman’s book, has suggested that if the US Congress were to establish joint study groups on law and human rights with members of China’s National People’s Congress, American influence could do much to strengthen China’s own reformers and help push China in a more democratic direction, in the process befriending, rather than estranging, most of the Chinese people. Would members of Congress, who barely have time to notice the MFN issue each year, find the time and sustained purpose to do such a thing? In any case Ruan Ming can make his suggestion because he now lives in the US. If we could hear other voices from Chinese not “forced to lie,” we certainly would hear more ideas on how the US could usefully assist in Chinese reform. Sidney Jones, Director of Asia Watch in New York, has noted that in her work on Indonesia and China, the two Asian countries for which US foreign policy links trade and human rights, she can rather easily find kindred spirits within the nongovernment organizations (NGOs) in Indonesia, but has almost no such contact in China.6

Any efforts to find a new approach to the MFN problem are made more difficult by a sustained shrill monotone that issues from the US business lobby, whose position, in effect, is “All of MFN for all of China all the time, without conditions, ever, because it’s entirely good for everybody.” One of the business lobby’s favorite arguments—for which William Overholt’s book can now be used for support—is that the presence of US companies in China is good for the Chinese people: they get more money than they otherwise would, and the US style of doing things has a liberalizing influence on their environments. Both these points are true, but they have nothing to do with the reasons why US business is in China. The business lobby never mentions the actual reasons, but they are plain enough. If labor in Guangdong were suddenly to cost more than it does in California, how many businesses would be heading across the Pacific claiming that MFN will liberalize Chinese society?

In Washington, where “US interests” are the watchwords for policymakers, the MFN question would seem to be simplified by reducing it to what is good for the US, leaving aside the thorny issue of how Chinese are affected. But in the end this narrower perspective brings about little simplification. There are, after all, economic interests on both sides: ending MFN for China would raise prices for US consumers but reduce the trade deficit; it would likely cost jobs at Boeing (because the Chinese would retaliate by cutting back orders) but, as AFL-CIO chief Lane Kirkland pointed out in April, it would create other jobs in shoe or toy manufacturing. Economic trade-offs aside, the deeper issue is about what is meant by “interests.” Are Americans “better off,” ultimately, if they have inexpensive shoes yet know very well that the people who make them are deprived of elementary rights? How many toys add up to the equivalent of a feeling about the rightness of there being no double standard among human beings?

These obviously are not—or at least not merely—questions about the interests of foreigners, but about the quality of American life. The MFN debate is rooted deeply in differences over how that quality should be defined. Its outcome also depends to a large extent on whether US leaders adequately grasp the complexity of the government and culture with which they are dealing; and this they have so far been unable to do.

May 12, 1994

This Issue

June 9, 1994