London. -- In 1967, when he was a presidential candidate, Richard Nixon caused a sensation with his Foreign Affairs article, "Asia after Vietnam," anticipating a more conciliatory American policy toward China. In the first presidential debate Bill Clinton tore into George Bush, accusing him, in effect, of being soft on China and promising that, if Mr. Clinton were elected, the age of conciliation would end. No more would America would tolerate human-rights abuses and prison labor in Chinese factories.
The long American debate on China takes another about-turn on an unlighted lane.
For nearly a quarter of a century "Red China" was portrayed in America, and much of the west, as a nation bent on the domination of Asia. Its admission to the United Nations was firmly refused.
Mr. Nixon turned all this on its head. He decided to capitalize on the Sino-Soviet rift and enlist China as a strategic counterweight to Soviet power. His historic visit to Beijing launched a campaign to persuade the American electorate that China was the good communist power and the Soviet Union the bad one.
"The Chinese were courteous, industrious, family-oriented, modest to the point of being shy. They had the most wonderful and ancient cultural tradition; they were wizards at ping-pong; they loved giant pandas. In less than a year public opinion completely turned around. Every- one loved the so-recently hated and feared China." So wrote, rather perceptively, the Soviet author Vladimir Pozner.
George Bush is very much a part of the Nixon generation. As ambassador, he represented President Nixon's policy in Beijing. Ronald Reagan took the policy to its logical conclusion, dreamily speaking, during his visit in 1984, of "so-called communist China."
Every benefit of the doubt has been given to Beijing. Of course, there is a philosophy behind it, as Mr. Bush was quick to assert in the candidates' debate. China is becoming capitalist, even if politically it is still Marxist.
To entice that process along to the point that it becomes irreversible, the West must both bind China as tightly as it can economically, and give it as little cause as possible to take political offense. Open trade links combined with diplomatic reserve about China's transgressions, whether imprisoning dissenters at home or selling nuclear bombs abroad, are the best way to do this.
Thus, when protesting students were mowed down in Tiananmen Square three years ago on the express orders of China's paramount boss, Deng Xiaoping, the massacre received only a modest word of disapproval in most Western capitals. With indecent haste, Mr. Bush dispatched Brent Scowcroft, his national-security adviser, on a secret mission to reassure Beijing that the American relationship was intact.
One good thing did come out of Tiananmen Square: The Western press corps in Beijing went through its own revolution.
From the time of the red revolution on, most American journalists, with the exception of Edgar Snow, followed the official Washington line. At first they painted the Communist government of Mao Zedong as cruel, dangerous and barbaric. Then, with Mr. Nixon's opening to China, they went into reverse. After 1976, with Mao dead, Mr. Deng could do no wrong with his pro-capitalist rural reforms, his expose of the horrors of Mao's China, and his foreign policy more friendly to the West. Tiananmen Square stopped that in its tracks. Since then, a much more sober and balanced press has restored the human rights side of politics to prominence.
Mr. Clinton's remarks in the debate show American leadership at last prepared to give Beijing a more honest look. He wants to be tough, but shows no inclination to revert to the line of regarding China as a political outcast whose predatory instincts threaten civilization. Mr. Clinton's world accepts China as an important sovereign member of the United Nations, but forbids it to isolate itself from the widely accepted rules of responsible democratic behavior.
It's been a good week. Just a few days earlier, the newly-arrived governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, was indicating that the years of British pussyfooting with China were over.
While Mr. Patten honored previous British commitments to Beijing, limiting the number of seats contested in open direct elections, he advanced the cause of democratic participation by means of a sophisticated back-stairs approach that will, if he stays the course, make Hong Kong a viable functioning democracy.
The moment is right to push Beijing. China has nowhere to go. It is no longer a necessary counterweight to the Soviet Union. The aging leadership is on its last feet. Mr. Deng is not going to chance the upheavals inherent in a serious confrontation with the West if it risks blowing his precious economic reforms off course -- and the rapidly expanding trade with America is an essential component of that strategy.
Practically and morally, it is time for those who believe in human rights and democracy in China to take their stand.
B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.