London. -- The closer you are to China the stronger the myth that China can never be pushed around, its will bent or its intentions influenced by the world outside. China is so large, its civic society thousands of unbroken years in the making and its self-confidence apparently bottomless, that to attempt to thwart is simply counter-productive.
An attack of self-doubt is now spreading through the populace of Hong Kong. Continuous Chinese rebuffs of the democracy proposals of the colony's ambitious governor, Chris Patten, have made them jittery. Further resistance to Beijing, they seem to feel, might lead, at worst, to a military Chinese takeover before 1997, or, at best to a steady attrition of economic well-being.
Hong Kong is too close to see things clearly. The rest of the world, however, cannot make the same excuse and should know better than always to take Beijing's rhetoric at face value. Only a month ago China huffed and puffed so hard at the International Olympic Committee that a number of delegates were persuaded that if China did not get the games for the year 2000 it would boycott Atlanta in 1996. After the vote we could see how idle the threat had been.
Similarly, at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in June, when non-governmental organizations invited the Dalai Lama to speak, the Chinese at first threatened conference officials with legalisms on the sacrosanct nature of U.N. territory and succeeded in intimidating the U.N. into announcing that the Tibetan leader's presence was not acceptable.
After a tremendous outcry led by Amnesty International and the conference newspaper, Terra Viva, the Austrian government, as host, intervened and announced he was welcome as long as he stayed on the ground floor with the voluntary organizations and didn't climb the stairs to where the delegates were.
At that point the Chinese foreign ministry announced that it was considering pulling out of the conference, which would have all but sabotaged it. To their credit, the Austrians did not buckle. The Dalai Lama spoke. And China did not withdraw and, indeed, quietly went along with a strong final conference text which reiterated, for a now much broader U.N. membership, the critical fundamental principles contained in the great 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
A third example. One of President Bush's less seemly electoral ploys last year was to authorize the sale of state-of-the-art warplanes to Taiwan. This not only irritated Beijing on one of its most vulnerable points, it broke a solemn commitment made by Washington on arms sales to Taiwan. Beijing was so incensed that it threatened to revise its fundamental relationship with Washington. Mr. Bush stood his ground and the deal went through.
In the course of the campaign, Bill Clinton made it clear that he was going to be tougher with China on three fronts -- human-rights abuses, slave labor in prison camps, and China's sale of high-technology armaments.
Compared with Presidents Reagan and Bush, Mr. Clinton has been tougher. But he has temporized by extending China's most-favored-nation trade status, accepting the advice that the special relationship with Beijing, initiated by President Nixon and Henry Kissinger as a counterweight to Moscow, remains important even after the Cold War.
This school of thought holds it vital to make sure that China is not deterred from "westernizing" its economy, thereby laying the grounds for political liberalization at a later date. So influenced has the Clinton administration been by this view that it is now hinting that it may backtrack on the restrictions it imposed as recently as August on the sale of high-technology goods. (These were introduced in retaliation for Beijing's sale of missile components to Pakistan.)
But retreat is not the answer. Of course China does not like to be hurt. When challenged, it becomes prickly, not to say uncooperative and difficult. Yet in the end it often enough does bend. If America is to advance the cause of non-proliferation, it cannot compromise over sanctions on rocket sales. Nor can it afford to loosen the pressure on human rights, and that means backing Mr. Patten's position in Hong Kong.
The unease now sweeping Hong Kong need not sweep the rest of the world. Washington and London must tell Beijing not only that it is Britain's legal right to introduce more democracy before 1997, but that if Beijing threatens Hong Kong it will hurt itself most. Seventy percent of China's new investment comes via Hong Kong. The colony is the motor driving south China's economic revolution. A false step in Hong Kong could cost Beijing years of economic momentum.
President Clinton and Prime Minister Major must be tough with China. They'll be surprised, perhaps, how far they can push.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.