Harry Wu went back to China in June and probably eliminated any chance that a Cold War between China and the United States can be avoided. Beijing and Washington have been mishandling their relations for months, but June 1995 may well be remembered as the point of no return.
Mr. Wu, who spent 19 years as a political prisoner in Chinese labor camps before emigrating to the United States and becoming a U.S. citizen, is a prominent human rights activist. He has documented China's exploitation of prison labor and he recently charged the government with removing organs from executed prisoners and making them available for transplants to wealthy or powerful Chinese recipients.
On several occasions, Mr. Wu slipped in and out of China, collecting evidence of abuses. Last month he was caught, and he has now been charged with espionage and faces a possible death sentence.
Driven by memory of the horrors he experienced as a prisoner and his awareness that thousands of others still suffer inhuman treatment, Mr. Wu has dedicated his life to exposing China's practices. His efforts have brought together American human rights activists and aging anti-Communists. His arrest has aroused anger toward Beijing across the American political spectrum. If he is not released, relations between the two nations may well slide out of control.
Chinese-American relations are worse than at any time since Richard M. Nixon flew to Beijing in 1972 to begin the process of normalization. Ever since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, Americans have lost hope that China would renounce communism and move toward democracy. Even China's move toward a market economy has failed to bring political and intellectual freedom.
But issues of freedom and human rights are not the only issues that trouble relations between China and the United States.
The U.S. government is troubled by China's arms sales to Pakistan and the Middle East and its assistance to Iran's nuclear program. The Chinese also have denied violating agreements on intermediate-range missiles sales -- but U.S. intelligence officials are skeptical.
Meanwhile, the Chinese military is modernizing, in part through purchases of advanced Soviet equipment. China persists in testing nuclear weapons. The Chinese already have fought the Vietnamese and bullied the Philippines and other claimants to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. There seems little doubt that they intend to become the dominant power in East Asia, with the potential to threaten American interests and American friends there.
Like the Japanese, the Chinese are eager to penetrate U.S. markets while doing all they can to minimize the import of U.S. goods. Chinese pirating of U.S. videos, compact discs, and computer software has been highly damaging to U.S. industry.
Most of all, the current crisis between China and the United States has been fueled by Chinese fears that Taiwan, which it considers a rebellious province, will declare its independence with American support. Taiwan, since the late 1940s, has been the refuge of the forces defeated by the Communists in the Chinese civil war of that era.
A fundamental principle of the relationship between Beijing and Washington, set forth by the Nixon administration in the Shanghai Communique of 1972, has been American acceptance the idea that there is but one China -- and that Taiwan is a province of China. The Clinton administration has no intention of deviating from the "one China, no independent Taiwan" line of the last 23 years. But with regard to China, as with so much else, the administration has lost control of policy. Congress, recognizing that Taiwan has both functioned for a long time as an independent country and has made extraordinary progress toward an open and democratic society, insisted that Lee Teng-hui, its president, be issued a visa for a private visit to the United States.
Only a few days before, the administration had assured Beijing that there would be no policy reversal: Washington would continue to live by the fiction that Taiwan was not independent and that its leaders, therefore, would not visit the United States. Faced with enormous congressional pressure, fueled by Taiwan's multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign, the president folded and the visa was issued.
The Chinese response was hysterical and paranoid. Angered by what they considered a betrayal and a violation of the 23-year-old agreement, they recalled their ambassador from Washington. They have refused thus far to accept James Sasser, the man President Clinton intended to name as U.S. ambassador to China. Neither country is represented by an ambassador in the capital of the other. High-level discussions of the sort necessary to ease tensions and devise compromises are virtually impossible. The Chinese are convinced that the Cold War has already begun.
The crisis is largely the result of the Chinese image of themselves as victims, first of a century of Western and Japanese imperialism and, more recently, of superpower harassment. They have responded truculently and without adequate sensitivity to American interests and values. Time and again in meetings with senior Chinese officials, I have heard a litany of complaints against U.S. actions dating back to the mid-19th century. I have never heard a Chinese official acknowledge a single mistake China might have made.
Assessing blame is not very useful, however. China is on the verge of becoming a great power. If it is not integrated into a world order in which American ideals and interests are respected, we face a repeat of the power struggles of the 20th century. China and the United States need not be friends, but they cannot afford to be enemies.
The case of Harry Wu is a simple way of focusing American attention on a crisis the administration and the public have been all too willing to ignore. Relations with China are terribly important. They require high-level attention. The president needs policy and it is urgent that he take charge quickly -- before it's too late to save Harry Wu or to avoid conflict with China.
Warren I. Cohen, professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, is the author of "America's Response to China."