'China Can Say No,' and mostly it will


BEIJING -- Don't expect America's relations with China to get warm and panda-like anytime soon.

Visit China and it fast becomes apparent that the Clinton administration is in for a bumpy time dealing with Chinese leaders. That will be true even if the White House pursues its current policy of "constructive engagement" of Beijing in hopes of warmer ties.

The reason: No matter what the administration does, China's leaders seem determined to put the worst possible spin on American behavior.

The list of sins attributed to Washington by Chinese foreign-policy officials and experts makes one wonder why war hasn't already broken out between the two nations.

Of course it hasn't, and it won't. But Americans need to understand the current wave of ill-feeling to be able to deal with China's rising power.

To begin with, the fragile state of China's domestic politics makes its leaders suspicious of outside intentions. The whole country is in transition, waiting for paramount leader Deng Xiaoping to die so his successor can solidify his position. America looks like the grinch who wants the Chinese communists to self-destruct, just like their Soviet cousins.

"China sees the United States as a threat because the U.S. wants to change China, its government and its leaders," says a Chinese think-tank expert with a U.S. graduate degree.

How does the government square that with America's openness to Chinese goods, or to Chinese students? The expert's reply: America needs cheap Chinese products, and wants to "infect" exchange students with American ideas.

Perhaps Chinese officials believe this. But it's also convenient to have America as an enemy. With young people caught up in the partial switch to capitalism and consumption, a measured dose of nationalism can help the Communist Party whip up support.

"It's not possible to contradict the "China Can Say No" line now," another think-tank specialist told me, referring to the best-selling book that argues that China should take a tougher line toward America and Japan.

One of its authors, 32-year-old journalist Song Qiang -- who drives a Daewoo car and carries a cell phone -- says that "if China copies American-style democracy this would lead to great disorder, even worse than Russia," along with "security problems in Tibet and Taiwan."

The "China Can Say No" thesis "is convenient to rally the middle classes around the government," one of the experts notes. An element emphasized by the authors: The belief that America scotched China's winning of the 2000 Olympics, an issue said to resonate with sports-conscious youth.

But the same Chinese youth who reads "China Can Say No" may be watching MTV, buying pirated Michael Jackson tapes, and applying to a U.S. university.

"Our feelings toward the United States are very complex," one student at Beijing University told me. "I saw in a newspaper survey that the country people admire the most is America, but the country that they hate the most is also America. America in some cases can mean fulfilling a dream."

This appreciation for complexity may not penetrate to China's leadership. Observers here wonder how well those at the top understand the American political system.

The number of students getting doctorates in U.S. studies is shrinking; the field is viewed as dangerous by Chinese leaders.

Beijing boasts few experts on the workings of Congress (so crucial in the making of U.S. foreign policy), and such experts have to be careful about contradicting the current official line: That U.S. policy aims to contain China.

But U.S.-China tensions can also be traced to fewer obvious common interests than in Cold War days. Back then, both countries opposed the Soviet Union. Today, China is a rising regional power, with Beijing and Washington each wary of the other's strength.

One expert at China's prestigious Institute of Contemporary International Relations offers his litany of why U.S.-Chinese relations have deteriorated:

America's focus on human rights, while ignoring the massive improvement in China's standard of living ("You only care for the few people in prison").

America's troops in the region ("You want to strengthen your economic interests and political influence; when the U.S. feels this region is too peaceful, it creates conflict").

America's stirring up of trouble in North Korea ("The nuclear threat isn't really so big"); in Japan, by supposedly encouraging Tokyo to play a greater military role in the region; in Taiwan, by spurring thoughts of independence.

One could refute these charges till the cows come home. The replies wouldn't get much credence.

But the expert does concede that China and America have "some" common interests in regional stability.

Those words "common interests" may be the only ones that can penetrate the fog of U.S.-Chinese misunderstanding. They must be repeated over and over as Washington tries to navigate the rough seas of relations with Beijing.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 12/30/96

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