SO IT IS DONE. For the first time in 59 years, a people living in political and economic liberty has been transferred, with the acquiescence of the West, to the most brutal tyranny on the planet. Communist China's occupation of Hong Kong Monday, like Nazi Germany's occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938, is an infamous diplomatic betrayal. We will all regret it.
Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who signed the treaty by which Hong Kong was handed over, blustered that "future generations will be able to look back" on Monday's events "as marking a new impulse toward freedom and democracy in China and the rest of Asia." Neville Chamberlain, one recalls, was equally cheerful about the dismembering of Czechoslovakia. "Future generations" looked back on Munich as a monstrous blunder. So will they view the surrender of Hong Kong.
Washington, of course, sees nothing wrong with the abandonment of 6.4 million people to the mercies of Beijing. That is why Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was in Hong Kong to welcome the Chinese takeover. But beyond the Beltway, Americans are uneasy. According to a Wall Street Journal/Nikkei poll, 57 percent of the U.S. public expects Beijing to extinguish Hong Kong's civil liberties. More than half, 52 percent, expect Chinese rule to bring upheaval and bloodshed.
The same disconnect marks the debate over China's trade status with the United States. In opinion polls, Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of giving China the commercial advantages of a "most favored nation." Yet the House of Representatives voted once again to preserve Beijing's MFN status -- and to turn a blind eye to its grisly human-rights record. The Senate will shortly follow suit.
Profits before principles: That is the U.S. government's unwavering policy toward China. President Clinton views China strictly in terms of dollars and cents. So did his predecessor. Within weeks of the 1989 slaughter at Tiananmen Square, President Bush dispatched two of his most senior aides to assure the Beijing junta that business would continue as usual. This spring, Mr. Clinton dispatched his vice president to repeat the message.
As China's news agency, Xinhua, reported it, Al Gore promised that commercial dealings "will not be interrupted by individual events at any time." Not by China's jailing or exiling of every last pro-democracy dissident. Not by its attempt to manipulate U.S. elections. Not by its renewed threats of violence against Taiwan. Or its sale of lethal biological and chemical agents to Iran. Or its genocidal behavior in Tibet. Or its vicious treatment of Christians and Muslims. Or the virulent, routine America-bashing in its state-run newspapers.
Profits before principles. That is the position held in the White House and by leading members of Congress, in the suites of Kissinger Associates and by the National Association of Manufacturers. In April 1994, Microsoft's Bill Gates posed with Jiang Zemin -- general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party -- to denounce the idea of linking free trade with human rights. "It is basically," said the world's richest capitalist, "interference in internal affairs."
Americans are rightly disgusted by such amoral and money-hungry toadying. But disgust won't change anything. A grass-roots backlash will.
In the days when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on Robben Island, no American retailer dared offer merchandise labeled "Made in South Africa." It should be equally unthinkable to market products made in China. Hideous as apartheid was, it paled next to Chinese communism, which shackles 15 million men and women in ghastly slave labor camps -- the lao gai -- and tortures clergy for teaching the word of God. How can any self-respecting American merchant sell goods marked "Made in China"? How can any self-respecting American consumer buy them?
Refusing to touch imports from China is the first step to changing U.S. policy. It is also the best way to avoid being contaminated by China's crimes. The made-in-China doll you buy for your child, or the made-in-China bicycle gloves you pick up at the sporting goods store, may have been produced by a starved and beaten slave.
Americans who wince at the screams of innocent human beings will refuse to spend money on anything made in China.
A boycott is only one form of economic pressure. City councils and state legislatures can impose codes of conduct on corporations that do business in China -- or refuse to deal with them altogether. Investors can shun companies so greed-crazed Boeing, Motorola, TRW, General Electric, IBM, KFC, Heinz -- that they are willing to cash in on the most evil empire since Stalin's Russia. Universities and other large investors can be urged to unload their holdings in such firms.
Beijing is not a normal trading partner. It is a terror-gang that holds a billion human souls by the neck. Through every business deal it signs with the West, a little blood from Tiananmen trickles. American politicians may choose to ignore China's atrocities. As the evisceration of Hong Kong's freedom gets under way, what will the rest of us do?
Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist.
Pub Date: 7/03/97