Jewish World Review April 16, 2001 / 23 Nissan, 5761
All? When we are the world's most powerful nation in every way? When China is almost totally dependent upon our market for its exports? When some 56,000 Chinese college and graduate students are studying at our universities? When we have a strong influence over the decision about who gets to host the Olympic Games? When we have the option of heavily arming the Taiwanese?
Another former Clinton advisor, Kenneth Lieberthal, told an interviewer that the U.S. should use a Chinese word for apology that could be mistranslated in English. We should use the Chinese word that implies responsibility, he urged, and tell the American people that we had merely "acknowledged" the accident.
Power is not just the possession of missiles or planes or aircraft carriers. It is also a matter of mind and spirit. Though we enjoyed every material advantage over the communist world in the 1970s, we suffered an emotional and spiritual exhaustion after Vietnam which made us weak in our own eyes. This in turn made us weak in the eyes of the Soviet Union and China. Being strong does not mean throwing ones weight around unnecessarily, but it does require the odd slap to obnoxious challengers. The Chinese, irritated at our manifest superiority (they lack the capacity to patrol near our shores, to name just one example among thousands) made a conscious decision to harass our reconnaissance aircraft. When their pilot caused a collision, they had the effrontery to take our people hostage and attempt to extort an apology.
Certainly the Bush Administration was treading a bit carefully on semantics while our people were in detention. That was a necessary bow to reality. And it was a bit tricky because we cannot give the impression that everything is possible if only our adversaries are able to nab American citizens -- that would make every American everywhere on the globe kidnapping bait.
It is also delicate because the Chinese leadership, as tender as it pretends to be about its valiant pilot, does not share our concern about individuals. In the late 1970s, American human rights activists were brought up short when they approached Deng Xioping, threatening to impose Jackson-Vanik type sanctions on the regime. "How many Chinese do you want?" Deng asked.
But fortunately the Administration did not convey the impression that we felt weak or at a disadvantage vis a vis the Chinese. President Bush expressed his personal condolences to the widow of the dead Chinese pilot in order to smooth ruffled feathers. But both he and the Chinese leadership understood that such sentiments were irrelevant to the question of guilt or innocence regarding the collision. That's why, in the end, it was the Chinese, and not we, who had to lie to their people about what the letter actually said.
Most congressional Democrats, it should be acknowledged, were quite supportive of the president and dismissed the idea of apologizing to the Chinese. But many in the press continued the pattern, so familiar from Cold War days, of reporting on communist countries as if they were functioning democracies. There was a great deal of coverage, for example, of Chinese popular opinion -- as if this makes a particle of difference to the leadership. When the Chinese government and the Chinese people disagree, the people get mowed down by tanks. With the exception of Fox News, none of the television news shows took account of that fact. Similarly, many news organizations reported on what the Chinese news channels were reporting. That's clearly an important part of the story, but it was reported without acknowledging the fact that Chinese "journalists" are actually nothing of the kind, merely mid-level Party functionaries.
Still, the essentials of this story have not been lost on Americans, who have bombarded K-Mart with demands that it boycott Chinese products, and who look most disdainfully on China's hopes to host the Olympics. China's petulance has cost it dearly. There will now be almost no debate about selling advanced arms to Taiwan, because China let the mask of commerce slip a bit and revealed the brutal regime