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Jewish World Review April 13, 2001 / 20 Nissan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Welcome home and stay vigilant -- AFTER a little verbal legerdemain that allowed Beijing to claim an apology and Washington to get our hostages home with honor, a crisis has been defused. But something tells us this is only the first of other confrontations ahead with the People's Republic of China, which is a bit of verbal legerdemain itself. For whatever Red China is, it's no republic and is struggling to control its restive people. That's why its regime uses international incidents to fan nationalist fervor -- in hopes of bolstering its dubious legitimacy.

Meanwhile, an American administration is not above playing verbal games itself. It preferred to call the hostages "detainees.'' The American aircrew may have been well-treated hostages, but they were still being held hostage by our "strategic partners,'' to use a description of Communist China left over from the Clinton administration. Happily, that notion has been junked. But it took Beijing a while to realize that it was dealing with a different administration. Only then did it decide to let its captives go and declare verbal victory.

Traditionally, much is lost in translation. In this case, much was found: an apology. Lost in the transaction was the earlier demand from Beijing that the United States end its surveillance of the Chinese coastline. If these flights were canceled, preparations for military action against Taiwan -- the real Republic of China -- could proceed without undue notice. The next item on this administration's Chinese agenda should be a favorable consideration of Taiwan's requests for the weapons it needs to defend itself.

Looking back, it becomes clearer that Beijing was playing good cop, bad cop with the State Department. Its diplomats seemed open to a reasonable end to this impasse, but not the People's Liberation Army -- which has little to do with the Chinese people except to oppress them, and nothing at all to do with liberation.

It was all enough to bring on a severe case of deja vu: During the Carter Years, the hostage-takers in Iran were supposed to have been divided between moderate and extremist factions, too. It scarcely mattered; both were responsible for that extended kidnapping.

Happily, the intricacies of the power struggle between civil and military authorities on the Chinese mainland never distracted the American people from what was necessary to end this developing crisis: the release of our people.

Our aircrew was being held in defiance of all international norms and, even if an apology had been offered to obtain their release, it would have been worthless. No words extracted under duress can be considered credible. But the Chinese were unable to resist holding these Americans for a verbal ransom.

So much for the idea that lowering tariffs on goods from the Chinese mainland was going to soften that regime and lead to a greater respect for human rights and generally usher in a democratic millennium there.

The opposite seems to have happened. Beijing has grown more repressive at home, more aggressive abroad. It continues to hold other hostages. A number of Chinese scholars with long ties to the United States made the mistake of trusting Beijing's good faith enough to visit their homeland and were promptly imprisoned. Where is all this good will that our trade with mainland China was supposed to induce?

This past year, exports from mainland China to the United States totaled more than $100 billion, its imports from this country less than $17 billion, giving it a record trade surplus with this country of $83 billion.

That trade imbalance is huge, and our diplomatic leverage should be, too. Beijing has much to lose by pursuing these barbarous tactics: its bid to join the World Trade Organization, its hopes of holding the Olympics in 2008, its access to American technology and its biggest customer abroad, billions in American investment ...

But instead of softening Beijing's hard line, American trade with China seems to have softened our own dedication to freedom. To quote a paragraph deep in an Associated Press dispatch from Washington the other day:

"Some lawmakers cautioned against using trade relations as a weapon, noting the potential importance of China as a trading partner.''

Trading Partner? That description doesn't sound any more realistic an appraisal of the rapacious regime on the Chinese mainland than Strategic Partner once did. And yet the lure of the China trade seems to have dazzled American businessmen more interested in exporting their capital than getting our hostages back. It's a pattern that goes back to the 19th Century and its talk of Oil for the Lamps of China! Which proved mainly talk.

Now a new China Lobby is busy celebrating a new China that, behind its free-market facade, remains the world's largest police state. A spokesman for the U.S.-China Business Council asks us to "celebrate ... the extraordinary depth of change and progress that China has achieved.''

There's a lot of that kind of buncombe going around, and all of it has a familiar ring. It brings to mind the promotional literature naive Americans like Lincoln Steffens used to turn out in celebration of Bolshevik Russia, when Communism was still young and terror still had it charms. Or the paeans to the New Order that visiting American industrialists used to pen after touring Hitler's well-organized Reich. They, too, were dedicated to making the world safe for, no, not democracy, but American investment.

Unsettling as the comments from Beijing have been since these Americans were taken hostage, what's really unsettling are some of the more gullible comments coming out of this country. It's as if some of us had learned nothing from the last, all too totalitarian century. As we welcome these hostages home, let's not forget the character of the regime that held them.

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