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Jewish World Review April 19, 2001 / 26 Nissan, 5761

Mort Zuckerman

Mort Zuckerman
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Chinese boomerang -- CHINA is not quite a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, as Winston Churchill described Russia in October 1939, when asked to forecast what action it might take in the gathering storm of World War II. The walls of the Kremlin were always more opaque than the Great Wall of China. Everything in Russia–information, travel, and trade–was ossified. China has been open to hundreds of thousands of foreigners. Today, over 50,000 Chinese students are in the United States. The two countries have ties in science, crime fighting, and trade, with nearly $100 billion in bilateral deals, a total that has been growing by $10 billion a year.

Still, China can hardly be described as scrutable. Its performance in the spy plane affair is mystifying as well as maddening. Why should the Chinese have so recklessly given ammunition to their vociferous opponents in this country? The Bush administration did what it had to do to end the intolerable detention of American service members. The "regrets" became "sincere regrets," the "sorry" became "very sorry." But these verbal concessions, which the Chinese have been trumpeting as a form of apology, are a trifle compared with the damage China has done to itself by overreacting. The Chinese weakened the support of the many, including myself, who have long felt that America should have a constructive engagement with their country. Not a "strategic partnership"–that was always a dangerous fallacy–but a relationship of increasing goodwill, based on the hope that China would become more liberal as trade grew, its middle class expanded, and the rule of law took hold.

Common interests. China is run by an aging regime seeking to preserve power while modernizing the country. There has been progress, as those of us who have been going there over the past 25 years can attest. Decision making has been decentralized, and people have greater access to information and more freedom to travel. China's projected entry into the World Trade Organization this year promised to accelerate those trends.

America and China have so many common interests beyond trade. We both want to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; we share a desire for a unified, nuclear-free Korean peninsula; we both want stability in the South Pacific. But the spy plane affair reminds us that China is a one-party authoritarian state, dependent on its military, resistant to political change, intolerant of intellectual dialogue, and prone to exploit emotional nationalism to rally the citizenry and legitimize the regime. The spy plane dispute shows that a genuine bilateral relationship depends, to an unhealthy degree, on the support of the Chinese military and internal security services.

A Chinese leader cannot afford to be seen as weak by the military in any confrontation with the United States. China's defense minister, Chi Haotian, not only reasserted Beijing's unacceptable demands that the United States apologize for a collision in international airspace but he also painted the United States as an enemy in asserting that the Chinese Army wants to "convert our indignation with hegemonism into a huge motivating force . . . to build a stronger country and a stronger military." The Chinese media also delight in depicting America as the enemy, putting the Chinese leadership in a corner in which every event is a test of patriotism.

We can see that unlike Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin does not have the authority to make decisions without the support of the military, particularly since he needs the generals to retain his position as chairman of the Central Military Commission. It is the most important position in the government, the one title that Deng Xiaoping retained when he was paramount leader. Every Chinese leader understands that the Army is the ultimate power. Nobody wanted to take on the air chiefs about risky flying by Chinese fighter pilots. Nobody wants to tell the military that its belligerence has merely encouraged the United States to provide Taiwan with superior arms.

We have to maintain our relationship with China. As the China scholar David Shambaugh has pointed out, "Engagement with China is a fact of life, not a policy preference that can be turned up, down, on, or off at the whim of an administration." But we are going to have to watch what goes on very carefully. If the regime doesn't moderate its authoritarianism and rein in the military, any hope that the two countries can reach a productive accommodation will be seriously diminished.

JWR contributor Mort Zuckerman is editor-in-chief and publisher of U.S. News and World Report. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman