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Jewish World Review May 12, 1999 /26 Iyar, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez
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First-hand encounter with Chinese paranoia

(JWR) ---- (
NATO BOMBS KILLED THREE persons and injured 20 more at the Chinese embassy in Belgrade last week, but the casualties from this appalling blunder continue to mount. The Chinese government has already announced suspension of high-level military ties with the United States, and postponement of arms control and nuclear proliferation talks in response to the bombing, in addition to canceling its dialogue on human-rights issues.

But the repercussions could hit hard within the Chinese government itself, too, as those in Beijing who have urged closer ties to the Clinton administration get their comeuppance.

The U.S.-Chinese relationship during the Clinton years has been marked by a series of miscalculations of monumental proportions on both sides. Both American and Chinese officials have been misreading signals from each other for years, based on the mistaken assumption of both parties that everyone was operating under the same rules.

The Chinese government funneled more than a million dollars into the Clinton re-election campaign thinking they were buying peace on human-rights issues and more access to U.S. military technology and markets. The Chinese didn't anticipate what they no doubt saw as a double-cross when the Clinton administration last month endorsed a U.N. Human Rights Committee rebuke of China's human rights record and the president failed to push for China's acceptance into the World Trade Organization. And they may well feel that the bombing of their embassy in Belgrade was payback for the discovery of their extensive spying at the U.S. nuclear labs in Los Alamos, N. M., and elsewhere.

The Clinton administration has been just as off-base in its assumptions about the Chinese, with perhaps more dangerous implications. Take the administration's explanation of the May 7 bombing: Concerned about growing criticism of its air-war strategy, administration officials were quick to deflect blame from the pilots and military planners to the CIA.

Pilots targeted the wrong building, administrations officials said, because the CIA had provided them with erroneous analysis based on fuzzy aerial reconnaissance photographs, without information from sources actually on the ground.

By blaming the CIA, the administration has actually intensified the most paranoid distrust of the Chinese government. No one in Beijing will believe the CIA targeted the Chinese embassy by accident. At best, the Chinese may believe the 'mistake' was really a rogue operation by hardliners in the agency. At worst, they'll think Clinton himself ordered the action. And the administration's own officials may have exacerbated that suspicion by letting it be known throughout the Kosovo campaign that the president personally reviews and approves all sensitive targets -- much as President Lyndon Johnson did during the Vietnam War, with similar disastrous consequences.

I've witnessed the paranoia of Chinese government officials firsthand when I served as the U.S. expert to the U.N. Sub-commission on Human Rights from 1992 to 1996. Although I was appointed by President Bush to serve in my private capacity -- not as an official of the U.S. government -- and continued to serve for three years after President Clinton took office because the rules of the sub-commission forbade removal of any appointees on political grounds, the Chinese always believed that I was operating under direct instructions from first the Bush and then the Clinton administrations.

Whenever I criticized China's human rights record, as I did at every opportunity, the Chinese ambassador would complain to his American counterpart. At one point, an official in the Chinese mission bitterly protested directly to me that he had been given assurances at the "highest levels of the U.S. government" that the kind of issues I was raising would not be raised in an open forum.

When I explained that I was not a member of my government, just a private person with expertise on human- and civil-rights issues, he could barely conceal his contempt. "You worked in the White House," he said, as if that settled the issue. No amount of explanation that I had left government almost 10 years earlier and was now in private life assuaged his scepticism.

If the Chinese government can't understand the concept of 'former government official,' how much less likely are they to believe the CIA could make an innocent mistake in targeting their embassy in Belgrade? By pointing the finger at the CIA, the Clinton administration has undermined its own efforts to calm jittery Chinese nerves.

The Chinese won't soon forget -- or forgive -- this latest betrayal by a president they thought they owned.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate