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Fund-raising folly distorts China policy

Reading the stories about how the White House hustled campaign donations from Asians, overseas Chinese and Chinese-Americans certainly raises the question of whether the Clinton China policy was up for sale. If it was, I sure feel sorry for whoever bought it.

The truth is for the first three years, the Clinton administration's China policy bounced around like a Ping-Pong ball, driven on different days by the Taiwan lobby, the human rights lobby, silly campaign promises, a crisis in the Taiwan Straits and demands of the U.S. business community for unfettered trade with Beijing. The only consistent thing about the Clinton China policy was that it responded to the latest, greatest pressure.

But after floundering about, the administration finally began a serious, high-level engagement with China last year that was developing some bipartisan support and setting the stage for what many hoped would be a more coherent China policy.

Everyone knew it was urgent because by coincidence 1997 was going to require the biggest U.S. decisions on China since President Nixon's opening in 1972.

And that's why this Asian campaign finance scandal has potentially serious foreign-policy consequences: Just when U.S. officials need to have a cool, clear head in thinking about China policy, just when it is critical that there be a broad domestic consensus on China policy, the Clinton team has made China policy radioactive by engaging in the most tawdry fund-raising from Chinese-Americans and overseas Chinese with dubious links to governments and business interests.

Beyond shameful, this was breathtakingly stupid. Every major decision the administration now makes on China is going to be scrutinized for links, real or imagined, to campaign donations. Administration China experts will be reluctant to take chances. And the prospects for bipartisanship on China will be diminished, since the China bashers in Congress are going to have a field day using China's own ham-fisted efforts at influence-peddling to discredit anyone who tries to engage Beijing on the urgent, serious agenda that needs addressing.

And just consider for a moment how many issues are up for grabs this year: Should China be allowed to enter the World Trade Organization? How should the United States respond if Hong Kong's reversion to China on July 1 goes badly? Can the Clinton team come up with a framework for relations with China that can bridge the gap between the U.S. human rights and business communities, now that Deng Xiaoping is dead and President Jiang Zemin is charting his own course.

That last question and the search for a common U.S.-China security agenda in Asia were set to be worked out this year during the first exchange of summits by the presidents of China and the United States since 1989.

The only good thing about the way the Clintonites hustled for Asian money was that they clearly didn't discriminate: they took from pro-Taiwan, pro-China, pro-Buddhist and pro-business overseas Chinese. They were like the corrupt judge who calls the lawyers for both sides to his bench and says: "The defendants have paid me $1-million and now if the plaintiffs will just give me $1-million I can decide this case on the merits."

But the merits now become much harder to focus on. For example, can you imagine the belly laughs that Jiang Zemin will let loose this year when Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton and Al Gore all come for visits to China and try to tell the Chinese leader he needs to have more respect for "rule of law."

As for China's entering the WTO, that will be tricky because it will come down to a judgment by the United States about whether we think China is prepared to live up to international trade norms. Optimists believe China's entry into the WTO could have a big influence in promoting rule of law there; pessimists believe if China is admitted and doesn't abide by all WTO rules, it could undermine the whole WTO because of its size.

Said one senior U.S. official: "Because it's going to be a judgment call it was already going to be hotly debated. But now the whole debate could be skewed by the fear inside the administration that if we do let China into the WTO, people will say it's not because China has moved forward but because we've gone soft.

There is a danger that the bar will be set so high as to be ridiculous. I worry that even if China does the right thing, we won't be able to say yes."

New York Times News Service