1. Archive

Our business with China

Chinese President Jiang Zemin fancies himself a student of American history. He reportedly can recite the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. And he insisted that his visit to the United States feature stops at historic sites such as Pearl Harbor and Williamsburg.

Jiang has memorized many of the words of American democracy, but he still doesn't understand the music.

That much was clear from Jiang's stiff reaction to the peaceful protests that greeted him in this country, as well as his unapologetic defense of his government's intolerance for open dissent. Instead, Jiang's message to his hosts, stripped of its diplomatic euphemisms, went something like this: We have no intention of adopting anything approximating Western-style democratic values. But we'll keep building on our economic relationship with you as long as you don't get too nosy about how we run our country.

Based on the reversal in Clinton administration policy over the past five years, Jiang probably can continue to count on getting things pretty much his way from Washington. Bill Clinton originally ran for president as a critic of the Bush administration's indifference to China's abysmal record on human rights and international law. Since then, President Clinton has proved himself to be at least as malleable as President Bush was.

Jiang's U.S. visit only reinforced that impression. Despite recent evidence to the contrary, Clinton formally certified that China is not exporting nuclear technology to rogue governments such as Iran. That certification was necessary for the U.S. nuclear industry to move forward with new deals to sell billions of dollars' worth of reactors and technology to China. In general, Washington's China policy is being driven by the Fortune 500, not by any inconvenient concerns over Tibet, nuclear technology or Tiananmen Square.

To a point, the expanding U.S.-Chinese economic relationship serves our broader political and social interests as well. We cannot safely ignore or attempt to isolate a nation of China's size, and the growing presence of Microsoft, Boeing and other major Western corporations in China is rapidly opening that society in ways the Beijing leadership cannot control. "In many senses," Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin told a group of American executives in Beijing last month, "you have invested in this relationship more fully than we have in Washington."

However, a single-minded emphasis on economic interests to the exclusion of human rights concerns is not even good business in the long run. Many American executives in China tell painful stories of running afoul of corrupt provincial chiefs or party bureaucrats. And our experience in places such as Iran and South Africa should remind us of the dangers of investing too heavily, politically as well as economically, in regimes that are unrepresentative of their people.

Washington's _ and Wall Street's _ engagement with China should continue, but that engagement should not be one-sided or one-dimensional. In our relations with most other governments, our commitment to democratic values complements our economic and security interests. China should not be a huge exception to that rule. By combining good business with deft diplomacy, Washington can ensure that our expanding economic ties serve the larger purpose of helping to transform China into a more open society and a more trustworthy member of the world community.