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The China Syndrome | The Nation

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The China Syndrome

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Like it or not, America has been able to achieve and maintain its supremacy as a global power because of its capacity to absorb the best from the rest of the world. This dependency on foreign imports is especially clear in the realm of science and technology. Roughly one-third of US Nobel laureates were born outside the United States and became naturalized citizens. The father of the American nuclear program was a foreigner. But most foreign-born scientists toil away unrecognized in our nation's research labs, universities and private firms, forming the backbone of American high technology. In computer software development, now widely considered the most important area of American advantage, foreign nationals are commonly recognized as being among the best programmers. Almost a third of all scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley are of Chinese or Indian decent.

About the Author

Dusanka Miscevic
Dusanka Miscevic is a writer and historian of China. She is collaborating with Peter Kwong on a book about Chinese-...
Peter Kwong
Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian American studies at Hunter College, is co-author of Chinese America: The Untold Story...

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In the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11, China has undergone a dramatic makeover: from the most outspoken adversary of the United States to a highly appreciated ally. The bitter spy-plane episode is all but forgotten. Relations between the two countries continue to warm, and George W. Bush is scheduled to arrive in China for his first official visit on February 21--the thirtieth anniversary of Nixon's breakthrough visit. Though short (it ends February 22), Bush's visit promises to be long on symbolism and good will. President Jiang Zemin could not have asked for anything more.

At home, however, he is enmeshed in a bitter power struggle leading up to next fall's passing of the baton from the current leadership to the next generation of China's Communist leaders, as mandated by the party's new service-limitation rule. Jiang Zemin is desperate to place his supporters in crucial posts, to insure his continued dominance as an insider, even when out of office. His maneuvering has led to open opposition. The radicals abhor his dictatorial style and lavish personal spending. There are rumors that the bugging of his $120 million Boeing 767, discovered in October, may have been carried out by his opponents in the military. Even the supporters of Zhu Rongji, his liberal ally, are accusing Jiang of arrogance and incompetence. The conservatives accuse him of being qin mei (a "US kisser").

It's true that his government seems suddenly eager to please. In preparation for the summit, it has released several imprisoned scholars with American ties. Foreign Minister Qian Qichen has welcomed members of Taiwan's governing Democratic Progressive Party to China and called for renewed dialogue, in a significant softening of policy undertaken with one eye toward Taiwan, the other toward Washington. Similarly calculated was the pledge of $150 million for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. And Chinese officials have made an effort to clear the United States of involvement in the bugging of Jiang's 767. No wonder a New York Times Op-Ed called Jiang "Our Man in Beijing."

On the other side, official Chinese media now fondly refer to W. as "Little Bush," in deference to his father. Little Bush has granted China permanent most-favored-nation trade status, calling it "a final step in normalizing US-China trade relations." Also, after years of resistance, US officials recently threw their support behind China's bid to host the Olympics in 2008.

So what's wrong with this picture? Hidden behind the new amiable facade are long-term problems--China's rapid economic growth and increasing political influence in Asia have placed it on a collision course with the United States, inspiring nationalistic posturing and encouraging military spending in both countries. Witness the US missile defense plan, aimed at limiting China's threat to Taiwan, and China's accelerated arms development program and massive purchase of Russian weapons in recent years. On the economic front, Chinese imports are creating a huge trade deficit for the United States--its largest with any trading partner, including Japan.

Meanwhile, things are far from well in China [see Jiang Xueqin, "Letter From China," page 23]. Its current leadership can hardly keep the lid on the boiling caldron of contradictions between the growing primitive capitalism and the rule of the Communist Party. An estimated 170 million people in China are currently unemployed or semi-employed, and millions more are expected to be added to the rolls as a result of China's joining the World Trade Organization, which will have a devastating impact on its agriculture. The corruption of the business and political elite has made the polarization between rich and poor more extreme than at any time since the establishment of the People's Republic. The malcontents are turning violent. Between November 25 and December 15, 2001, China was rocked by twenty-eight deliberate explosions and several assassinations of party officials, which prompted top national leaders to convene three consecutive meetings in Beijing. Targets of China's internal "terrorist" attacks include factories, housing facilities, train depots and police stations across the country.

Given these circumstances, it seems wise for Bush to steer clear of commitment to the troubled lame-duck Chinese leadership. He will be tempted to enjoy the photo-ops and allow Chinese leaders to get away with suppressing minority rights in China's border regions by invoking the goals of the new alliance against terrorism--especially in the Muslim province of Xinjiang. But if China is to become a stable and reliable long-term ally in the region, Americans will have to quit their cowboy swaggering, which has recently triggered strong anti-American sentiment among the Chinese, and use the lull in mutual antagonism to see to it that US corporate interests do not ignore labor and human rights abuses. Otherwise, there will be much more unrest to come.

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The Communist Party is failing to heed demands for political reform.

It’s taking place amid deep intraparty divisions and growing public anger over corruption.

America cannot afford to lose the loyalty of these high-tech coolies it has come to depend on, yet that's exactly where it seems to be heading with recent cases of immigrant-bashing and racial and ethnic profiling by opportunistic politicians seeking short-term political gains. In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the animosity aimed at the enemies of the United States has also been extended to immigrants and American citizens who originally came from the same part of the world. Hundreds of Arab-Americans and Asians from the Indian subcontinent have been detained as suspects, without charges filed against them, under "special administrative measures" in the name of national security. The majority of Americans, the interpreters of polls tell us, approve. It was in the name of the same national security that a Chinese-American physicist, Wen Ho Lee, was accused some three years earlier of stealing the "crown jewels" of the US nuclear program and giving them to mainland China; similarly enacted special measures threw him in chains and into solitary confinement, although the government had no evidence against him. His public lynching, which was caused by and fed into America's national angst concerning enemy number one of that time--China--is the subject of the two books under review. As a perfect example of a national security investigation botched by racial and ethnic profiling, which led to a shameful failure of all the institutions involved, it could not have been exposed at a better time.

China emerged as America's prime antagonist after the end of the cold war. During the cold war, it was always easy to tell who was America's enemy and who was a friend. Then, with the normalization of Chinese-US diplomatic relations in the late 1970s, those lines began to blur. For a time at least, the People's Republic of China (PRC) was no longer a foe. Individuals and institutions from all walks of life were happily embracing the idea of scientific and cultural exchange, and even nuclear scientists went back and forth. It was understood that the common enemy was the USSR. This cozy relationship ended with the fall of the Soviet Union, when US policy-makers, without clearly defined targets, began to show signs of what Henry Kissinger calls "nostalgia for confrontation" and cast about for a manichean opponent. With its rapidly expanding economy in the 1990s, which brought it into some conflict with American interests in Asia, China became the most logical choice.

The targeting of Chinese-Americans and the questioning of their loyalties did not begin in earnest until after the 1996 general election, when Republicans accused members of the Chinese-American community of passing campaign donations from government officials of the PRC to Bill Clinton's re-election campaign. It was said to be a clandestine plan by China to influence US policy; the charge was not substantiated, but Asian-American contributors to the Democratic Party were investigated by the FBI for possible involvement in traitorous activities, and suspicions of disloyalty among Chinese-Americans lingered.

The investigation of Wen Ho Lee, who was then a research scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratories in New Mexico, started soon after the campaign scandal. It was initiated by an intelligence report that in 1992 China had tested a bomb very much like the Los Alamos-designed W-88, considered one of the smallest and most highly optimized nuclear weapons in the world. Carried on Trident II submarine-launched missiles, the W-88 can hit multiple targets with great accuracy. When a Chinese defector to Taiwan brought documents with diagrams and text descriptions of a long list of US strategic weapons, including the W-88, US counterintelligence circles cried espionage and began an investigation.

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