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Fascism is presentable again--but without the torchlight rallies.
Thankfully, the clash between Washington and Beijing over the downing of a US reconnaissance plane off Hainan Island never spiraled out of control like the Chinese jet that buzzed the EP-3E. On Whidbey Island, Washington, where the US crew is based, people broke out the yellow ribbons, but Administration spokespeople carefully avoided the term "hostage." Although George W. Bush jumped out of the blocks with harsh words that sounded like leftover campaign rhetoric, he commendably cooled it, silenced his hawks and gave diplomacy a chance.
The successful resolution of the spy plane impasse underscores an important principle: Diplomacy must be paramount in the contentious US relationship with China, whether it is a question of releasing detainees, easing tensions in the Taiwan Strait or confronting the Chinese on workers' rights.
What does not augur well for future diplomacy is the rising chorus of demands to punish the Chinese. A series of flash points in US-China relations loom--arms sales to Taiwan, most-favored-nation status, Beijing's bid for the Olympic Games, missile defense systems. The Pentagoners in search of a reliable threat and the conservatives who cast China as the new communist Antichrist are agitating to sanction, contain and undermine the regime (see Michael T. Klare, "'Congagement' With China?" April 30).
A reckless Chinese pilot may well have been at fault in the spy plane collision, but that's not the main point. The incident illustrates the larger danger of increasing military confrontations impelled by both sides. Conservative commentator Edward Luttwak writes in the Los Angeles Times that in the Clinton Administration's waning days, Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of US forces in the Pacific, accelerated electronic intelligence flights on his own initiative. And when the US plane was downed, Blair proposed that the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk sail toward the Chinese coast; this was fortunately rejected as too provocative. Such actions point up the danger of military-driven policy replacing civilian control. China is not a military power and won't be for another decade, so why play into the hands of Chinese army hawks with more US intelligence flights or advanced arms sales to Taiwan?
China and the United States must work to reduce military confrontations. They should move away from bilateral slanging matches and toward greater use of multilateral regional forums. Unilaterally, the United States should ground the intelligence planes. We do need intelligence about China--but not the kind gathered by spy planes. We need a better understanding of the strains and struggles within the Chinese government. We need to understand public opinion, such as that expressed on the Internet (where anti-American feelings are vented these days), which can influence the leadership. We need more exchanges--not just military to military but people to people, institute to institute--to weave a wider web of understanding and respect between the two nations. (China's arrest of three Chinese-American scholars is a setback to such exchanges. The arrests, like right-wing demagogy about Chinese espionage in this country, only fuel distrust.)
Similarly, the next shopping cart of arms for Taiwan should not include Aegis-equipped destroyers or other advanced weapons that might encourage a precipitate move toward independence by Taiwan. The democratic government deserves continued US support in the international arena, but Washington should stick to the ambiguous one China, two China formula that has allowed both countries to gradually build deeper economic and political ties.
How the Bush Administration handles Taiwan and other issues in the weeks and months ahead will determine whether the Hainan Island incident will be remembered as a model for resolving US-China disputes or as the pretext that triggered an East Asian cold war and a nuclear arms race.
The current President George Bush, whose very name evokes a dark era many would prefer to forget, seems determined to resurrect the ghosts of America's scandal-ridden past. A number of his foreign policy appointments are former Iran/contra operatives who are being rehabilitated and rewarded with powerful foreign policy posts.
John Negroponte's nomination to be US ambassador to the United Nations is a case in point. Bush has named him to represent the United States at an institution built on principles that include nonintervention, international law and human rights. Qualifications for the job: Negroponte was a central player in a bloody paramilitary war that flagrantly violated those principles and was repeatedly denounced by the institution in which he would now serve. As ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte was the acknowledged "boss" of the early covert contra operations; he also acted as a proconsul, working closely with the Honduran military commander, whose forces aided the covert war while his embassy consistently denied or misrepresented politically inconvenient evidence of atrocities and abuse.
The nomination of Otto Reich to be Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere is even more offensive to international and domestic principles. A longtime anti-Castro Cuban-American, Reich is backed by Senator Jesse Helms and the hard-line exile groups that want political payback for giving Bush his real or imagined margin of victory in Florida.
Like Negroponte, Reich was a key player in the illicit contra war. In 1983 a CIA propaganda specialist named Walter Raymond handpicked Reich to head the new and innocuous-sounding Office of Public Diplomacy. Housed in the State Department, Reich's office actually answered directly to Raymond and to Oliver North in the White House. A General Accounting Office review showed that Reich's office repeatedly provided sole source contracts to other members of North's network, including those involved in illegal fundraising for arms. More important, a Comptroller General's review concluded that Reich's office had "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public."
Among those activities, as revealed in declassified records, were "white propaganda" operations--having contractors plant articles in the press or influence print and TV coverage while hiding their government connection--and using US military psychological warfare personnel to engage in, as Reich put it, "persuasive communications" intended to influence public opinion.
Reich himself engaged in a crude form of "persuasive communications," personally berating media executives and harassing reporters if news coverage was not favorable to the Reagan Administration's position. When NPR's All Things Considered ran the first major investigative report on contra human rights atrocities, Reich demanded a meeting with its editors, producers and reporters, at which he informed them that his office was "monitoring" all their programs and that he considered NPR to be biased against the contras and US policy. A Washington Post stringer remembers that after a contentious briefing from Reich in Managua in which the stringer and a reporter from Newsweek questioned the truthfulness of the Administration's assertions, an article appeared in a right-wing newsletter put out by Accuracy in Media calling him a "johnny sandinista" and falsely asserting that the Nicaraguan government was providing the two reporters with prostitutes. Reich's office, the then-US Ambassador to Managua told the Post reporter, was responsible for the rumors.
Reich's role as a revolving-door lobbyist is also likely to be a factor in his nomination hearings. As a partner in the Brock Group, a lobbying firm that according to Justice Department records represented the anti-Castro liquor giant Bacardi, Reich advised Jesse Helms's office on the drafting of the Helms-Burton legislation, which tightens the embargo against Cuba. Since passage of the law in 1996, Reich's own lobbying firm, RMA International, has received $600,000 in payments from Bacardi. Another Reich organization, the US-Cuba Business Council, has received more than $520,000 in US Agency for International Development money for anti-Castro work supporting the goals of the Helms-Burton law. If he's confirmed, Reich would become the key policy-maker interpreting and implementing legislation on Cuba, which he was handsomely paid to promote--a clear conflict of interest.
Reich's only diplomatic credential is his 1986 posting as Ambassador to Venezuela, to which officials in Caracas repeatedly objected. While there, Reich became responsible for the case of notorious terrorist Orlando Bosch, jailed in Caracas on charges of masterminding the bombing of an Air Cubana flight that killed seventy-three people in 1976. In September 1987 Bosch wrote a letter in which he thanked the ambassador as "compatriot Otto Reich" for support--a letter that, after it became public, Reich described in a cable to Washington as "a case of Cuban-Soviet disinformation." When a Venezuelan court ruled that Bosch should be released in late 1987, Reich sent a short "Clearance Response" cable to the State Department's visa office--apparently a request for Bosch to enter the United States. Bosch subsequently entered the United States illegally and was detained on parole violation charges related to terrorism and threatened with deportation because, according to the Justice Department, he had "repeatedly expressed and demonstrated a willingness to cause indiscriminate injury and death." Reich's nomination hearings will provide the first public forum for him to explain the purpose of his "clearance" cable and what role, if any, he played in the first Bush Administration's clearly political decision to drop charges against Bosch and allow him to stay in Florida.
Negroponte has already survived confirmation hearings for two ambassadorships since the Iran/contra scandal and is unlikely to face significant opposition, but Democrats say they are drawing the line at Reich. Senators John Kerry and Christopher Dodd are leading the opposition to Reich on the grounds of his "questionable history." According to Senate aides, opponents plan to put a "hold" on the nomination--a tactic perfected by Helms against Clinton appointments--which will provide time for an investigation, access to classified records and organization of support from farm belt Republicans who understand that Reich's hard-line policy on the trade embargo against Cuba will hurt agricultural interests in their states. The political effort to line up votes against Reich and to seek full disclosure of documents on his public diplomacy operations, ambassadorship and corporate lobbying will begin in earnest after the Senate returns from Easter recess.
In a campaign reminiscent of the successful effort twenty years ago to block Reagan's anti-human rights appointee Ernest Lefever to be Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, the Center for International Policy, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Washington Office on Latin America, among others, are mobilizing to stop the nomination and are confident they can win. "With so much muck connected to his name and his past," suggests CIP director William Goodfellow, "Reich is an inviting target to show that the Democrats are not dead."
Indeed, failure to block Reich could open the door to ever more noxious foreign policy appointees. Senator Helms's top aide, Roger Noriega, is Bush's lead candidate to be ambassador to the Organization of American States. And at least one conservative religious group is touting pardoned Iran/contra criminal Elliott Abrams as a nominee for a human rights post--ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
Bill Clinton and George Will so rarely agree with each other that when they embrace the same position, we should be alarmed. This thought came to mind upon realizing that their stances on the Internet and China are interchangeable--despite Clinton's favoring a softer political line than Will on Beijing. When it comes to the web, both espouse what might best be dubbed a neo-McLuhanite approach, or a form of "McLuhanism with Capitalist Characteristics." The medium (the net) is the message (freedom), both insist, but ideally the market and the modem have to work their respective magics simultaneously. There is something appealing about this vision, but it is deeply flawed. And viewing the future through this particular rose-colored lens can lead observers to misunderstand crises in Chinese-American affairs (and in cross-cultural communications), such as those generated by the recent spy-plane fiasco and the 1999 destruction by NATO bombs of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.
What exactly is the neo-McLuhanite camp, and why place Clinton and Will inside it? Consider, first, a speech the then-President gave in March 2000 calling for permanent normal trade relations with China. Clinton invoked Earl Warren's claim that "liberty is the most contagious force in the world," then insisted that the "cell phone and cable modem" would help freedom flourish in the new century. "We know how much the Internet has changed America," Clinton said, "and we are already an open society. Imagine how much it could change China." The Chinese government had "been trying to crack down on the Internet," he acknowledged, but this was like trying "to nail Jell-O to the wall."
Flash forward to a column Will wrote during the latest crisis, while the man the Chinese call Xiao Bushi (Little Bush) was proving (as a headline in the Guardian put it) that sorry really is the hardest word. Despite being troubled by Beijing's demand for an apology, the pundit saw hope on the horizon. Henry Kissinger had reported in glowing terms about the "proliferation of 'Internet cafes'" in China, and Will considered these "small businesses" to be "huge portents" of changes to come, since without a "monopoly of information," authoritarian governments collapse.
"Totalitarianism is rendered impossible, and perhaps even tyranny is rendered difficult," Will wrote, "by technologies that make nations porous to information." He then reminded his readers that "China already was becoming porous in 1989," when students there learned about massacres via e-mails sent to them from "American campuses where they had studied and made friends," and it has grown even more porous since. The official media might still try to "nationalize the public's consciousness," he concluded, but the web would undermine this.
Typically, neo-McLuhanite commentaries of this sort take three things for granted: first, that access to the Internet will not just make Chinese citizens more like us but also like us more. Second, that virtual globalization is tantamount to virtual Americanization, so the Internet can do for information what the Big Mac has done for cuisine. And last, that nationalism, at least in virulent forms, is a remnant ideology clung to only by older, less-plugged-in people out of step with the cosmopolitan dot-com generation.
So, what's wrong with this picture? Plenty--at least where Chinese-American conflicts are concerned. This struck me in 1999 (when I happened to be in China and witnessed anti-American protest spurred by the US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade) and again this year.
The first mistaken neo-McLuhanite assumption is that when Chinese go onto the web to connect with foreign cultures, they naturally turn to American URLs. Sometimes they do, often they don't. In 1999, when I visited an Internet cafe in Beijing before the anti-American protests began, most of the youths I saw were hooked up to Japanese-style video games. After the demonstrations began, more patrons logged on to news sites, but as likely as not this would be www.serbia.com. Cultural globalization is never about one-way flows, though Americans often forget this, conveniently ignoring the fact that the world's cities are now cluttered not just with KFC franchises but also karaoke bars. American destinations provide some attractive options to netizens in search of adventure, but they are never the only places these globetrotters go.
A second problematic assumption is that visiting American websites will make Chinese doubt their government's propaganda. In the most emotional stages of recent crises, many US magazines, newspapers and on-line zines have showcased China-bashing Op-Eds and editorial cartoons that might well serve to confirm, not undermine, Beijing's rhetoric of victimization. They contain postings supporting the notion that for all our talk of the universality of human rights, we are not above being more outraged by the endangerment of US lives than by the loss of Chinese ones, and supporting the idea that Americans are far too prone to demonize and infantilize China. I actually hope, at certain moments, that my Chinese friends will stay away from the web. What good will it do them to see resurrections of Yellow Peril-type images of bloodthirsty dragons? Or to read the headline at least one paper used for George Will's recent column: "America Shouldn't Appease Its Adolescent Foe"?
Yet another problem with the neo-McLuhanite approach is that there is in fact never a clear line separating nationalists from netizens. There are plenty of plugged-in populists with jingoistic impulses in China (as anyone who has visited its chatrooms can attest). And the same goes for the United States (just visit www.RushLimbaugh.com). Nor does generation make the difference. Some of the nastiest anti-American cyberpostings on Chinese bulletin boards in 1999 came from educated youths. And Wang Wei, the young pilot downed in the brush with the US spy plane, has been described recently in the Chinese media as having traits we associate both with the global netizen (a regular surfer of the web and user of e-mail) and the fervent nationalist (ready to die for his homeland).
Last but not least, neo-McLuhanite rhapsodists often overlook the extent to which old and new media forms overlap and affect each other. Old forms of communication never die, they just get digital makeovers, and new media can easily be integrated into traditional political games. Witness the key role of an exchange of snail-mail letters between Wang Wei's wife and Xiao Bushi in the most recent Chinese-American crisis, the importance of which was magnified by both Chinese TV and CNN coverage. Or consider the use in the 1999 Chinese protests of a new form of wall poster: printouts from websites.
The neo-McLuhanites are certainly right about two things: China is changing dramatically, in part because of new forms of international communication and commerce, and the transformations will continue. But these changes have not and will not take simple and predictable forms. Markets and modems, in the era of the New World Disorder, push and pull people and countries in different directions, and the choices individuals and groups make when faced with novel challenges matter.
It seems fitting to end with an ironic question. Wasn't it Marxist analysts who used to be criticized--albeit sometimes unfairly--for insisting that History flows in a predetermined direction? I, for one, doubt that the new forms of virtual determinism will prove any better at predicting the future in this century than the materialist one spelled out by the author of Das Kapital did in the last one.
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