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.