Asian Strategies Group

Commentary

Copyright Hong Kong Standard

Time Out from Bashing

by David and Peter Gries

This week the heads of state of China and the U.S. met at the White House for the first time in 12 years. Although major breakthroughs are unlikely, the meeting is important in establishing a durable framework for what will become Washington's most important foreign policy relationship in the next century. Obstructing that goal, however, are America bashers in China and China bashers in America whose methods and motives are poisoning the atmosphere necessary for improved relations.

Chinese and Americans see the world in different ways and live in different political and social systems. But bashers in both countries who magnify these differences and heighten tensions with emotional appeals are taking the easy way out, rejecting the more difficult task of resolving problems through honest debate.

America bashing first reached a broad Chinese audience in 1996 with publication of China Can Say No, which quickly became and still is a bestseller in China. The book's five young authors argue for a policy of economic nationalism, claiming that China can forego smooth trade relations with the US now, while waiting for opportunities to get even later. On military policy, the authors contend that China's army should "hit hard and hit early," daring the U.S. Congress to pick a fight over Taiwan. Beyond these dubious ideas, the book contains many contradictions, such as the claim that the U.S. is becoming not only more interventionist, but also more isolationist.

Another America bashing book, The Plot to Demonize China, is a current Chinese bestseller. Authors Li Xiguang, a Chinese journalist who interned at the Washington Post, and Liu Kang, a Chinese professor at the University of Pennsylvania, write that the American media and government conspire to denigrate China. It would be hard to demonstrate that correspondents like the Washington Post's Bob Kaiser and NBC's Bob Costas, among others cited in the book, are part of a government-run conspiracy. The book's authors should know better. They have first-hand experience in the U.S. and are aware that the American government, unlike the Chinese government, doesn't control the media.

The success of these books has encouraged other America bashers in China. Chinese bookstalls are selling record numbers of magazines hypercritical of the U.S., such as special editions of Love Our China, which contains an emotionally charged account of "the Sino-U.S contest" since 1972, and Writer's World, which depicts Americans as arrogant, boastful, and childish. Many of the articles in these magazines are marred by questionable research and a one-sided reading of history.

China bashing in the U.S., which also plays fast and loose with the facts, has gone beyond criticizing the 1989 Tiananmen incident and other human rights abuses, turning reasonable concerns into confrontation. A collection of articles sharply critical of China appeared in the February 1997 Weekly Standard. According to the magazine's editorial, "The policies of the Chinese regime are the leading threat" to the new world order, in part because China aims "in the long term to challenge America's position as the dominant power in the world." Wall Street Journal columnist Albert Hunt offers a more likely explanation for the editorial's conclusion when he writes that "conservatives have turned against China" and have made criticizing China "a top priority."

One of the reasons so much attention is now directed at China is the belief of some that recent increases in China's military budget pose a threat to the U.S. Early in 1997, Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro published The Coming Conflict with China, arguing in part that China is building up its military to support territorial expansion. The authors claim that a "conservative estimate" of China's military spending is ten times the published level, leading to "one of the most extensive and rapid military buildups in the world." The Pentagon has a different interpretation of the same developments. Professor Ronald Montaperto, who teaches at the Defense Department's National Defense University, concludes that China lags the U.S. in defense modernization by a generation and cannot close the gap by buying outmoded Russian military technology.

Like China's U.S. bashers, U.S. China bashers continue to multiply. From the Christian right, Gary Bauer writes that "Beijing's conduct has become more menacing rather than more reassuring as a result of the weak Western response to its violations of the rights of man, the rule of law, and the hand of God." And opening in theaters across the U.S. on October 31 is the film Red Corner, starring Richard Gere, which reportedly moves from criticism of the Chinese criminal justice system to a broad indictment of the Chinese government. Such harsh criticism is increasingly common partly because China policy has become a political pawn used to weaken President Clinton, just as it was earlier used to weaken President Bush.

Already the consequences of such unrestrained criticism are evident. The dialogue on Sino-US relations has a sour tone. Partisan political interests of bashers on both sides are overwhelming national interests, narrowing the options available to policy makers trying to build support for strengthened relations. As a result, the facts are becoming badly distorted. Many Americans believe Beijing's policies are uniformly repressive, while many Chinese are convinced that Washington is the bully on the block.

Washington and Beijing have a big stake in moderating the excesses of bashers on both sides. While the U.S. leads the world in economic, military, and political muscle, China has the fastest growing economy, the biggest population, and the largest standing army. China, reemerging as a great power after 150 years of weakness, and the US, the only current superpower, must learn to work together as anchors of the two sides of the Pacific, a region likely to dominate the 21st century much as the Atlantic dominated the 20th.

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