Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Chinese Theater

Michelle Voll


July 6, 1998

White House officials hail President Clinton's visit to China as an "extraordinary" step forward in U.S.-China relations. Indeed, Clinton should be applauded for his policy of engagement that will benefit American businesses and help China's continued marketization.

For a long time, the White House and U.S. corporations have been campaigning to secure for China full participation in the world trading system. It looks like this visit further advances that goal.

Clinton's visit was also extraordinary in that Chinese rulers allowed our populist President to engage ordinary citizens just as he does here at home. Viewers of China's state-controlled television witnessed an unprecedented press conference in which Clinton and China's leader Jiang Zemin debated controversial issues. Clinton's interaction with students at Beijing University was also broadcast, as was his participation in a live call-in radio show.

Although the broadcasts were not announced ahead of time to the public, many viewers tuned in. The question now is what will happen when Clinton leaves? It is not likely that the government will loosen its iron grip on the media and allow Chinese to engage their own leaders this way.

Clinton's nine day trip included less than one day of substantive summit talks which produced little of consequence. His broadcast performances made largely a theatrical impression. China now needs to turn theater into democratic reality.

Unfortunately, it's still unclear what role our President thinks the U.S. should play to promote that transformation. Clinton talked much about human rights, for instance, but at one point, he assured his hosts, "We do not seek to impose our views on other countries." And since the centerpiece of Clinton's foreign policy is economic development, Chinese leaders could in fact just ignore Clinton's speeches about democratic values. It is yet to be seen whether the administration's focus on economics will lead to any significant social and political changes in China.

Since the Clinton administration has presented no integrated foreign policy approach, it is unclear what its benchmarks are by which to judge progress in China. But here are several markers.

One significant sign of progress would be if China makes good on its promise to join the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in the fall of this year. And if some of China's more than 2,000 political prisoners are released, we would know that the government is serious.

The Chinese government rounded up dissidents immediately before and during Clinton's visit. The last time an American President visited, the world witnessed the Tiananmen square crackdown a few months later. We will know that China is a different place today if such a tragedy is not repeated.

Let's face it—China is still a totalitarian Communist dictatorship with no independent judiciary or legislature and no national elections. Rapid marketization has primarily benefited the ruling elite. Clinton's foreign policy will deserve praise if economic advances begin to reach the masses of impoverished peasants and if political institutions increasingly represent them.

Critics of Clinton's policy argue that the United States should link trade issues with demands for social and political reforms. If China continues with its marketization and lowers trade barriers but does not stop human rights abuses, his critics will have every right to criticize the administration for not using America's economic leverage to try to influence China's politics more directly.

Let's hope Chinese citizens were not just spectators to a surprising theatre performance but will begin to see their society become more and more democratic.

—Michelle N. Voll, Development Director
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”