The Clinton administration's China grovel has gone from merely embarrassing to potentially dangerous. The past two months of our relationship with China are a chronicle of appeasement that has, predictably, made things demonstrably worse.
The story begins with the accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. A single expression of regret should have been enough. Instead, we have high American officials falling over themselves in repeated attempts to apologize -- and being rebuffed. The president himself tries several times to call Chinese President Jiang Zemin, until, a week after the bombing, Jiang magnanimously consents to pick up the receiver. By the time he is through, Clinton has offered five public apologies.
In the end, the Chinese deign to partially accept a most abject statement of American remorse (taking the apology, rejecting the explanation). And to fully accept our proffered $4.5 million in compensation.
Then Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui tells a German radio interviewer that Taiwan and China have "special state-to-state relations." China goes ballistic over this supposed renunciation of the "one-China" fiction, and grows bellicose.
The Clinton response? Repeated berating of Taiwan, demands for a retraction, and, when Lee begins backtracking, a public dressing down from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: "I think that the explanations offered thus far don't quite do it."
It would be one thing if this obsequious attempt to placate China worked. But look at how China responds:
It organizes massive anti-American demonstrations over the embassy bombing, leading to the stoning of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. (The U.S. ambassador responds in perfect Clintonesque tone: "Clearly this is going to make the road a little rockier to stabilizing the relationship between China and the United States.")
It seizes a Taiwanese ship near the island of Matsu (last heard from in the Kennedy-Nixon debates), accusing its crew of "smuggling."
It flies more than a hundred menacing military sorties over the Taiwan Strait.
It denies the United States landing rights for military planes in Hong Kong.
It launches an intercontinental ballistic missile, with range designed to reach the United States. (Coincidental timing, says our clueless State Department.)
It sentences two human rights activists to long prison terms (a total of seven sentenced since the embassy bombing).
It launches a massive crackdown on the Falun Gong sect, a peaceful semimystical movement in China that the regime has decided to eradicate.
Most ominous is the manner in which the crackdown is carried out. The sect is being persecuted in classic high-Maoist fashion: State TV launches an incessant, vitriolic propaganda campaign. Sect members are arrested and sent en masse to "re-education" schools. Sect leaders are forced into giving public confessions.
For years we've been hearing how globalization must inevitably lead to the loosening up of a society such as China's. This is a companion to the notion that economic freedom leads to political freedom. Perhaps, in some cases.
But there is nothing inevitable in history. We had several mid-20th century cases of vicious fascist dictatorships running nonsocialist, relatively free economies. Which is what we have in China today: a ruthless party dictatorship, communist in name only, savagely bent on maintaining its own power against all opposition.
And what of the economy? The conventional wisdom is that allowing capitalist activities is politically liberating. But why can it not have the effect of a political opiate? The pursuit of private economic gain easily deflects one's energies from politics. A person on the make may have less interest in political action that could jeopardize his financial future than a person without a financial future.
The Clinton administration seems totally wedded to the notion that as long as it keeps feeding the Chinese economy and propping up our much-touted "strategic partnership," it will soften China's internal repression. That is no more true than that American appeasement is softening China's external aggressiveness.
The traditional argument against appeasement is that it is humiliating and unmanly. That argument seems to carry little weight in the Clinton administration. But how can these smart people be oblivious to its futility?
The Chinese know how pliant Clinton is and how far he will go to keep trade relations humming. That has emboldened them to openly challenge both the American "hegemon" and its Taiwanese client. Unless Clinton draws a clear line across the Taiwan Strait, the challenge will only grow more dangerous.