President Bush heads to China this Saturday with free trade, currency and intellectual rights on the top of his agenda. Of course, issues like Taiwan, terrorism, drug-trafficking and North Korea will be mentioned sometime during the talks. But in essence, this is a business trip. If business concerns dominate the U.S. foreign policy towards China, then it explains why China has been controlling the pace of the discussions. After all, China has become the world market. When U.S. representatives go into China with the mentality of investors instead of policymakers, it is not surprising that the “market” plays a better hand at the negotiation table.
Despite the U.S.’s business approach to China, the Chinese yuan hardly budged; the U.S. trade deficit surged to a record monthly-high of $66.1 billion overall and $20.1 billion with China in September 2005; and the next Harry Potter movie series will be sold on DVDs in the streets of Shanghai before it reaches the New Haven theatres.
These results are not surprising, because underneath these economic issues are fundamental political realities that need to be addressed. Free trade talks are meaningless without dealing with one of the many “unfree” conditions: the hundreds of thousands of Chinese detainees packaging products for export everyday in the notorious Chinese reeducation-through-labor camps. This massive system of slave labor obviously undercuts competition and perpetuates itself in this lucrative business. Furthermore, many camp detainees are political or religious dissidents sent there without the benefit of a trial or due process. The problem is clearly political.
A related issue is the under-priced yuan, which is only one of the many aspects of government manipulation of the economy. More troublesome are the corrupt state-run banks, poorly managed state enterprises, kickbacks from foreign investors to local Chinese officials, lack of transparency and other conflicts of interest between the Chinese government and businesses. The problem is again systemic and political.
Intellectual property piracy is rampant in China because no effective rule of law is in place to hold all violators accountable. Ultimately, the business deals and complaints go through the one-party government, which is the law-maker, prosecutor, judge and sometimes the offender. Violators, whose backers include local officials, fear the government more than the weak courts, which are controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. We’re back to the problem of the political system itself.
Given these political realities, the United States must rethink the way it deals with the Chinese Communist Party, which is the source of these problems. As long as China is run by a one-party, totalitarian regime whose only motive is to keep itself in power, abuse of power and unfair trade practices are bound to occur. The Bush administration has invested much political and economic capital to resolve the North Korean nuclear threat and rebuild Iraq on the grounds that these two countries are vital to global and regional security. It must not forget China.
Simply trying to talk the Chinese government into stopping its enormous military build-up, dismantling its forced-labor camps or respecting human rights will not work. The Chinese government understands the difference between really pushing the issue — like what the United States did to advance the Helsinki human rights accords with the Soviet Union — and symbolic gestures. Tracking U.S. policies, the Chinese leaders correctly conclude that no money is backing up the talk on democracy or human rights. Hence, there has been very little change in China on these two fronts. Buttering up the Chinese communist leaders with sweet trade deals does not work either. The Chinese government is quite happy now to reap lopsided trade benefits, dismiss Bush’s symbolic photo-ops with the Dalai Lama and shore up its power by keeping the lid down on social dissent. The U.S. can try, unsuccessfully, to buy commitment on nonproliferation from North Korea with economic incentives, and it can try, equally unsuccessfully, to change Cuban policies with trade sanctions. In China, if the United States wants any type of genuine change, it must push hard to keep open channels of free information like the Internet, Radio Free Asia and uncensored satellite news from the U.S.-based New Tang Dynasty TV. These channels provide the vital platform, safeguard and measurement of change. For instance, “Quit the Communist Party,” a national movement triggered in 2004 by the online publication of the popular “Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party,” spread rapidly by the Internet and word of mouth. As demonstrated by the 5.5 million participants of the growing movement, information is power, and power can change.
If the United States learned anything from the unproductive U.S.-Sino talks on currency and human rights, it should be that the bottom line for the Chinese Communist leadership is not money but monopoly over political power. And this monopoly requires stringent information control. Therefore, the United States must play the freedom of information card aggressively if it wants to advance other items on the agenda and expect real change.
Hao Wang is a junior in Morse College.