Early last month, US president Bill Clinton completed a historic nine-day visit to China which included a number of carefully-orchestrated media bravura and photo-op performances similar to those that have typified his style on the American domestic political scene. Yet despite the thick facade of standard encomiums on human rights, all the Clintonesque oratorical pronouncements larded with saccharine sentiments about freedom and democracy, and all the ethical and altruistic import spun onto the China visit by the white house’s public relations operatives and spin doctors, the sordid and hypocritical symbolism of the trip could neither be eclipsed nor obscured.
As he set out on the first American presidential trip to China since the People’s Army tanks mowed down the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square nine years ago, Clinton, who had vowed during his 1992 election campaign to punish and ostracize Beijing unless it made progress on human rights, consummated his conversion to the policy of ‘constructive engagement’ of China. The big news about Clinton’s initiation into the Nixonian policy of ‘constructive engagement’ and the attacks leveled at it mainly by conservative Republicans is the ironic, and hypocritical, notion that emerges when it is placed against the backdrop of history. The president’s Democratic party spent the 1980s and early 1990s attacking the then-Republican administrations’ policy of ‘constructive engagement’ in China and South Africa.
The policy is predicated on the flawed notion of trickle-down liberty: the twisted idea propounded and popularized by Robert Dahl in his 1971 book, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven: Yale University Press) that the more prosperous a society becomes, the more likely democracy is to ‘bloom’, to use chairman Mao’s jargon, there. Contrary to the predictions of this theory, however, recent historical experiences, namely in the Persian Gulf and Southeast Asia, indicate that economic prosperity could well make governments more detached from their peoples and better capable of affording more ruthless, and in turn efficient, means of repression. Indeed, prosperity has the capacity to make the spectre of an Orwellian-like State ever more possible.
Clinton’s conversion to the Nixonian policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with China should not come as a surprise, his I’ll-do-it-different electioneering promises notwithstanding. In the era of Pax Americana, the first rule of the Game of Nations states that ‘might is right’ and that lofty ideals like freedom, justice and human rights are values to which the mighty need only pay lip-service. Like it or not, in the post-cold war reconfiguration of the international system China is a rising global power to be reckoned with.
At one moment during his visit, Clinton expressed Washington’s growing recognition of the fact that the US may not be able to continue to exercise its global ‘leadership’ unilaterally for too long. With the end of the cold war, he told China’s CCTV station, ‘America has this role which is temporary - it won’t last forever - as the only superpower in the world.’ Clinton’s admission, albeit couched in ambiguous diplomatese, translates into a recognition that other powers, foremost among whom is China due to its sustained growth, are destined to play a more pronounced role in the management of the international political system.
China’s emerging role as a leading economic power was brought into sharp focus during the visit. Many in the Clinton delegation were reportedly keen on encouraging Chinese officials to play a larger role in dealing with the financial turbulence in Asia. Washington, which has just started to feel some of the painful effects of the Asian flu, is worried about the catastrophic consequences that might ensue if the Chinese decide to devalue their currency, the yuan, thus opening up the Pandora’s box of another round of currency instability in Asia and its devastating impact on the world economy. As the Clinton administration and congressional Democrats stand poised for next November’s elections, warding off or delaying effects of the Asian flu on the American economy is paramount on their agenda. The Democratic party’s electoral hopes rest to a great extent on continuation of what Clinton has described as ‘the best economy in a generation.’
There is, moreover, a largely untapped market there of 1.2 billion people, that is over one-fifth of the world’s population, where gain-seeking American businessmen are looking forward to expand their sales. Little wonder then that corporate America has hailed Clinton’s efforts to bolster US commercial relations with the Middle Kingdom’s mighty economy.
Having successfully absorbed Hong Kong along with its US$80 billion in reserves, China stands as the world’s second largest economy. For the past decade or so, its economy has been growing at a torrid rate that peaked in 1996 at close to 10 percent. The annual US trade deficit with China runs at about $50 billion and is expected to hit $60 billion this year. China provides about 70 percent of the cheap low-end consumer goods, like shoes, toys, apparel and textiles, traded in the American market. These cheap products play an important role in keeping US inflation down.
Yet if anything, and despite all the media fanfare that accompanied it, Clinton’s China visit was short on substance. Deals, whether economic or political, announced during the visit and trumpeted as successes by both governments brought little that was new. A case in point was provided by Beijing’s assent to stop targeting American cities with its intercontinental, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles. The vacuity of this agreement is evidenced by the fact that Chinese missiles pose no risk of accidental firing as Beijing’s standard procedure is to deploy missiles in silos unfuelled. Likewise, business deals signed during the visit mainly concerned agreements that had already been made earlier. One such instance was that of a US$800-million deal for Boeing planes that China agreed to buy during Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s visit to Washington at the end of 1996.
However, for Clinton, the timing of the China visit could not have been more convenient. While Clinton was busy ‘taming’ the Chinese dragon, a new dramatic twist to the sex and obstruction-of-justice scandal dogging him was unfolding in Washington as Linda Tripp, the Pentagon employee who secretly taped more than 20 hours of conversations with Monica Lewinsky, was giving testimony detailing the president’s relationship with the former white house intern. White house spokesman Mike McCurry revealed to reporters, seemingly unintentionally, that the visit served to deflect
attention from Clinton’s Byzantine labyrinth of scandalous bimbo eruptions and murky dealings, saying ‘the president has been concentrating on one trip and that’s China, not Linda.’
Beyond that, the Chinese stood to score significant public relations points from the trip as well. It provided them with an opportunity to change many of the negative images prevalent in the media with more positive ones. By providing Clinton with the opportunity to stage a number of made-for-TV encounters with the Chinese people, they sought to create a more humane and dynamic image of China. Needless to say, that such an image befits corporate America’s search for cheap labour and growing markets in the Middle Kingdom.
Muslimedia: August 1-15, 1998