Playing the China Card

By George P. Brockway, originally published July 4, 1994

1994-7-4 Playing the China Card titleWELL, we decided to play the China card again. A more limp, greasy, shapeless piece of cardboard could scarcely be imagined. We have been waving it around for the past 200 years, so it is no wonder that it has become too tattered for anyone to be sure what (if anything) it actually is.

From the beginning, we have had three ideas about China: one, that it is “very large,” as Noel Coward put it; two, that there must be a lot of souls there for missionaries to save; and three, that there must be a lot of people there who want what we have to sell, whether their souls are saved or not. We have been right on number one.

The first American traders landed at Canton in 1785, three years before the ratification of the Constitution. The first American tariff act, passed on July 4, 1789, gave goods imported from China and India substantial preferences, provided they were shipped in American bottoms. During the ascendance of the China clippers (1833-1869) and for the rest of the century, American trade with China was second only to that of the British, but was still very small. As a result of the British-instigated Opium War (1839-42), the Chinese opened several additional treaty ports, not only to the British but also to all other traders, thus themselves laying the basis for what would become Secretary of State John Hay’s Open Door policy. In 1867 the first American ambassador to China resigned in order to represent China, and shortly negotiated a treaty with Secretary of State William Henry Seward giving Chinese most-favored rights to visit, travel and reside in the United States.

Amid this and much other similar activity, U.S. traders and missionaries grew increasingly conscious of their great distance from home and from American bases. Consequently, when the Spanish-American War suddenly put the Philippines in our hands there was a rudimentary China Lobby ready to support the imperialists led by Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, who pushed for annexation.

1994-7-4 Playing the China Card McKinleyPresident William McKinley was puzzled about what to do. “I went down on my knees,” he explained subsequently, “and prayed to Almighty God for guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me … that we could not turn the [Philippines] over to our commercial rivals in the Orient-that would be bad business and discreditable …. There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellowmen for whom Christ also died.”

And so we got bases from which we could try to protect our trade with China, immediately fought a shameful two-year war with Emilio Aguinaldo to hold onto them, and simultaneously became embroiled in the Boxer Rebellion in China. At that time our trade with China represented 0.10 per cent of our GNP. The corresponding figure today, after three major wars (plus two decades of expensive, futile and domestically divisive support of Chiang Kai-shek), is 0.12 per cent[1].

That 12 hundredths of 1 per cent, President Bill Clinton assures us, means 150,000 jobs, and he may be right, although he also boasts of adding 250,000 jobs each month, and that’s enough to scare the Federal Reserve Board silly. On the other hand, our imports from China, now four times our exports, must mean 600,000 jobs lost. No doubt we had already shipped most of them to Pakistan, Hong Kong or Singapore. As a jolly Wall Street textile analyst told the New York Times, “If American retailers did not get cheap dresses from China, they would get them from Mexico, or, hey, Vietnam.”

John Stuart Mill spoke of the value “of placing human beings in contact with persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar.” There is, accordingly, talk of how our traders will educate the Chinese in the ways of market capitalism. Recent events in Russia and Eastern Europe have muted that talk somewhat. Recent events in the United States should shut it off entirely, for it’s hard to equate lean and mean downsizing and part-timing, the most prominent feature of contemporary American business, with human rights. And, indeed, businesspeople are nearly unanimous in rejecting even voluntary human rights guidelines for trade with China.

The China card of course has a purely political side. The game President Clinton has been playing set seven conditions for renewal of China’s most-favored nation status, with two declared mandatory. The first mandatory condition was that China must abide by its 1992 agreement not to export prison-made products to the United States. It’s not clear that the Chinese have done much abiding, but the President has done a small part of it for them by excluding Chinese guns and ammunition from the most-favored-nation privilege.

I’m not sure whether we are going to bar Chinese guns and ammunition altogether or whether we are going to charge high tariffs; but no matter, it looks like another slap in the face of the poor old National Rifle Association. Yet I can’t help wondering whether it may not be a briar patch the NRA wants to be thrown in, because the big supporters of and contributors to the NRA are American gun and ammunition manufacturers; in comparison, the good ole’ boys are (so to say) spear carriers. It’s heartwarming to see these defenders of the Constitution willing to protect their employees from having to compete with Chinese political prisoners, even though it means that the good ole’ boys who are their customers will have to pay more because Wal-Mart will be able to stock only expensive free market versions of the stuff they need to play Davy Crockett.

The second mandatory condition was that the families of certain named dissidents must be allowed to leave China, and it deserves a salute. A year of negotiation was required to accomplish this, and it is little enough, but we all should be grateful. A less serious achievement was the President’s getting China to agree to a visit by a team of American technicians to talk about its jamming of Voice of America radio broadcasts.

ABOUT THE OTHER conditions there is not much to be said, because nothing much happened, at least nothing happened the way Clinton seemed to want it to. But three things did occur that are not irrelevant to American foreign policy and go to the point of some of the arguments in favor of extending China’s most-favored-nation status.

First, China tried to ship chemicals for munitions to Iran (whether they got there or not, I can’t say). Second, China sent technology for making missiles to Pakistan in violation of an international agreement. Third, China refused to cancel an underground nuclear test.

Now, place those three incidents alongside the argument that we have to “stay close” to the Chinese in order to influence them not to be a rogue dragon. We stayed as close as we could, and this is what (or some of what) they did. The underground nuclear test and the shipment to Pakistan are particularly revelatory. The stay-close arguers are especially concerned about North Korea. They want us to be insiders able to persuade China to persuade North Korea to cut it out; but despite the continuing trade status, nothing has come of that notion.

The Pakistan business has several sides to it, not the least interesting being the way Pakistan itself behaved. You will remember that Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and President Richard M. Nixon “tilted” toward Pakistan. That was realpolitik in the grand manner, like the posture proposed by the stay-close arguers. But our efforts to persuade Pakistan to layoff of nuclear weapons have been no more successful than our appeals to China or North Korea.

There is, in fact, little evidence that staying close gives one nation any special influence over another. During the recent debate, Senator Bill Bradley gave a speech in which he called linking trade and human rights “old-think” characteristic of the Cold War and now mercifully behind us. The Senator is mistaken. Actually we avoided linking human rights to anything during the Cold War, but we linked any bloody dictator to our bosom as long as he pretended to be anti-Communist.

In the present instance, because of President Clinton’s “delinking” human rights and most-favored-nation privileges, the Chinese are excellently positioned to do what they please. We have told ourselves that we need Chinese business. If we don’t sell them airliners and electronic equipment, someone else will, and we will lose out in the competitive world market. If we don’t buy their bicycles and T-shirts and kitchen utensils, we will have to pay more for them someplace that doesn’t have such a repressive labor policy, and that will upset the great American shopper.

The Chinese have certainly heard what our business lobbyists have been saying. They have seen our government make a show of thinking about the issues and then cave in completely to the business demands. This does not surprise them. To the extent that they are still Communists, they expect our bourgeois government to be obedient to business interests.

And this should not surprise us, for we, too, believe that it’s the economy, stupid, and only the economy. The nation and citizenship and human rights are subservient to questions of trade and finance. The argument for free trade assumes as much. Subscribing to that argument, we do not speak with authority when we suggest that it’s not nice to beat people up and work them to death. The Chinese reasonably reply that there is no accounting for tastes.

As it happens, we have a shining example on the other side. For years we heard the same stay-close argument about South Africa. An unorganized movement of students and writers and athletes and human rights activists gradually brought about the isolation of South Africa from civilized discourse. We could speak with authority because we proved willing to give up profitable business to make our point. It still required the combined efforts of Nelson Mandela and FW. De Klerk, two truly great men of the 20th century, to end apartheid, but even they scarcely could have done it without the moral stance of the civilized world.

On the record, the China card is more likely a joker than an ace.

The New Leader

[1] Ed: by my shaky calculations this number is roughly 3%, or 30 times larger, as of 2013

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