GETTING an ancient culture to change is no easier than getting a rigid one-party communist regime to do so, and China is both.
Communism is not dead yet, President Bush's State of the Union message notwithstanding. Serious repression and the export of high-tech weapons are still Maoist Beijing's stock in trade.
Chinese leader Li Peng intended to put Tiananmen Square behind him on his recent visit to the United Nations in New York, where President Bush met with him for 20 minutes. But the trip coincided with a number of embarrassments for Li. A State Department human-rights report described torture of Chinese prisoners, terrible prison conditions for thousands, and labor camps filled with perhaps hundreds of thousands of Chinese.
Then came reports that, contrary to the agreement Secretary of State Baker got in Beijing last fall, China was exporting missile technology to Pakistan and Syria.
What approach should Washington take? This month a compromise House-Senate bill that would remove most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status from China comes before the Senate. The bill is milder than previous versions. For China to retain its $15 billion trade surplus with the US, it must free all Tiananmen prisoners (800 are left) and cease exports of high-tech weapons.
Expectations are that this popular bipartisan bill will pass the Senate. In all likelihood the president will veto it, however. White House policy has been to promote contact between the West and China. Bush believes this contact, more than anything, will open China up at the grass roots level. That's generally true. A retributive policy might shut China's doors and hurt reformers. The Soviet breakup has made China's leaders paranoid already.
Yet a balance is needed for the US not to be exploited. Li Peng made great domestic gains from the chilly meeting with Bush. A host of issues lie unresolved: When will China sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as promised? Has there been any progress on China's legion of unfair trade practices? Any lessening of slave labor? Any curbing of M-9 missile exports?
We support contact between China and the West. But if he vetoes the House-Senate bill, the president must say that next year MFN extension will be conditional on fair trade, human rights, and a halt to missile-technology exports. Deng Xiaoping is said to have begun a liberalizing campaign at home. But words count less than deeds. Let's see some change, not statements. The next Communist Party Congress determines the kind of leaders China will get. If change doesn't come, Bush should finally get tough.