Back to business

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 10 1997

Back to business

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 10 1997

Back to business

Deals dominate a U. S. visit by China's leader




The best place from which to gauge the impact of Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s visit to Washington last week

was not the White House, where Jiang and President Bill Clinton went mano a mano over the contentious issue of human rights. And it was not outside in Lafayette Park, where Tibetans, Chinese dissidents and others gathered to chant and pray and denounce Jiang’s policies. It was, rather, a few blocks away in a marbled room at the U.S. commerce department, where Chinese officials and executives of the Boeing Co. grinned and applauded themselves, Chinese-style, before signing a deal worth $4.1 billion. There were balloons and banners and miniature flags bearing the colors of the United States, China and Boeing as the Chinese agreed to buy 50 aircraft from the Seattle-based giant. Boeing helpfully estimated that the agreement means work for 33,000 Americans, and if there was any further doubt about the message behind the elaborate event, it was laid to rest by a slogan on the wall: “U.S. exports = U.S. jobs.”

No wonder, then, that the protesters who dogged Jiang’s steps throughout his weeklong trek across the United States had so little impact. Relations between Beijing and Washington may blow hot and cold, but U.S. business has long had its collective eye set firmly on the fabled market of 1.2 billion people. Last week’s summit—the first state visit by a Chinese leader to Washington in a dozen years—produced no political breakthroughs. Its main ac^ complishments were economic: the °

Boeing deal and an agreement that s clears the way for U.S. energy compag nies to sell as much as $83 billion * worth of nuclear reactors to China. The guest list at the White House dinner honoring Jiang told the tale: it was replete with the chairmen, presidents and CEOs of such major corporations as Disney, Xerox, Motorola, Time Warner, Bell Atlantic and General Electric. And, of course, Boeing, whose chairman, Philip Condit, understandably said that he had a “wonderful feeling” about the evening.

Feelings were decidedly less than wonderful outside, where Richard Gere—actor, Buddhist and leading U.S. spokesman for the cause of Tibet—rallied critics of Jiang. Tibetans resisting Chinese cultural domination, Taiwanese wary of Beijing’s designs on their island and supporters of dissidents imprisoned in the laogai, China’s equivalent of the old Soviet gulag, joined to condemn Clinton’s decision to give Jiang the full trappings of a state visit. “This is not a cuddly new China we’re talking about here,” declared Gere, whose latest movie taps into the deep-seated American suspicion of China’s unloveable Communist regime. Red Corner, which

opened last week, stars Gere as an American businessman framed for murder in China. Hollywood, deprived of an obvious geopolitical villain since the Soviet Union collapsed, has seized on China. Brad Pitt watches as Chinese troops storm into the Himalayas in Seven Years in Tibet, while Martin Scorsese sympathetically portrays the Dalai Lama in Kundun, due for release at Christmas.

Atrio of movies may not mean much, but Chinabashing has increased markedly in the past year even as Washington and Beijing edged cautiously closer to each other—culminating in Jiang’s visit Labor fears that U.S. business will move more and more jobs to low-wage China. Conservative

Christians, appalled by the forced abortions they say result from Beijing’s one-child policy and by its persecution of religious activists, have lent their support. “They have people of faith sitting in slave labor camps making Christmas ornaments for sale in the United States,” said Gary Bauer, a leading conservative activist, as he mingled with Buddhist monks and human rights campaigners outside the White House. “It’s immoral.” Other voices portray China as an outright threat. In a controversial book entitled The Coming Conflict With China, journalists Richard Bernstein and Ross Munro—a Canadian who once covered Beijing for The Globe and Mail—paint a frightening, if speculative, picture of a restless nation determined to dominate Asia. China and the United States, they write with a logic that has been taken up on both the left and the right, “have become global rivals, countries whose relations are tense [and] whose interests are in conflict.”

That was the delicate state of play as Jiang embarked on his Amer-

ican journey. China’s leaders, more than most, are keenly aware of symbolism and Jiang engaged in his share. In Honolulu, he displayed vigorous health for a 71-year-old by donning a blue paisley bathing suit and plunging into the Pacific for more than an hour. In Williamsburg, Va., a restored colonial town replete with reminders of America’s fight for freedom, he met an actor dressed as Thomas Jefferson and donned a three-cornered hat. No one could miss the parallel with Deng Xiaoping’s 1979 American tour, when he posed in a cowboy hat at a rodeo. Throughout, in appearances that ranged from the New York Stock Exchange to Harvard University, Jiang peppered his public utterances with phrases in workmanlike English. “I like it!” he exclaimed when asked how he was enjoying the beach at Waikiki.

The smiling image, however, signalled anything but a more conciliatory attitude in Beijing. The Chinese made no concessions to the Americans on the key issues of human rights and trade. Beijing did not ease the situation of imprisoned dissidents Wei Jingsheng and Wang Dang as a goodwill gesture, which Washington had pressed for. Neither did it take any significant steps towards lowering trade barriers, which would have allowed the United States to speed China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. And most significantly, Jiang gave no ground when he and Clinton faced off over human rights in an extraordinary exchange during a joint news conference.

It began when Jiang was asked whether he had any regrets about the 1989 massacre at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, when Chinese troops crushed the infant democracy movement. Jiang was uncompromising: Beijing had to take “necessary measures” in order “to ensure that our country enjoys stability and that our reform and opening up proceeds smoothly.” China, he continued with a reas-

suring grin, abides by the generally accepted rules of human rights. Clinton, his arms folded, his eyes fixed sombrely on the floor, butted in before another question could be asked. “I just have to say one other thing,” he began, before pointedly telling Jiang that his government is “on the wrong side of history” when it comes to human rights. A polite exchange by most standards— but a virtual slugfest by the exquisitely formal rules of summitry. Jiang’s cool defiance was on display again the next day, when he countered critics of Beijing’s policy towards Tibet by contending that China had actually liberated a million “serfs and slaves” there from feudal oppression—a move he compared to the freeing of the slaves in the United States.

Although Jiang later conceded that Beijing may have made “some mistakes” in its handling of the democracy movement, his performance made clear that China’s leadership feels no need to bend to pressure. In that, Beijing’s best allies are the American business leaders who flocked to Washington last week to schmooze with their Chinese counterparts. Boeing, the biggest direct beneficiary of Jiang’s visit, has led a massive corporate offensive to make sure that nothing gets in the way of making trade the No. 1 priority between the two countries. It has enlisted scores of Fortune 500 companies in organizations such as the U.S.-China Business Council, which lobby in Washington to make sure that human rights concerns do not interfere with the pursuit of commerce, and that Washington grants China most favored nation trading status each year.

In many cases, says an Asia expert on Capitol Hill, China in effect instructs potential business partners to join the campaign. “They’re told to do it or they won’t get favorable terms in China,” she said. “China is very up-front about what it wants.” Companies can be punished, as well, if their governments displease Beijing. Boeing lost business to its archrival, Airbus Industrie of France, when Paris took a more conciliatory line towards China—such as dropping its support for a recent UN resolution condemning Beijing’s human rights record. In The Coming Conflict With China, Bernstein and Munro say the result has been “one of the broadest business efforts to influence national policy in all of American history.”

All that helped Jiang go home a winner. He got what he wanted: recognition in Washington as a major world figure, and a chance to put Tiananmen behind him. The United States gained a major aircraft deal and a pledge by China to stop its nuclear co-operation with Iran (a condition for allowing U.S. companies such as Westinghouse and General Electric to bid on lucrative reactor contracts in China, whose demand for energy is skyrocketing). The Americans also gained new evidence, if any was needed, that China expects to be treated as a major world player—but strictly on its own terms. □