Top Stories from the Editorial/Opinion pages of the International
Wednesday, October 22, 1997
Notice How Being Firm With Beijing Helps China to Change
By Gerald Segal International Herald Tribune
HONG KONG - China's tolerant approach to retaining Hong
Kong's cosmopolitan openness is testament to the virtues of Western vigilance.
The implications for the meeting in Washington next week between
Presidents Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton are clear. China can be constructively
engaged, but only when the West takes a firm view of how to change Chinese
The recently concluded congress of the Chinese Communist Party
provided conclusive evidence of how Western strategy works and how China
pretends it does not.
The heart of Western strategy is to entice China to evolve peacefully
into a more open society and capitalist economy. When Mr. Jiang's report
to the congress made much of the fact that China was at ''the primary stage
of socialism,'' China was in reality admitting the virtues of its capitalism.
Linguistic somersaults were also evident when Mr. Jiang defined
the socialist ''public sector'' as including the collectively owned part
of joint-stock companies. When shareholding is described as socialism,
there is no limit to how capitalist China can become.
Pragmatism underlies these ideological acrobatics. Mr. Jiang told
the congress: ''The task we are undertaking is a new one. Marx did not
speak of it, our predecessors did not do it, other socialist countries
have not done it. We can only study as we act, to find our way through
Such pragmatism will lay the basis for eventual political reform,
even though the immediate results of the congress can be seen as a step
back from political liberalism.
The elevation of Li Peng, a conservative, and the defeat of Qiao
Shi, a reformer, were an attempt to pretend that political reform can be
pushed off for some time. The reality will be very different. As the rest
of East Asia has shown, economic openness eventually requires political
There was some political reform at the congress. The armed forces
lost their one uniformed presence on the powerful Standing Committee of
the Politburo, and in general the military was given a lower profile. Civilianizing
of government in China bodes well for the peaceful settlement of disputes
with neighbors and suggests a maturing political system.
The hardest part for the West in managing a China that changes
while pretending not to is in keeping up the pressure. So long as the Chinese
foolishly believe that time is on their side, they will have time to become
more open and capitalist.
China is a weak power, and if the West keeps its cool China will
be unable to grow unless it allows itself to be reshaped.
China needs access to Western markets more than the West needs
access to Chinese markets. Remaining steadfast over the terms for joining
the World Trade Organization will ensure that China enters only when it
is ready to play by the rules.
Those rules on openness and interdependence will reshape China.
Just as East Asia's economic crisis shows that there are no Asian solutions
to Asian crises, so there is no point in letting China believe that it
can buck markets or rewrite rules.
On military issues, the same conclusions apply. Beijing can bully
its neighbors only so long as they lack external support. Even with aircraft
carriers, China would be no match for Western powers using advanced communications
and computerized information processing.
A firm but patient Western strategy that includes incentives for
good Chinese behavior on arms control and in refraining from intimidating
neighbors can help ensure a less fraught relationship with Beijing.
A major cause of current Southeast Asian woes was increasing competition
from lower-wage industries in China assisted by an undervalued Chinese
currency. Mr. Jiang, not George Soros, damaged the competitiveness of Thailand,
Malaysia and Indonesia.
Several more years of inter-Asian competition will make clear
to East Asians that they need to rethink their opposition to Western demands
for setting strict rules in dealing with China. East Asians have a vested
interest in tying Beijing to the liberalizing rules of the WTO.
Teaching China that it cannot throw its weight around is also achieved
by denying Beijing the ability to set the agenda in the South China Sea
or the Taiwan Strait. As this reality dawns more fully in East Asia, the
West will find it easier to get support in the region for a policy of firmness
The writer is director of studies at the International Institute
for Strategic Studies in London and director of Britain's Pacific Asia
Program. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.